Illustration for article titled Processed Food Is Not a Moral Referendum

The New York Times continued its coverage of the rapidly-changing social mores of its audience during a global pandemic by providing a safe space for health-conscious consumers to admit that their secret quarantine shame is indulging in processed comfort foods.

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As the Times reports, previously healthy eaters who prioritized kale and quinoa over the more obvious and superior pleasures of, say, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, have been turning to comfort foods like Spaghetti-Os, frozen pizzas, ice cream bars (?), and the various culinary offerings of Chef Boyardee. From a logical standpoint, this transition makes sense: food that is shelf-stable and tastes consistently delicious is a reasonable purchase for these precarious times. But like much of the Times’s coverage of recent events, this piece is a beautiful example of how much everyone right now is incapable of showing their own ass, by positioning the choice to eat junk food right now as a moral quandary.

Quarantine is testing the rules that people previously put in place for their own food consumption—rules that generally nix things that are delicious, like Doritos and Cheetos, because they are covered in “orange stuff” and are heavily processed and generally bad for you. It is not news to acknowledge that when times are shitty, the natural thing to do is to eat what tastes good without considering the health benefits. Others have been consciously turning to the foodstuffs of their childhood for comfort.

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An example:

“One of the first things I grabbed was Kraft Easy Cheese. The disgusting orange stuff in a can. But it was one of the foods I ate growing up, so it’s a nostalgia thing,” said Hana Thompson, who works for a software start-up in Denver. “I also have a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos that I haven’t opened. How long can I last and not eat those? It’s a low-entertainment game that I’ve been playing.”

Arguing the health merits of Easy Cheese is a losing battle; Easy Cheese is not supposed to be good for you. But deigning to eat processed foods only in times of universal crisis is rude to those who enjoy these foods as a supplement to their own diets, and also to people who eat it regularly because maybe there are no other options. Pointing to this sort of coverage and crying elitism is pointless because it is and has always been evident that the Times does not speak to an audience that has ever had to contend with food insecurity on a regular basis. But a pandemic shouldn’t be the only reason consumers deign to eat this sort of food, because this kind of food is consistently delicious and to deny oneself of that pleasure is willfully stupid, especially now.

What this piece gestures at without saying outright is that eating processed foods regularly is simply a matter of taste. Good food, in the Times’ rubric, isn’t processed, and healthy food isn’t either, so by choosing to consume these “comfort” foods only in times of crisis is indicative of just how far you’ve fallen. But what this piece misses—or actually refuses to acknowledge—is that Doritos are delicious, American cheese rules, and incorporating both into a well-rounded diet is not a moral failing. Picking up a family-sized box of Pop Tarts instead of the preternaturally-dry Nature’s Valley granola bars says nothing about who you are as a person, but it is a decision that falls outside of the Times’ unstated rules of acceptable behavior for people who are not in crisis.

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American cheese is a suggestion of cheese that melts like a dream and even though it is not actually cheese, it’s still worth your time and consideration. Though there are many detractors of American cheese and its many inherent values, I maintain that it is the best cheese for omelets, tuna melts, and any other food item that prioritizes texture over taste. Simply put, everyone right now is doing their absolute best, because that is all there really is to do. Performative self-flagellation about the merits of eating ice cream sandwich bars for dinner when, in different times, that sort of dreck would not make it over the threshold of your home is not necessary. Eat the food that is available to you and yours, and eat what you want. There are bigger things to worry about than what a bag of Takis says about your own moral compass.

Managing Editor, Jezebel

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