The effect of inflation on processed foods

Although it is trendy in the mainstream media to do so, I am not going to waste any time here debating whether inflation exists, is durable, or if it is a good or bad thing. I can tell you as a former government economist and someone who has managed a multi-billion-dollar bond portfolio (which is mostly influenced by movements in interest rates), inflation is a well-understood and well-quantified phenomenon. Inflation surprises are objectively a bad thing and a difficult situation to reverse. There is zero debate among people with skin in the game that we have a problem with inflation right now, and that it will have considerable negative impacts on various demographics (people living on a fixed income, people who had a difficult time affording essential goods and services even in a more stable price environment). Going back and forth on this topic is the province of political shills who deserve nothing but ridicule from more thoughtful and honest folks.

While “empty shelves” have received a lot of attention lately, which is a combination of supply chain problems and an inflationary environment, another sign of serious economic dysfunction I find fascinating is the rapid deterioration in food quality. Anecdotally at least, folks seem to be getting less and less actual nutrition for the money they spend. This is a pretty big deal for anyone trying to raise a family, where the investment in groceries is being spread out among several people and involves precious little flexibility.

(Let me take this moment to recommend my friend’s food blog – A Jeanne in the Kitchen. Jeanne used to run restaurants and now teaches people how to stretch food out. In addition to sharing a lot of accessible-but-still-quite-gourmet cooking ideas, her blog is about making exquisite use of leftovers. She takes food she prepared earlier in the week and totally reinvents it. That kind of talent was made for this moment.)

I am not a huge fan of eating processed foods in general, but it is realistically difficult for most people to avoid consuming at least some of them. An inflationary environment punishes people who shop for fresh ingredients every day rather than stocking up when items are available at lower prices. And some folks simply cannot make it to the grocery store or farmer’s markets that often.

With processed foods, however, there are endless opportunities to cut corners or manipulate perceptions of value. They can keep prices the same but deliver less food or substitute in lower quality ingredients. That has been happening for a while – consider the ever-shrinking cereal box or chip bags full of air – but it’s starting to get really, really weird now.

We have a cat who is pushing twenty years old, and her favorite thing to eat is a can of tuna. We give her at least one can of tuna every single day. (Yes, her fur feels like mink.) Having at least a decade of opening tuna cans under my belt, it is striking how much they have changed in the last few months. You open up a can of tuna now and it is mostly water. The chunks of tuna actually bob around in it.

But the most gag-inducing change for us has been purchasing ground hamburger meat. Sure, there has been controversy surrounding what goes into hamburger meat forever, but this is the first time I have ever noticed the degree to which they are experimenting with food in the final product. It has become physically repulsive.

A couple months ago, we were cooking burgers and noticed the meat was literally disintegrating on the grill. It was not low fat content meat, and everything about the grill was normal, but the meat turned into chunks and crumbles. The only way we could get it off the grill was to put cheese on it.

We did not prepare hamburgers for a while after that, but eventually caved and bought some meat again. It was at this point that we realized a big experiment with additives was happening at Publix. Next round of burgers was like chewing bubble gum. My husband was the only person at our table who finished his meal, and he spent the night violently ill.

Last week, when we were out shopping, I bought a meat grinder and sausage-filler attachment for my Kitchen-Aid. If this does not work, I am probably going to invest in one of the big stand-alone meat grinders. The only ground meat I am planning to eat is going to be meat that I have purchased from a butcher that I can trust and then ground myself. This way, I will know exactly what is going into it. I’m pretty maxed-out on being a factory food guinea pig.

These experiences have made me think a lot about what is happening in our country now and how cultural rifts keep getting larger. Most people cannot react to gross hamburger by marching into Sur la Table and buying posh new accessories for their already posh kitchen equipment. They need to deliver protein to their family, and hamburger and chickens that never leave the barn in their lives is the only protein that’s available at price points they can tolerate.

This goes back to my earlier post about how the gerontocracy is the biggest threat to our country right now – a bunch of multimillionaires and billionaires in their 70s and 80s who, in their unceasing vanity, keep breaking the world and dumping trillions of Other People’s Money on the fire. They have totally nuked any sanity in our monetary system, and the consequences of this behavior are rippling out in the most bizarre and toxic nuances. We are getting into Upton Sinclair territory here.

Anyhow, if any readers have some family favorite recipes / cookbooks for a meat-grinding and sausage-making novice, please leave them in the comments.

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