This chapter begins at the J.R. Simplot Plant in Aberdeen, Idaho. J.R. Simplot was born in 1909 and grew up working on his family’s farm in Idaho. When he dropped out of school and left home at fifteen, he found work in a potato house. By age sixteen, he was a potato farmer. Soon, Simplot was buying, selling, and sorting potatoes--eventually becoming the largest shipper of potatoes in the West. During World War II, Simplot made a fortune selling dried onions and potatoes to the American military. Following the war, Simplot invested in frozen food technology and, in the 1950s, began selling frozen french fries to McDonalds. Ray Kroc described the frozen french fry as “almost sacrosanct.”
Today the french fry business is more competitive, with three major companies controlling the market. Fastfood restaurants benefit from the competition between these companies and make a huge profit on frozen french fries. However, potato farmers do not share in the riches made by both the frozen-french-fry manufactures and the fast-food industry. This disparity of wealth occurs because the market for potatoes is an oligopsony—a market in which a small number of buyers exert power over a large number of sellers. In the past twenty-five years, Idaho has lost about half of its potato farmers.
The famous taste of McDonald’s fries has nothing to do with the potatoes the company uses—the fries are
flavored by the cooking oil. Before 1990, McDonald’s fries were cooked in a mixture of 7% cotton seed oil
and 93% beef tallow. However, due to criticism about the high amount of cholesterol in this mix, McDonald’s
switched to pure vegetable oil. To provide a slight beef flavor, “natural flavor” was added. “Natural flavor”
and “artificial flavor” are responsible for the taste of most processed foods. Both of these man-made additives
are products of the flavor industry, which arose after World War II.
The author visits International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), the world’s largest flavor company, which is located in northern New Jersey. Throughout the plant, flavors and scents are produced for numerous, wellknown foods and fragrances. The science involved in producing a pleasing aroma for shaving cream is virtually the same as that for making a palatable TV dinner, because up to 90% of taste depends on food’s aroma.
The flavor industry dates back to the nineteenth century, when processed foods began to be manufactured on a large scale. These early food processors looked to perfume companies for guidance. Man-made flavor additives were used mostly in baked goods, candies, and sodas until the 1950s when the demand soared for processed foods. Color is another important aspect of processed foods. People tend to think brightly colored food tastes better than bland-looking food—even if the flavor components are identical.
In the final section of this chapter, Schlosser visits the Lamb Weston plant in American Falls, Idaho. Here, he observes how fresh potatoes are turned into frozen french fries. The plant employs high-tech machinery, including a lab in which the fries’ sugar and starch contents are measured, to ensure a high-quality product.
Notes - In this chapter, Schlosser is concerned with the food, itself. Focusing particularly on the french fry, Schlosserillustrates how the potato is manufactured and what contributes to its flavor. He contextualized fast-food
french fries within the history of processed food.
Schlosser’s description of J.R. Simplot in the chapter’s introduction mirrors his earlier descriptions of the fastfood founders, in which he seems to glorify the “good-old days” when a boy could drop out of school and make his dreams come true. However, unlike earlier chapters, which were largely biographical, this chapter deals with much of the nuts and bolts, so to speak, of the fast-food industry. This section is entitled “Meat and Potatoes,” and will deal with much of the behind-the-scenes work of how what we eat gets produced.