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Cheap Food is Bad Food in USA

Eating Bad in the USA — I am proud of the American people — my people. I am proud because my people have somehow managed to take food from the earth, process it into a plastic, and then turn around and sell it to me as food again.The USA has the worst cheap food on [...]

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Eating Bad in the USA —

I am proud of the American people — my people. I am proud because my people have somehow managed to take food from the earth, process it into a plastic, and then turn around and sell it to me as food again.The USA has the worst cheap food on planet earth.

“I am also trying to eat healthier, so I bought the bread that didn’t have high fructose corn syrup as the second ingredient, even though it was like 20 cents more,” my wife spoke bitterly.

Wade from www.VagabondJourney.com

Bangor, Maine, USA January 19, 2009
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I have been on the Road in the USA for the past four months, traveling from Maine to Arizona, Arizona to New Mexico to St.Louis, St.Louis to Rochester, NY to New Jersey to New York City back to Rochester, NY. I am now in Bangor, Maine. My family has completely traversed this country two times in a season, and, outside of the times where we were privy to Mom’s home cooking, have eaten the worse we ever had together.

Iceberg lettuce salad

Iceberg lettuce salad

I cannot wait to leave the USA. This is not for the usual reasons of satisfying the Wanderlust, but because my guts, my arms, my legs, my entire body is craving real, non-processed food: food that comes from the ground — not the bag — from the tit of a cow — not the inside of a powder packet — from the innards of an animal — not the inside of a wrapper.

I want food that I can tell what it is by looking at it. I want food that has one part, not a conglomeration of a hundred ingredients. I want vegetables that still looks like plants, meat that still looks like bloody muscle. I want a meal that does not leave me wondering what I just ate.

I want to consume the sustenance of my being that was not liquidized, transformed into a paste, and re-solidified with a spin of a magician’s wand into something palatable. Or so I am lead to believe is palatable.

The USA has master the art of taking food an turning it into a plastic, then taking this plastic and convincing the population that it is food. Processed food is the cheapest food in the country. To eat an old fashioned meal that is the sum of its obvious parts means that you need to fork out the money: you must pay to know what you eat.

In most countries, eating cheap food means fresh vegetables and meat sold in an open air market; in the USA, cheap food means prepackaged, never dying, mysteriously created, perfect looking, cryogenically preserved “stuff.”

Why does my cheese glean like the hood of a well waxed sports car? How did my frozen carrots come to be shaped into perfect cubes? Why is this tomato perfectly red, perfectly round, without any sign or semblance that it came from the soil of this earth?

My Chinese Medicine professor in Hangzhou once warned me: if the vegetables in the grocery store look perfect, stay away from them — if nothing was able to nibble on it before you it means that it was unsuitable to eat. Look for vegetables with insect bites taken out of them or with a live worm or two squirming on them. If an insect can survive eating your food, you can too. Everything else has been poisoned.

chicken seller china

Fresh food in China

Cheap, wholesome, straight from the earth FOOD is the hallmark of the poor of most of the world. The peasants who toil in the soil are the people who reap the benefit of their labor — the poor are the people eating fresh vegetables and recently slaughtered meat, and dairy that came from the breasts of cows that are still kicking.

Processed food from squeaky clean supermarkets is usually the reserve of the wealthy and middle classes of the world. Food from the package is a status symbol.

But this is reversed in the USA: fresh food is for the rich, processed food is manufactured in bulk for the masses. The people who cannot afford to eat well take their sustenance from plastic bag and tin can. The rich shop at organic farmer’s markets and eat un-poisoned vegetables and meat.


It is funny that the term “health food” is now attributed to food that was once, a long time ago, plainly referred to as “food.” Where did this designation come from. By the nature of its being, shouldn’t all food be “health food”?


Most of the food I eat here in the USA, I fear, is older than my baby girl. Most of the food that I eat here in the USA, I fear, may have the potential to outlive any of us. I eat the cheapest food I can find as a rule. I cannot spend $1 for one tomato, I cannot drop $2.50 for a head of lettuce, and there is no way that I can spend dozens of dollars for a single pound of meat.

So as I traveled to Arizona and back to Maine, I ate food from the package. I ate at Subway, I ate $1 double cheeseburgers at Burger King, I ate granola bars and peanut butter and tuna fish and cheese and bread.

I once chided a politically active squatter for eating regularly at McDonalds, for supporting a multi-national corporation. I can remember how he looked into my young face that had eyes that shined with petty idealism.

“I am homeless,” he spoke, “I eat the cheapest food I can find.”

I have since learned the wisdom of this statement.


Cheap food in the USA seems to be more of an edible sort of industrial monstrosity than food.

Whole wheat flour, water, wheat gluten, high fructose corn syrup, contains 2% of less of: soybean oil, salt, molasses, yeast, mono and diglycerides, exthoxylated mono and diglycerides, dough conditioners (sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium iodate, calcium dioxide), datem, calcium sulfate, vinegar, yeast nutrient (ammonium sulfate), extracts of malted barley and corn, dicalcium phosphate, diammonium phosphate, calcium propionate (to retain freshness)

What is this stuff?

It is the ingredients of a cheap loaf of bread.


Cheap food in the USA sort of looks like food — or the idealization of food — but it tastes like an ideal of itself, it is hyper sweet and super salty, it usually has the consistency of rubber. I feel as if I am eating the artfully designed dishes of fake food that the Japanese place out in front of their restaurants to attract customers. It seems as if the food making companies are in an all out competition with each other to see who can make an article of food with the most ingredients possible.

What I am eating here in the USA is the idealization of food, not wholesome food itself. And I can feel the difference.

First food for babies

Baby's first solid food comes from the box

I feel worn out, beaten down, like I am harking for some higher nutritional height, like I am reaching for something else each time I eat. My belly is full here, but the filling is lacking. While surveying in the Arizona highlands — walking 10 to 20 miles a day through rough terrain — I saw my body growing more and more conditioned, but I did not feel any more conditioned than when the work began. I thought this was interesting . . . until I looked at what I was eating.

Bread is suppose to be flour, water, yeast, vegetable oil, and salt.

I am glad that I live on a planet where most countries still believe this to be true. I am on the doorstep out of the USA, and my stomach is smiling at the road that lays ahead.

fresh meat in China

I want my food fresh from the Chinese market

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Filed under: Cheap Food, Food, USA

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3719 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • Bicycle Luke January 19, 2010, 4:14 pm

    I am afraid to report that Australia is not far behind you guys on the insanity of processed food. Last year when I came home from time in SE-Asia, I told myself I would keep eating an asian diet and not touch our processed junk… mission failed. It is too hard not to participate in the insanity.

    I suppose we (in australia) are fortunate in the aspect that eating natural food is not more expensive than eating Burger King, just less convenient. The cheapest possible junk meal from Burger King (Hungry Jacks) costs $5 here. When I am travelling locally or not working and have the time to eat healty I pick up 200g of meat and a few vegetables from the supermarket, add some rice from home and eat a nutritious meal for about $2. I planned to do the same when I came to the USA in the near future… is this not possible in the land of the free?

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 20, 2010, 4:03 pm

      Right on, Luke,

      It is hard not to grab the cheap convenience — especially when traveling by car. I admit that it is difficult to make a full meal of vegetables, meat, and rice when you can just buy a premixed dehydrated package of something that appears to be similar for $1. Especially when you can just cook it up in boiling water in ten minutes.

      I found it difficult overcoming the convenience/ price debacle on this run of traveling in the USA. We were cooking over a hot plate in a hotel room, I was working 10 hours a day, we were on a tight budget. What are we going to choose? Pricey, organic vegetables and good quality meat that we would have to refrigerate, prep, prepare and then clean up afterwords, or that $1, non-perishable, packet of rice a roni?

      Although we did have good success with dried beans and rice, I must admit that we chose the later more than we would like to admit.

      When are you coming to the USA?



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  • Russ January 19, 2010, 4:50 pm

    Wade, this is a great article. It is a sad state of affairs that now affect this country. It has always boggled my mind how these mega corporations have managed to take food that is perfectly good, healthy, and time tested by generations of people before us, then deconstruct in in a laboratory, and eventually put it back together using the cheapest, crappiest ingredients and chemicals they can find, and ultimately resell it back to us. It is absurd, and the worst part is that these companies have managed to export this crap to the rest of the world. And like you mentioned about the perfect looking vegetables, it seems like everyone is now brainwashed to view imperfect food as unsuitable. They all want perfect round and red tomatoes, and seeing a bug in their salad grosses them out more than the unpronounceable chemicals that are coating their choice produce. We have somehow even managed to invent health foods like baby carrots by taking perfectly good “imperfect” carrots and shaving them down so they look perfect in their new “baby” form.

    The one thing I am thankful for is that I do have the money and knowledge that enables me to use discretion when purchasing my food, so that I do only buy things that have pronounceable ingredients, and aren’t loaded with chemicals. And thankfully, it does seem like people are finally learning to take more control of these things, and are learning to make healthier choices.

    There is all this debate in the US lately about healthcare, and really, all anyone needs to do is read this post of yours and take a look at what most people in this country eat to see where the real problem is.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 20, 2010, 3:57 pm

      Good call, Russ,

      We come from a very cure centric rather than a prevention centric society. It is hard to tell someone that what they have been eating for 50 years is bad for them. There is little logic that can work here. I suppose convention is a gradual process. My mother buys organic produce now when it is a similar price as the chemical treated standard, and she now solely shops at the upper end grocery stores, rather than the cheap-o ones she frequented when I was a kid.

      It is interesting how people are realizing that they food they grew up on is somewhat toxic. It is interesting, as Bob pointed out, how the “convenience rules” perspective that grew out of the 50’s is giving way to doubt. Hopefully, the companies will continue catching wind of this and realize that organic stickers will come to sell more produce than the perfect looking fruit and vegetables that were a great selling point for the past few decades.

      It is still crazy to me that the food that is grown and sold down the street from my parent’s home sells for more money that food shipped from thousands of miles away. I suppose this is the world we live in.



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  • Bob L January 19, 2010, 9:21 pm

    If you look at $ per calorie, what you say is very very true. But if you look at it from a nutrition standpoint, what you say is not always true. *Some* inexpensive diners offer cheap nutritious meals, that are about the right size and price if you split between two or three people. I seldom go to fast food places, but I am always amazed how much it really costs for such crappy food and just how many calories there are in them. As for the quality of food, you would be surprised how many people would rather eat that crappy salad you are showing than a decent salad with good veggies and an assortment of greens. I have had people over for dinner, put out a good salad and had guests pick out almost everything from it other than the iceberg lettuce, or whatever looked most like it.

    Good bread? One bite taken and left on the side of the dish. One year we had two turkeys for Thanksgiving. One was done in the typical style, and was dry and chewy. The other we soaked in a seasoned saline solution and it was incredibly juicy and tasty. Guess which one we had the most leftovers from?

    I blame the 50’s for starting this. It was all about simplifying the life of the housewife and mother. Wonderbread being an amazing example of it. Housewives were finally in a situation where staying home all day was not their only choice. It was even possible to get a job outside the home. This would only be possible if the women did not have to spend all day cooking. Convenience and time became the most important thing.

    Of course, this is ignoring the profit motives of the big businesses which have a huge effect (advertising).

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 20, 2010, 3:47 pm

      Right on, Bob,

      Food and what people eat is one of the most ingrained of socialized conventions built into a person. I use to eat at a cheap and really good noodle restaurant in Hangzhou, China that was right across the street from a highly overpriced, luxury, McDonalds. I would often eat my noodles and laugh at the constant line of foreigners going in there and spending four times the amount of what I paid for far crappier food. I could not figure it out, I could not fathom why so many people would travel across the world to China just to eat at McDonalds.

      But now I understand a little more. Food is personal. Food is culture. And culture is king. It is my impression that most people will just eat the same foods as they have always ate regardless of price, nutritional value, or if an alternative may be healthier or not.

      I think it is a big jump for someone to even start eating organic produce, even if it is a similar price. I suppose the acquisition of food is a habit — you do it the same way every time — and I think breaking this habit is difficult. But it happens all the time, and I think if people thought about what they were eating for a moment — if they stopped the cycle of habit and looked at what they were doing — they would buy the best quality food they could for the money. Or at least this is what Wal Mart is saying.

      Good comment,


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  • epicurean January 20, 2010, 1:07 am

    Money talks, we vote with our dollars folks. America is perhaps the wealthiest nation on earth. As such americans could certainly afford “good” food if they wanted it. The stores and corporations only provide what they think people want to buy. When americans finally change their mindset about what they choose to ingest the quality of food available in america will put a chinese market to shame. Until then prepare your own food and shop at the perimeter of your grocery store avoiding the inner aisles where the processed food is stocked.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 20, 2010, 3:39 pm


      You hit on the point exactly, Americans can afford “good food” if they want it — they just have to pay extra for it. It is just funny that food grown in proximity to a person costs way more than that which is shipped around the world and kept in gas chambers for months.

      Good tip on using grocery stores, there perimeter is where the good food is.

      You are also right about voting with dollars. It is my impression that Americans, as a whole, will choose organic or local produce if it is near the same price as the grocery store standard.

      The only trick is that the price needs to be comparable, or else the health food stores will remain places to display social status or places where people spend an inordinate percentage of their income to eat. I think the health food chains like Trader Joe’s are catching on, as they charge a comparable price as the grocery stores and I have never been into one that was not packed with people shopping.



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  • Bill January 20, 2010, 2:05 am

    What do they call an American patent in China? A blueprint. More broadly, according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission: “China is the most aggressive country conducting espionage against the United States.”

    I fully expect the chinese will start pirating our food just like everything else.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 20, 2010, 3:32 pm

      Hello Bill, yes there is a very good chance of this. But for now I can walk into a market in China — or most anywhere else — and come out with bags of vegetables and meat for a few dollars. The market food is often considered cheap, peasant food, but the same kind of produce in the USA is often the most expensive to buy.

      It is just interesting to note the contrasts.

      Though you are right about China. I would not be surprised to see the public markets disappearing and the large grocery stores rising in their stead. It has already been happening for years.

      Thanks for the comment,


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  • Steve-O January 21, 2010, 1:46 am

    Great article Wade. I too am amazed at the quality of cheap food in the States. Living in Japan really put it in perspective, an onigiri(rice, seaweed, maybe a peice of fish, hand shaped in a ball) and enough to stave off hunger, $1. healthy and delicious.

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  • Pearl January 21, 2010, 6:04 am

    While I was in America, one of the things I missed most about Australia was my food.
    I literally looked at the cheese like it was a toy and was determined not to eat any of it. I can’t begin to explain how shocked I was at the food. Everything was in huge quantities too! It was insane.

    Fruits and veges didn’t even taste like fruit and veges. They tasted like water mixed with the tiniest bit of sugar. They weren’t these delicious, plump fresh fruits I’ve grown accustomed too. Ahh I could go on forever about the food and how my mother, sister and I reacted to it. But I’ll stop there.

    Liked this post a lot,


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  • ickl January 21, 2010, 5:52 pm

    I feel the same way when I’m in the midwest, lol. But here on the west coast we have a ton of fresh produce and seafood thanks to the climate… I live in Portland, OR where local produce markets and organic food booths are the norm, and are very cheap. But we’re a bunch of hippies here.

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  • ickl January 21, 2010, 5:58 pm

    Addendum: I def. am on a tight food budget as I live below the poverty line but I’m still able to get fresh veg, fruit and even organic meat here.

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  • lonelyplaneteer January 22, 2010, 12:58 pm

    I think you’re confusing cheap food with fast food- fast food is pretty nasty everywhere in the world. But where I live in CA you can get sushi for $1 easily, like Steve-O said was only in Japan.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 22, 2010, 1:18 pm

      Hello Lonely Planeteer,

      I was mostly talking about the boxed, packaged, and produce from a standard grocery store. The 50 cent per pound tasteless bananas from Costa Rica and the $1 packages of hydrate and heat noodle mixes.

      You are right, fast food is really disgusting everywhere in the world.

      Steve-O is from California.

      Thanks for the comment and for pushing for clarification,


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  • katia August 20, 2010, 4:07 pm

    hiya wade
    wow i am blown away by yr site here, reading voraciously=i just moved to stockhlm sweden to be with my mister sir, and my first experiences traveling, while beautiful, were full of expensive things from inexperience(thoug also beautiful 🙂 )

    anyhow/ if you are still in Bangor(hah! i used to play violin in the bangor symphony sometimes!) and wanting for basic, cheap food, i must recommend something i have rather been missing here in sweden- markets run by and for immigrants from those self-same lands you just proclaimed as having Real food. I lived in Boston and Philadelphia for 13 years, and the chinese, vietnamese, mexican and indian markets were a GOD SEND. They are WAY WAY WAY cheaper than the cheap american plasticine Hell you have been consuming, are locally owned by families in most cases, and have pretty brilliant prices on stuff like rice, lentils, onions, carrots, cabbage, ginger and chilli peppers. And of course each has its own cheap and lovely things, like tortillas, masa, chickpea flour, yucca, bitter melon, litchee, bok choi. . .. all often QUITE cheaporific. . . .

    anyhow, when i was in indiana and ohio last year i found these markets (once only a feature of large east coast population centers) had sprung up at the edges of small towns everywhere.

    of course ya hafta do Cooking and plan a bit- but i bet you know all kinds of fast good ways to prepare foods from all these places, since you appear to have traveled through these places from whence the shop owners hail. . ..

    thanks again for your lovely blog, hurrah!

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com August 20, 2010, 11:41 pm

      Hello, thanks for the advice. Only stayed in Bangor for a few months, in Guatemala now. Very correct, the “ethnic” shops of the USA do offer real food for good prices.

      Thanks for reading.

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  • Russian guy January 18, 2012, 9:58 am

    I am living in Russia, and recently I had my first travel to the US. What really shocked me was a food. When I was asking people how they can eat all that stuff packed in plastic with a taste of something unknown, they could not understand me, it seems most people were thinking that’s the only food which exists on the Earth and the only right choice. But for sure the food is not healthy and fool of chemicals, drugs and hormones. Most food has no natural flavour.
    Sadly, even in the expensive restaurants I couldn’t find a food, which I could say was perfect, even for $100 for 2 people the food was just OK but not excellent.

    Unfortunately, bad industrial food is a global trend, the US is just a leader. What is interesting, the developed countries are first in line here and developing countries typically have a better and natural food.

    Here in Russia the food also becomes worse and worse, especially in big cities it reminds something what I saw in the US. But in small towns you can still buy a farmer’s food for cheap. I saw that organic food in the US is only for millionaires.

    The best food I tried was in the Eastern Europe, for example the food in Poland is great and cheap. German food is also much better than in the US, but it’s very expensive and cheap food is also bad.

    South Asia has a good and more fresh food, so I’m glad for the author that he’s going to Asia 🙂

    BTW the industrial food is not just bad but it makes people sick. I saw old people in the US and many are definitely looking worse than European old people. Too many fat and ill people…

    Hope US people will be ale to say the government they deserve a better food – the US still has a potential to make a great farmer’s food and not this poisoned crap which is just a good business.

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    • Wade Shepard January 18, 2012, 12:18 pm

      Thanks for this feedback. Yes, it seems as if industrial food is becoming more and more common throughout the world. You can still get fresh food in the USA, but eating habits are culturally derived, and, surprisingly, many people from my country wouldn’t know what to do with a slab of raw meat, a pile of carrots, and onion, and some dry rice.

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