Ever wonder about how the pre-packaged food in your local grocery and convenience stores ends up there? I recently played a role in one small part of the food chain. I responded to a flyer looking for people to participate in a food tasting study, which would last about an hour and for which I would be paid $40. This sounded fun — I liked the idea of getting paid to eat. To qualify for the study, I had to answer general demographic questions and confirm that I have no food allergies. And then, “Do you like snack cake?” Yes. Yes to all cake and cake-like snacks.
I qualified. On the day of the test, 18 round tables were set up in a church basement, three place settings at each. A small tabletop partition, a pitcher of water and a stack of water glasses served as the centerpiece of each table, and at each place setting was a paper cup with a few Saltine squares, a napkin and a numbered placard.
For my first sample, I received, on a small, numbered plastic plate, a real-live, unwrapped Twinkie! Happy, happy day. As someone who is concerned about local and organic and healthy food, for me Twinkies don’t normally make the cut. But when I’m getting paid to eat one and fill out four pages of questions about aroma, appearance, “creme” consistency and crumb texture, I am going to savor every bite … for nostalgia, if nothing else.
The folks conducting the research were ultimately gathering data on some new diet snack cake recipes, so after the Twinkie, I got to taste the diet version, which was a yucky little yellow chemical puck. Between samples, we cleansed our palates with the Saltines and water, made sure we’d answered all of the survey questions on a sliding scale, from “I like very much” to “I dislike very much,” and waited quietly for our next instructions. I wasn’t able to distinguish which of my spice cake samples was the full-fat version; they were both unsatisfying, with a lingering unpleasant chemical aftertaste.
In the end, the Twinkie was the most natural tasting of all of the snack cakes I tested. Seriously.
Think about what this says about our food system — all of the research that goes into each of the packaged products on the convenience store shelf, thousands and thousands of people like me filling out pages and pages of questions that determine the amount of salt and high fructose corn syrup that goes into packaged foods to make them palatable to a wide audience. And this is what they come up with. Clearly, there’s a disconnect between the food being produced and the healthy food people need.
So here’s a challenge for you: for the next week, don’t buy or eat any food in a package. Sounds crazy, I know, but try it. Maybe you missed the Eat Local Challenge last month. Maybe you’re trying to get the most out of these last few days of mild weather. With the fall harvest in full swing, it’s one of the best times of the year to try this experiment.
Whatever your reasons, there are endless alternatives available. I’m lucky that I have the Kingfield Farmers Market around the corner from my house, but you can buy fresh locally grown fruits and vegetables at pretty much any grocery store these days.
Give it a shot. Break the Twinkie habit.
Kate Hoff is a Minnesota native and current Kingfield resident who lives with her former New Yorker husband and two former New Yorker cats, works for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and sits on the boards of the Kingfield Farmers Market, the Minnesota Fringe Festival and Peace Coffee.
Meet the Journal
Journal editor Sarah McKenzie will be at the Kingfield Farmers Market on Sept. 27 for a “Meet the Journal” day. Please swing by and say hello.
Kingfield Farmers Market
The market runs every Sunday through October, 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 43rd & Nicollet. It features locally grown food, music and more. For more information, visit kingfieldfarmersmarket.org.