A few months back I went into a store to buy some honey, hoping to alleviate a few symptoms of a nasty cold. The store wasn’t my initial choice: I’d tried the farmer’s market first, but they were out of honey. The bees, the farmer said, weren’t making any honey: unsurprising since it was January. Disappointed, I paused, unsure of what to do.
I live in a small town with limited shopping options, particularly since the stores that once filled downtown have moved outside town or been replaced by big box stores. The only other place to try downtown was a one-stop shop, a chain that sells everything from irons to dog food to DVD players. I entered the store and searched for the food aisles, just past an aisle full of holiday decorations, now on sale, and stationary, and I found a single brand of honey in a bear-shaped container, the same shape I remembered from my childhood, although the brand was unfamiliar: the store’s own. I was disappointed there was only one option, but happy to have some honey to soothe my cold symptoms. I picked it up, ready to carry it to the register, and then I looked again at the container.
“Blended honey”: those were the words on the label on the bear’s front side. I wondered what the blend might be: possibly clover, but what else? I turned the container over and looked at the back label, scanning the ingredient list to find more information on that honey blend. The first ingredient I found was not honey, clover or otherwise, but high fructose corn syrup. Honey came second, then sucrose. In small letters I saw more information: less than 2% of the contents were natural honey flavor. What did this mean, given that one would expect honey to be natural? Reading this, and the ingredient list as a whole, made me feel like I was in a topsy-turvy land where nothing made sense. I put the container down and left the store: disappointed again, although for a very different reason.
A few days later, driven by curiosity, I revisited the store; this time I decided to check out another product to see what it really contained. I returned to the food aisles and picked up one of the jars of jelly that sat on the shelf close to the blended honey. There were several different flavors of jam and jelly, all from the same brand. I selected one—plum jelly—and turned it over, scanning the ingredients in order: high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, water, sucrose, pectin, and coloring. Those were the ingredients; there was no mention of fruit: plum or otherwise. I put the jelly down and once again left the store without a purchase.
Almost one third of the people in the state in which I live are obese. Perhaps I should be shocked by that number, but after living in this state for 2 and half years I am, unfortunately, not really surprised. The reason is that I’ve had time to observe the food options on offer, the structure of the town and its surrounding, and the behavior of my fellow townspeople: all of these help to explain that statistic, a statistic tied up in everything from “blended honey” and our food systems to an over-dependence on automobiles to poor city planning, issues I’ll explore more fully in a further post…