It’s true: you usually get what you pay for.
We’re all familiar with this idea as shoppers, as people thinking about how to spend our money wisely. But the logic of YGWYPF extends to all sorts of trades, not just the kinds that involve money.
The message is not just “bigger investment gets you a better product.” It’s also “be careful what you wish for” and “little costs add up” and “think carefully about what you’re actually getting and what you’re actually paying” and a dozen other little cautions that might not occur to us while we’re shopping.
“You Get What You Pay For” is the common thread running through the three main sections of this newsletter.
The first section below is a shameless plug, though a quick and exciting one. I do have something to sell, and it’s the best possible version of YGWYPF: it’s inexpensive (just $11) and yet it’s giving you something you can use and enjoy for the rest of your life. More details below.
The second section below is a more direct application of the aphorism; it’s an examination of kitchen knives, what you need in that department, and what you’re really getting when you buy certain kinds of knives and related products.
The third section is the finale of my four-part series on high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS. This is where “you get what you pay for” becomes a little more abstract, but I would contend that America’s collective sugar problem is largely a function of us not knowing what we’re paying, who we’re paying, or what we’re really getting in return—or worse, that we don’t always realize the trade is happening. I’ve saved that bigger storm for last.
I talk a lot about the importance of habits and how longevity (like we see in the blue zones) is a function of many small, repetitive things working together. If you’re like me, you might understand that explanation but still find yourself frustrated by it—frustrated because, well, where do you start and what do you do?
I think I have your answer. And I call it the 7-Day Longevity Reset.
The basics are right there in the name: it’s a 7-day program that’s meant to help you “reset” your diet and lifestyle and bring them more into alignment with what’s scientifically proven to help people live longer and healthier lives. It’s not a “boot camp” or intensive, 180-degree turnaround; it’s just seven quick daily lessons with seven simple guidelines for keeping yourself healthier for the rest of your life, plus a handy collection of resources like 17 of my favorite plant-slant recipes.
Once you buy, you have lifetime access to the materials and you can come back to them whenever you want. See for yourself and start your own reset here!
Last time in Tools & Techniques, I talked on the Technique side of kitchen knives—specifically, one technique called guarding your fingers that helps you control the knife and avoid trips to the ER.
This time, I want to give a couple of pointers on the Tool side of kitchen knives. The first pointer is about which knives to buy, but you’ll want to read the second pointer (about why to have and use a knife sharpener) even if you plan on keeping the knives you already have for the indefinite future.
Pointer No. 1: By every standard except presentation, it’s better to have two or three excellent kitchen knives than a fancy block set. Per the intro of this email, kitchen knives are definitely a spot where you get what you pay for. But it’s important to realize that, when you’re buying a knife-block set, a lot of your money is going towards the “block” and “set” parts and relatively little is going towards “quality knives.”
Truth is, most home cooks only ever need 2-4 kitchen knives. In virtually all cases, your first serious knife should be a chef’s knife; it’s the workhorse, do-almost-everything kitchen knife. After that, it’s useful to have a serrated blade (like a medium-length bread knife) and a paring knife for smaller ingredients. Beyond those three knives, you’re quickly entering specialty territory; most people don’t need a boning knife, for example.
If you’re not happy with your existing kitchen knives, here’s a radical idea: get rid of them and start over. Whatever you’d spend on a block set, instead split that budget across 2-3 quality knives you know you’ll actually use, and don’t buy others until you know you need them. I’m willing to bet that you will LOVE how much better the new steel works and how much better it feels in your hand.
Pointer No. 2: In the kitchen, a sharp knife is safer than a dull knife. This is the reason you should keep some sort of sharpener in your kitchen—and as backward as it may sound, it’s true and you can ask anyone who’s worked in a restaurant kitchen. (Call it the Prep Cook’s Paradox.)
It starts with a common-sense concession: yes, a sharp knife will usually wound you worse than a dull knife in the event of an accident. But therein lies the rub: the essential goal of knife safety is to avoid accidents in the first place! Sharp knives wind up being safer because, for a handful of reasons (both physical and psychological), they’re less likely to cause injurious accidents in the first place.
As a common example: let’s say you’re julienning a half-onion, slicing it into narrow strips from the outside in. The “problem” is that the blade begins each stroke resting on a surface that’s rounded and often slick. This means that, the duller the blade, the likelier it is to slip off (and cut you) when you start to apply pressure—but if the blade is sharp, it sticks where you place it and cuts cleanly as you add force.
All of this is to say: keep your kitchen knives sharp! It’s a much better, easier cooking experience, but it’s also safer and that’s reason enough to be mindful. Quick intros to two common sharpening tools:
HONING STEEL: That’s the thin metal rod that chefs will run their blades against, usually with a flowy swinging motion and a high-pitched fwing! sound… and believe it or not, this does actually accomplish something. The basic idea of a honing steel is that it’s sanding off the rough spots (created by the last use) nearest the cutting edge on either side. Without getting into the scientific nitty-gritty, this does help the blade to cut cleaner than it otherwise would have, and you can use a honing steel every time without risk of grinding down your blades.
TWO-STAGE SHARPENER: For most people and most knives, something like this will cover you for $10 or less. Unlike a honing steel, you shouldn’t use one of these every single time (because eventually you’ll grind down the knife). But as long as you watch somebody knowledgeable use it first—on YouTube, for example—you’ll be able to do the job yourself in a minute or less.
You’ve probably heard Marshall Goldsmith’s famous aphorism “what got you here won’t get you there,” and it’s just as true in this newsletter. For each entry in What Got Us Here, I’ll select a problematic topic in the Standard American Diet and retrace our steps through history so we can better understand our present-day problems and (hopefully) take healthier steps forward in the future.
This is Part 4 of a four-part series on high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
Today’s finale will cover the remaining years in the timeline (about 1930 to the present), but I’m more concerned about tying up loose ends than I am keeping a tidy chronology.
There are only four key details left to cover, so I’ve broken this finale into four chunks—and the first chunk answers a question that’s been lingering around this discussion since the beginning…
You could theoretically make table sugar from a thousand different crops, but the real question is how practical (read: cost-effective) it is to do so—and for the longest time, none of those alternatives were cheaper than good old-fashioned sugarcane. Still, we wound up with high-fructose corn syrup as our replacement sugar because the economics of corn, more so than any other crop, work well for industrial-scale sugar replacement.
Corn has been an American staple crop for hundreds of years because the plants are reliable, productive, sturdy, drought-resistant, and low-maintenance—not to mention that corn is tasty and it’s eaten around the world by both people and livestock. In recent decades, corn has also been a choice crop for American farms because (A) it’s been heavily subsidized by the government, meaning farmers get paid twice for every crop, and (B) it’s unusually cooperative with heavy machinery and therefore unusually cheap for industrial agriculture to produce.
Put simply, corn has always been a “sure thing” and that’s why we’ve planted so much of it throughout our history. To this day, we plant about a third of the world’s corn; we won’t be running out of it anytime soon (and that’s a lot of the point here).
QUICK-and-DIRTY HISTORY of U.S. FARM SUBSIDIES
American farming subsidies were invented as part of the New Deal, and they were meant to have both short-term and long-term effects. In the short term, they were basically (in modern terms) Dust-Bowl bailouts for getting farmers back on their feet.
But there’s a lot more to it, because we learned the hard way that the entire economy suffers when farmers struggle. Interfere with the food supply at its source (farms) and you can expect prices to increase; this depresses the economy because more of everybody’s money is tied up in feeding themselves. It’s in everybody’s best interest to keep the supply of food high and prices low—even if you have to pay farmers in advance for whatever you want them to grow. That’s what farm subsidies do.
Corn was originally subsidized by the government because it’s part of our essential food supply and because (per the above section) you can count on corn more than most other crops. But subsidies have changed a LOT since the Depression era, and suffice it to say that they now favor established businesses more than individual farmers.
As one sample detail: a lot of subsidies are now based on a system called base acreage where you’re only eligible for certain subsidies if your acres already have a proven history of producing that crop. A lot of corn subsidies are like that, and they essentially “lock in” existing growers while “locking out” new would-be growers.
HOW HFCS BECAME A THING
In 1971, the global price of corn shot up, so Big Corn (companies like Archer Daniels Midland) planted a ton of corn. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people had the same idea, so the price of corn fell back to normal within a couple of years—and yet all kinds of American farmers kept planting corn from fencerow to fencerow (mostly because of subsidies).
This led to a huge glut in supply, which diluted the value of all of Big Corn’s corn and created one dire question for them: how were they going to squeeze a healthy profit out of corn without selling it as-is?
Big Corn started investing big in an industrial process called wet-milling which allows them to produce ethanol and high-fructose corn syrup using the same equipment. This seemed like a really savvy direction to go in the mid-’70s because the global prices of oil and sugar had never been higher, and wet-milling meant corn could be used to create replacements for both. Unfortunately for Big Corn, the prices of oil and sugar both dropped dramatically later in the ‘70s, before they could cash in on either market.
In summary: even after they’d invested big in corn for direct sale (Plan A) and then invested big in a Plan-B strategy to make other products from corn, all of Big Corn’s avenues to profitability had been cut off.
Plan C came from Dwayne Andreas, head of Archer Daniels Midland and the kind of person who basically funded Nixon’s break-in at Watergate (seriously). In this case, he masterminded a plan for the sugarcane-growing lobby in Florida—which, you might notice, is nowhere near the Corn Belt—to push Congress for a national quota on the import of sugar. In 1981, that quota was signed into law by another Andreas ally: then-new president Ronald Reagan.
This raised the price of sugar high enough to ensure that HFCS would be both cheaper than sugar for companies like Coca-Cola (which I’ll collectively call Big Food) and profitable for the Big Corn companies producing it. By 1984, Coca-Cola had completely switched its production from sugar over to HFCS, without any real public fuss to be heard… and as they say, the rest is history.
LONG-TERM SYSTEMIC POISONING
Once again, there’s nothing wrong with HFCS unto itself; it’s no more poisonous than old-fashioned table sugar. But it is a symptom of systemic poisoning; in other words, HFCS is emblematic of the bigger problems we’re collectively facing. And though I don’t have specific solutions to propose, I can at least help you see the forest instead of the trees.
By switching from sugar to HFCS, companies like Coca-Cola save about a penny on the dollar. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with saving that penny, but it’s a little curious when they’re in such profitable business verticals (a $1 can of Coke only costs them about 10 cents to make and another 10-20 cents to market).
It’s even more curious when you realize that the political process had to be bent in multiple places (corn subsidies and Andreas’s sugar import quota, to name two) for HFCS to be a viable sugar alternative. I say “bent” because it’s not We the People who benefitted from those maneuvers; Big Corn recovered its path to profitability and Big Food saved a penny on the dollar, but regular people just had to pay more for sugar.
But like I said before, we’re missing the point if we think of HFCS as a problem separate from sugar. The real problem is not overconsumption of HFCS per se; it’s overconsumption of sugar in all forms. And thus we arrive at the real question of this section: HFCS or not, why has Big Food added so much sugar to so many items in the grocery store?
In slightly melodramatic terms: because addicts make for better customers. Remember, sugar is habit-forming and addictive in the same basic ways as heroin and other drugs—not nearly to the same extent, of course, but enough to make a noticeable difference in how much you enjoy certain products and how likely you are to continue buying them.
It’s also worth noting that some of the biggest, most profitable, most invincible, and (in some cases) most dangerous businesses in history have sold addictive products. Alcohol and tobacco companies are obvious, but Big Pharma and Big Oil and drug cartels and Big Food and (most recently) social media all count too.
My best summary of what’s troublesome about HFCS? It’s proof that Big Food wants to spend as little as possible to extract as much value from their customers as possible. It’s industrial sugar made by corporations (specifically, by the same machines that can produce ethanol) for use by other corporations, so that both can maximize their profits. Still doesn’t make HFCS poisonous, but it makes it clearer to me that companies like Coca-Cola and Archer Daniels Midland aren’t interested in people so much as their path to profit.
My best advice for now? Slow down. Pay more attention to your health, to your home, to your food, and to your family than our high-speed culture tends to encourage. Find ways to push back against the hurry—because the hurry is a big reason that we choose mindlessly appealing options for everyday food and drink.
I won’t say that slowing down solves everything, but I will say that we might not have gotten so badly hooked on sugar (without realizing how or why) if we’d observed our sugar habits in their infancy and taken the time to realize that they lead somewhere we don’t want to find ourselves.
Vegetarian Stuffed Bells
6 large red, green, yellow, or orange bell peppers
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow or white onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
1 cup long-grain brown rice, such as brown basmati, cooked and drained without salt but according to the package directions (about 2 cups cooked rice)
2 plum tomatoes, such as Roma tomatoes, chopped
1 cup fresh corn kernels cut off the cob or frozen kernels, thawed
1⁄3 cup drained and rinsed canned red kidney beans
1⁄3 cup drained and rinsed canned black beans
1⁄4 cup chopped pitted black olives, preferably Kalamata olives
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
2 cups Sardinian Tomato Sauce or 2 cups plain marinara sauce
6 tablespoons finely grated pecorino Romano (about 3 ounces) (optional or vegan cheese)
- Slice the stem and the very tops off the peppers. Remove and discard the seeds and inner membranes with a small spoon without breaking through the flesh.
- Warm the oil in a small skillet set over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until softened but not browned, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl; cool for 5 minutes.
- Stir in the rice, tomatoes, corn, kidney beans, black beans, olives, garlic, oregano, and basil until well combined. Loosely pack into the prepared peppers.
- Pour 1 cup of the tomato or marinara sauce in a large pot or Dutch oven; stir in 1⁄2 cup water. Set the peppers stuffing side up in the pot, side by side but not too tight. Pour the remaining tomato or marinara sauce over the peppers; top each with 1 tablespoon of the cheese.
- Set the pot over medium-high heat and bring to a simmer. Cover tightly, reduce to low heat, and simmer slowly until the peppers are tender, about 45 minutes.
- Cool for 5 minutes before serving in bowls with the sauce in the pot spooned around the peppers. Enjoy!