At one point in time there was a pretty narrow window of what was considered food. Industrial agriculture — and the mass production of food — is only a few hundred years old. The advent of the plethora of processed food products is even younger.
Normal meals just a few hundred years ago contained less ingredients than a single food product contains today. And none of the harmful fats in the form of vegetable oils; none of the chemicals and colorations; and none of the government-subsidized franken-sugars.
We could dive deep into the details, but it’s not important to get this important message across: what is widely considered to be food today wasn’t even imaginable a century ago.
Today’s grocery stores are 80% food products and 20% food. That’s a safe guestimate. Most of us weren’t alive 100 years ago, so we don’t have first hand experience of walking through markets at that time (markets without Twinkies for instance).
The markets we’re trained to know, love, and understand are today’s markets. They’re the markets we grew up with. They’re the markets that engrained in us what’s possible.
In politics, the Overton Window is the concept that there’s a very narrow range of ideas the public will accept. Carried over to food markets, there used to be a very narrow window of what was considered food. You can take this as far back as the Paleolithic if you want — it’s a sliding scale.
The Overton Window also describes a spectrum where ideas live. On this spectrum, an idea can be considered widely accepted (current policy), to sensible, to radical or even unthinkable.
In food markets a hundred years ago, Twinkies weren’t policy. Neither were processed vegetable and seed oils. Neither were chemical additives and franken-sugars. In simpler terms, there weren’t 500 brands of adulterated ice cream on the frozen food aisle.
The public ended up accepting a few of these food products, there’s no doubt about that. But if you had tried to sell them on the fact that in a hundred years we would be considering these food products as a staple and that real food would be put on the back burner, they would have considered that idea to be unthinkable.
Yet here we are and it’s policy.
So how does the shift occur? Slowly but surely. The psychology behind the Overton Window can be overtly or accidentally manipulated. This isn’t about conspiracy theories, so I’ll let you choose your own reality.
The official spectrum looks something like this: policy > popular > sensible > acceptable > radical > unthinkable.
Here’s how it works: Let’s say you have an idea that would be considered radical or unthinkable on the spectrum (grocery stores having 80% cheap food product and 20% real food) and you know the public is highly unlikely to adopt it. What do you do? Do you push that policy as-is and try to move the brick wall of public resistance? Absolutely not.
In politics, the Overton Window is often manipulated by offering the public an unthinkable option and then scaling back to the radical one that simply appears more acceptable now due to the presence of the unthinkable option. Door, meet face. This is the same psychological manipulation used in price anchoring: If you want to sell something at $5000, make a “platinum” option with a few extra superficial features at $7500. Now $5000 seems much more acceptable.
“Oh, that’s too extreme for you? No problem, let’s back off just a little bit to this second option.”
“Okay, that sounds more reasonable.”
You can do that in a split second like they do with pricing or you can do it incrementally over the course of decades, like they’ve done with food: where it comes from, how it’s made, how it’s raised, how it’s grown, how it’s assembled, and how it’s priced.
The bottom line is that an Overton-Window-like concept has occurred and we’ve accepted unthinkable things as food. Public perception has been seriously warped.
We used to have a narrow opinion of what food was and now we have a view with no limits. Instead of shifting public perception in one fell swoop, our focus on real food was slowly dismantled brick by brick, aided greatly by government subsidies and scientific studies filled with shenanigans.
Purposeful or not, it’s hard to argue that Big Agriculture, government, media, and medicine don’t benefit greatly from a public who consumes 80% food products and 20% food. Supply and demand certainly started the process, but forces well beyond the marketplace have taken the ball, run down the court and dunked the shit out of it. They didn’t just score, they shattered the backboard and flipped off the crowd. Rodman style.
Some people — myself included — realize that this manipulation exists and we’re advocating a “back to basics approach.” But we’re meeting heavy resistance: from government, from media, from gigantic dieting companies and food manufacturers, and from people manipulated by mainstream thinking (these are people who believe that the unthinkable is sensible policy).
“Eat what you want, just in moderation” is a statement the manipulated make. They’re still in acceptance of the unthinkable. They’re also the people who are now diagnosing those of us who simply want to go back to basics as having Orthorexia — an eating disorder characterized by an extreme opposition to foods considered unhealthy. And they’re shouting from the roof tops that a whole foods approach is “too restrictive.”
Do you see what happened here? Not too long ago in the context of history, eating real food was policy. Since that time, tens of thousands of fake food products were introduced into the market. We had the luxury of being inundated by them — we ate them as kids and now feed them to our own children (well, not me…) — and now the argument is that the whole foods approach that used to be policy is now “too restrictive,” considered only by individuals suffering from Orthorexia.
Well played, Big Agriculture, well played. Assist awards and eye winks to government, mainstream media, “scientists,” and modern doctors. What’s the public get out of the deal? More prescriptions, more frustration, and more disease.
So, what’s reasonable to you these days?
Kevin Geary is the founder of RebootedBody.com and a respected expert on cravings, eating psychology, and long-term habit change. He’s worked with thousands of men and women in over 35 countries around the world through his online academy and programs like Shut Down Your Sugar Cravings.