Unintended Byproducts of Tech

One reason I enjoy this class is because we’re allowed to explore the space. We’re given loose guidelines for the subject matter we produce and, in turn, consume. Some of the topics are about social media; how it has changed / progressed business. Other topics include the digitization and technological advancements in our lives and the benefits they bring. One thing I’ve learned throughout this semester is that there are always byproducts to these technological advancements. Some are good and some are bad.

One topic I’m particularly passionate about is food. I’m not lying when I had both a MBA and a culinary school application on my plate (pun) for a decision.  I don’t want to work nights. That was my decision.

Food is an essential part of our being. For some, it can mean survival due to hardship or necessity. For others, it can represent family and community. Food can be art and, in the case of pimento mac and cheese, it can be just down right delicious. Whatever food means to you, it really serves as nourishment. Let’s capitalize that.

Technology In Food

Advancement in food technology goes way back. Fire, I suppose. More recently, iceblog and refrigeration made a huge impact on the way we consume food. If we want to explore tech that is more relevant to what and how we eat today, we should go back to the early 20th century. In 1931, the cake mix was introduced to simplify the cake baking process and they promised a successful result, no matter the baker’s experience. By 1953, Americans spent more than $150 million on powdered baking products alone. The hand mixer and later the microwave, introduced by Raytheon (if you can believe it) in 1967, we’re technologies in the home kitchen. It took a decade to for the microwave to catch on because of radiation fear but now we all have one in our kitchen. TV dinners became a thing. Who doesn’t love a box of mac and cheese?

Technology in the kitchen made cooking easier — depending on what your definition of cooking is. These food tech advancements saved time and made meals taste great with less ingredients. But then a perfect storm happened. We started working more hours than ever before and technology outside of the home kitchen made it easier to obtain food.

Increase in food tech like the transportation of frozen foods, chemical preservatives, and processed food paved the way for the rise of fast food. This new way of eating changed American behavior. Here are some scary facts:

  • The average American spends an estimated $1,200 on fast food each year
  • Children consume an estimated 12% of their calories from fast food
  • 20% of all American meals are eaten in the car

For Americans who are health conscience, corporations are moving towards “freshly prepared foods.” These are meals prepared in mass quantities and available at grocery stores, specialty food shops, and even convenience stores. $25 BILLION. Just this sector of freshly prepared foods alone is over $25 billion. Go into the Wegmans in Newton. They have isles devoted to this alone.


Where Is This Technological Revolution Taking Us?

Since 1967, we’ve added 167 hours (around a month of full time labor) to the amount of time we spend at work each year. As a country, we’re cooking less and less. Between the mid-1960s and late 2000s, low-income households went from eating at home 95% of the time to only 72% of the time, middle-income households when from eating at home 92% of the time to 69% of the time, and high-income households went from eating at home 88% of the time to only 65% of the time. The downward trend continues. In 1960, women spent 112 minutes per day cooking (for all meals combined), almost 50 minutes more than 2008 (around 60 minutes). Men actually spend a little more time in the kitchen today than in the past. A lot of this is due to more women entering the workforce in the last 50 years but the decrease is significant. People are working more and there is less time to cook at home.

In economics, where scarcity is present, an attributed price is placed on that resource. Scarcity of our time has driven us out of our kitchens. There is an opportunity cost, or trade-off, of our time. If we satisfy one objective, other objectives are satisfied less.  The easy answer is trading more free time for more income. But throughout this class we see that there are so many more distractions in our lives than 50 years previously. Tasks, items, and social obligations that strain our time. It seems that the price of our time has been increasing throughout the years based on scarcity alone.

Why Do I Care? Isn’t This Making Our Lives Better?

It actually does make sense to outsource meals if the price of our time is greater than the price of a particular food. Advancements in food tech have lowered the price and increased convenience. In an efficient economic world, these behaviors make sense. I just don’t like it. Sometimes I don’t like what technology brings us. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m blinded by nostalgia. Cooking is one of those things I want to hold on to, even if it doesn’t make sense to do so.

Michael Pollan has a fantastic documentary on Netflix called “Cooked.” I highly suggest you watch it. As he eloquently states:

“To cook or not to cook is a consequential question. Though I realize that is putting the matter a bit too bluntly. Cooking means different things at different times to different people. Seldom is it an all-or-nothing proposition. Yet, even to cook a few more nights a week than you already do, or to devote a Sunday to the making a few meals for the week, or perhaps to try every now and again to make something you only ever expected to buy … even these modest acts will constitute a kind of vote. A vote for what, exactly? In a world where so few of us are obligated to cook at all anymore, to choose to do so is to lodge a protest against specialization. Against the total rationalization of life. Against the infiltration of commercial interest into every last cranny of our lives. To cook for the pleasure of it, to devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption. Cooking has the power to transform more than plants and animals. Cooking, I found, gives us the opportunity so rare in modern life to work directly in our own support and in the support of the people we feed. In the calculus of economics, doing so may not always be the most efficient use of an amateur cook’s time. It is beautiful even so. For is there any practice less selfish, any labor less alienated, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious and nourishing for the people you love?”






  1. Awesome post! Like you, I also like to cook my own meals whenever I can because I think it’s a great hobby and a healthier option. I cringe when I see my roommates eating boxed mac and cheese and bagel bites for dinner every night. Technology has certainly created a huge tradeoff between convenience and safety to eat and economically speaking, I think it’s very sad that the marginal benefit of saving an hour or two a day outweighs the marginal cost of being unhealthy. I’m sure you know about this but technology has brought a rise to total meal replacements like Soylent and Ample that claim to contain your daily values of essential nutrients in the form of calorie packed sludge. They claim to be “healthy alternatives” for the busy body but are packed with phytoestrogens which are terrible for men and women. Soon they’ll start 3D printing food. We’re being so sold on the aspect of convenience in food consumption that the majority of people are turning a blind eye to the fact that if its convenient, its definitely not the best for your well-being.

  2. Nice post. One thing I also enjoy about the class is the freedom to explore topics like this one!

  3. I really enjoyed reading this! I agree that it’s hard to reconcile being rational in that the price of our time is worth more than what we produce from cooking, with the gut feeling that cooking is something that’s worth spending our scarce amount of free time on. It’s hard to put a number on the value you get from cooking because the tangible part of what you get is technically worth less than you could buy it for, but there is an intangible value as well that you can’t exactly define. Great post!

  4. I love how to tracked the evolution of food and cooking with it’s technological advancements, really great approach. Personally, I align with all the declining trends of cooking, time spent in the kitchen and eating at home. Especially in college, I LIVE for the grab and go style of eating (I also call myself an expert of eating and driving). With further technological advancements of food delivery services offered at grocery stores, it will be interesting to see if the industry shifts to selling only fresh produce and prepared meals, with all other products kept in back stock for delivery purposes. Great post!

  5. Catherine · ·

    Though I haven’t given much thought to the topic, it makes sense that technology has had a huge impact on the food industry because it is such a significant aspect of our daily lives. I love to cook when I have the chance but I can definitely see with the increase in working hours we are putting in, the result is a decrease in time in the kitchen. I read one of Michael Pollan books, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, would definitely recommend if you haven’t read it yet. He discusses the direction of which this country is going in terms of food production and consumption–freaky conclusions, when lowering cost becomes the sole priority for providing sustenance.

  6. Great post. The statistics you shared were very surprising – especially the fact that 20% of American meals are consumed in the car. I personally like to put some time aside to have a meal with someone sitting down on a table, even during a very hectic day. But I realize that fewer and fewer of us are willing to do the same and that it is becoming less rational to do so, especially because healthy options for fast and convenient food are increasing. The growth of traditional fast food chains like McDonalds has been stagnant in recent years, and healthier fast-casual restaurants like Panera Bread and Sweetgreen are showing explosive growth. While these restaurants only constitute around 5% of the total restaurant industry market share as of now, as they continue to grow, I would assume less and less people will be willing to cook at home.

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