How American Food Got So Bad (Ep. 53)


In our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast, Stephen Dubner and Kai Ryssdal talk about the unexpected reasons why American food got so bad. (Download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript.)

In his forthcoming book An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, economist Tyler Cowen pinpoints specific moments in history that affected American food for decades to come. From Prohibition to stringent immigration quotas to World War II, Cowen argues that large societal forces threw us into a food rut that lasted for roughly 70 years:

COWEN: I think there is a very bad period for American food. It runs something like 1910 through maybe the 1980’s. And that’s the age of the frozen TV dinner, of the sugar donut, of fast food, of the chain, and really a lot of it is not very good. If you go back to the 19th century and you read Europeans who’ve come to the United States, they’re really quite impressed by the freshness and variety that is on offer.

Cowen has put a lot of thought into how our food makes it to our plates, and his own meals are carefully considered, for sure; but don’t call him a food snob:

COWEN: Let me just give you a few traits of food snobs that I would differ from. First, they tend to see commercialization as the villain. I tend to see commercialization as the savior. Second, they tend to construct a kind of good versus bad narrative where the bad guys are agribusiness, or corporations, or something like chains, or fast food, or microwaves. And I tend to see those institutions as flexible, as institutions that can respond, and as the institutions that actually fix the problem and make things better. So those would be two ways in which I’m not-only not a food snob, but I’m really on the other side of the debate.

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Katie F

I was surprised that the Great Depression wasn't brought up, perhaps because it's a bit obvious. Prohibition did shut down good restaurants, but so did one of the biggest economic crises of the century. Also, in that same vein, wouldn't people be looking for cheap, easy food if they were struggling economically? I know this doesn't explain why other nations' food is so much better, but I thought it was strange that this wasn't mentioned at all.

Otherwise, it was a great podcast!


Except that good food can certainly be cheap & easy. For instance, it takes more effort to produce white flour than to grind the same wheat into whole wheat flour, and it's no more difficult* to make bread from the whole grain flour than to produce the airy sponge that's today's mass-produced bread.

(*Probably less: I can make a batch of decent whole wheat bread in about 15 minutes of actual work - neglecting rising & baking times - but I doubt that I could make anything remotely close to a commercial loaf.)

Likewise with many ethnic cuisines: at base, they're the cheap & easy food of poor folks.


How about healthy foods to eat at

Eric M. Jones.

Wait a minute...someone has to say it: If I were to be executed tomorrow, I would stuff myself with all the fast food I could get, not nouvelle cuisine from some she-she-la-la French Bistro or some honest Basque or Ethopian haunt.

Complaining about chain restaurant- and fast- food is bitching about airplane food. Be greatful for our bounty, which is cheap and ENDLESS.



You're definitely alone there. I think if I were to be put to death, my last meal would probably be something like tuna steak frites [cooked to rare] with a soft-boiled egg and tomato wedges.


You say, "my last meal..." Yes, I agree ... If I had to eat that I'd want to die too.


I eat healthy - chicken. Of course it's not too healthy for the chicken. I feel no guilt however because if we humans didn't EAT chickens there would be MILLIONS FEWER OF THEM.
Think about that.

Ahhh, where's the Bar-B-Q Sauce?


What is this... I don't even... ?

I'm not sure that "chicken" is particularly "healthy." While it may be slightly less unhealthy than cow or pig, in some aspects, it has other properties that are not as good, such as inflamation promoting properties. Also, much of the estimate with respect to the fat content of chicken is somewhat outdated, as chickens are now fed much different diets and get much less exercise than they did when the estimates were made.

With respect to there being millions fewer of them... perhaps there should be? Chicken batteries seem like horrible, horrible places to me. I think it would be quite compassionate to produce less of them.


The obvious solution is to vote with your dollars and only buy free range chicken which is actually pretty healthful to eat in the sense of any meats being healthful.

All in all, Americans tend to be more meat-centric than other peoples. I feel like people should take more advantage of the current depressed economy to get creative with cheaper cuts of good quality meats and to incorporate much more, and economically feasible, vegetables into their diets. Many of the world's best cuisines are largely vegetable-based, and when there is meat, it's slow roasted or braised or stewed—all things that are meant to take a cheap cut and elevate it to deliciousness.

caleb b

How American Food Got So Bad - starts with the premise that American food is bad.

Bad for you, maybe. Bad tasting? I don't think so. And what is strictly defined as American food? I'd consider all of the following "American" because they're all easily accessible and, though maybe not originated here, developed into something unique and distinct from their origin here.

Burgers & Fries
Pot Roast
Cheese Steak sandwich
Mac & Cheese
Fried Chicken, fried pies, chicken fried steak, heck anything fried really.

Here's a question, have you ever tried to get something like Nachos in France? Ugh. Or try anything in the U.K. - flavorless. I'm not saying we have the best food in the world, but to say it's bad is crazy talk. Although, I from America, so I recognize the bias.


It's bad because everyone one of those things could contain natural neurotoxins, artificial chemicals, extra, added sugars ( sugar KILLS you when over done, plain and simple, and over done is 95% of the bread products in grocery stores, which is included in every one of the things you stated ), antibiotics, hormones, and who knows what else.

Thats the problem.

Ken Arromdee

If you ask almost anyone why a TV dinner is considered bad food, their reply will probably be that the TV dinner is made to optimize traits other than taste and nutrition. Likewise for fast food. But when you think about it' the main reason why a lot of "good" food was created was basically the same thing: for instance, pigs' feet are a delicacy because people who don't have a lot of money needed to use every part of the pig. They weren't created because people thought pigs' feet tasted especially good, they were created because someone was trying to be as cheap as possible. Of course they then tried to make the pigs' feet taste as good as possible given that they were cheap enough to eat pigs' feet in the first place (a statement that of course can also be made about fast food and TV dinners).


I think "bad" has to be better defined, as well as how American food "got" there. If we are discussing health impact, then it's clear that Americans have some of the most health averse diets on the planet, easily.

If we're talking about foods taste, then I think we just need to look at the fact that so much of our food production values the price over freshness, taste and nutrition. (though the optimizing of price over nutrition is also a factor with respect to the unhealthiness.) Though *some* American food can be very very tasty, and does very well.

If we're talking about the general "state" of our food, that it's often prepared extremely carelessly, and extremely cheaply, then again it comes down to price.

While we have a good variety of tasty foods in the united states, there are so many atrocious aspects of our food production and presentation and ultimately consumption. There seem to be a lot of factors, between market forces and advertising (in which bad food is often made to look good), to changes in expected lifestyle (far fewer houses have "homemaker" wives) to increased demand in the workplace (people have to work longer hours now, for roughly the same pay, and often at multiple jobs leaving little time for food preparation).

Ultimately though, I think one factor that simply isn't talked about much is education. People simply haven't been taught to feed themselves. It used to be that the mother of the house would feed the family, but as that became history there is this myth that cooking for oneself is difficult, time consuming or even dangerous, when it's really none of those things.

It's actually very, very easy to cook a home made meal that tastes as good as anything you would get at a high end restaurant, for a fraction of the price. That just isn't oftent communicated to consumers (though perhaps with the rise in popularity of the Food Network people will begin cooking for themselves again).

Indeed, perhaps the move away from self-prepared food is the biggest reason that american food has gotten so bad. Perhaps people spent so much time eating bad food, they forget what good food tastes like.

Sorry for the aimless rant.



I do not know about America.

I lived in two different countries before I moved to Canada. Not a day goes by when I am not thanking my lucky stars for the choice, quality and prices of the food available to me in our supermarkets.

Of course we cook our food ourselves.

The only thing that puzzles me: Why does ethnic food travel so poorly? Curry in Vancouver is nothing like the curry in London and I do not even know how that compares with Bangalore. Italian food this side of Atlantic is nothing like in Italy. Try getting a loaf of German bread (nothing special, common Bauernbrot) - you are SOL! It's not that the latter is difficult to bake: We did it from a mix available in evey supermarket in Rhein Pfalz. Here, I cannot get even professional bakers to make it.

about good food

Really it's not enough vegs in the supermarkets.


One thing bothers me with the podcast:

How in the world can you compare american & european food production to the production in developing countries (I'm throwing them into the same bowl because, as oppose to what the podcast suggested, they are the same in terms of food production and food quality, i.e. europe lowered its standard to the american one)? Anyway, I think diversification and less simplification helps more here - maybe the podcast might have gotten 10 minutes longer, but I think that the average american has a longer attention span than just 5 minutes, eh? Anyway, I think in industrialized nations it makes sense to switch to local food production. In developing countries food is already produced locally, per definitionem. Thats why they ARE developing countries. The problem there is the infrastructure and the low productivity. We (as in the industrialized countries) have too much productivity, and the wrong system to distribute it (i.e. laisse-faire capitalism).


Mrs. Robb

Eat less and eat lighter, say goodbye to sugar and fine carb for a month, then every morsel will taste great again.


Bad for you - yes

Richard Tasgal

I'm not a historian, but.... Was food in America in the 19th century really varied and fresh? This doesn't conform to the description in Gerald Carson's book Cornflake Crusade. See especially Chapter 3: "The Great American Stomach Ache."

The book is available on-line from the Library of Congress.

Let me give just a couple excerpts below. You could quote much more of the evidence (which seems pretty persuasive to me). The diet for most American in the 19th century seems to have been appalling.

Rich Tasgal


`A native writer, Robert Tomes, author of The Bazar Book of Decorum, a popular book on American manners, which ran through nine editions between 1870 and 1878, confessed that "there is no country in the world where there is such an abundance of good raw material for the supply of the dietetic necessities of man, or where there are so many people with the means of obtaining it, as in the United States ..." and yet "there is hardly a nation that derives so little enjoyment and benefit as the American from its resources. We are ... too carnivorous ... the national stomach is kept in a constant state of active assault." The result: "atonic dyspepsia."'

`Around Civil War times a lecturer upon food and cookery appeared from France, M. Pierre Blot, who tried to elevate the American cuisine. Blot got a stony reception. A few in the small, rarefied world of the bon ton imitated the French with their ices and ice creams, their green vegetables and salads. But the cits refused to surrender their skillet, spider bread and dried-apple pie for Frenchified fruits, pot herbs and foreign sauces. The craving for variety could be met only by using a comparatively small number of food materials in a large number of different ways. Thus the good wife set her table with a profusion of preserves and pickles to perk up the appetite; and flour took the form of an infinity of cakes and pastries. During 1878 one Vermont housewife made 152 cakes, 421 pies, 1038 loaves of bread, 2,140 doughnuts. Some in the popular health movement, making a virtue out of an unavoidable necessity, agreed with a crotchet of Hitchcock's that the less variety at a meal the better. For this rationalization the Amherst President rested upon classical authority. Hippocrates, he pointed out, said that a variety of dishes produced a "commotion" in the stomach.'


John J.

This sounds like such a great premise. I love how Tyler proposes that the quality of food is skewed to children's wants, and that's why the cheap and easy food tends to be high in sugar, fat, and gooey. I wondered why there was so much sugar after watching Supersize Me, but never made that assumption.
And I also can't wait how Tyler expands on what he means by "bad." Everyone knows that fast food is generally unhealthy and contains mostly empty calories. However, I wonder if he's going to draw on the new era that emerged these past 20-30 years of an on-the-go, single or 2 working parent lifestyle, that has subsequently put pressure on fast food instead of home cooked, healthy alternatives.