Paul Stitt graduated UW-Madison with a biochemistry degree in 1968 and an audacious goal: End world hunger.
A student of the 1960s, he was idealistic and believed that the technology that solved smallpox and could put a man on the moon could also end mass starvation.
He saw firsthand that the need was dire. During his graduate studies, Stitt visited Columbia in South America and witnessed starving beggars moving into urban hovels. He learned that many had been forced off their land so rich ranchers could raise beef for Burger King.
“At the time it had not dawned on me what the real cause of hunger in the have-not nations was; neither did I realize that, right at home in the United States, malnutrition disguised as ‘the good life’ was claiming and ruining more lives than anywhere in the world,” he wrote in his 1993 book, Beating the Food Giants.
Still young and idealistic, he took a job with a team of biochemists hoping to attack the hunger problem with the resources of a larger corporation. They got to work on a project creating protein that would feed a large, poor population.
Then his team was abruptly fired.
The project didn’t seem profitable. There seemed to be no marketing potential — at least at the time — for a bunch of protein. (Executives failed to foresee rich people buying muscle shakes, apparently.)
“If I had a whole mountain of protein, I wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to do with that,” the president of the company told him. “Who’s gonna buy something like that?”
The team’s enthusiasm and idealism vanished. It was New Year’s Eve, and they had to start looking for new jobs.
“Several discussed going into detergent enzyme production, which was at the time a very lucrative fad for biochemists,” Stitt wrote.
From food to detergent? This may have been the genesis of Tide Pods.
It’s no wonder that people are eating Tide Pods as a joke. We’ve made food into candy and candy into detergent. It’s just different degrees of poison.
In his next job, Stitt went to work for Quaker. That rid him of any illusions that his job as a biochemist was about nutrition. His charge was to find ways to make food cheaper for production, last longer on shelves and become more addictive so consumers “can’t eat just one.”
“An ever increasing proportion of food we eat is no longer even food but a conglomerate of high-priced chemistry experiments designed to simulate food,” he wrote on his experience. “Now chains like McDonald’s and Burger King fill their ads with clowns, puppets, Ninja Turtles, jingles and magic. What they are trying to market is fun, not food.”
When I was growing up in the 1980s, my parents were way ahead of their time into natural and organic food. Once a month we went to a food co-op to pick up bulk orders of food. I was jealous of my friends who ate white bread while my parents made their own bread. I thought all this weird health food wasn’t normal.
When I was a baby, my parents took me on a tour of a small, fledgling bakery called Natural Ovens of Manitowoc Wisconsin. As my parents laugh about now, I cried so much I got kicked out of the tour.
This is ironic because I would later discover Natural Ovens in the bread aisle as a high school cross country athlete. I read the ingredients and decided this would be the only bread I would eat — it’s the only one that wasn’t fake wheat and caramel coloring. Now 20 years later, it’s still the only bread I’ll eat.
Natural Ovens was founded by Stitt after he was fired (again) from Quaker for insubordination. He ran Natural Ovens from 1976 until retiring in 2006.
In his book Beating the Food Giants, Stitt cautioned how most of what we recognize as food isn’t really food. It’s a revenue-maximizing product.
That food giants only want to give us what we want. So that’s partly on us. If we signal with our pocket book that we like fake food, we’ll get more of that.
We can start turning the tide by not eating detergent, and then think long and hard about the rest of our diet.