Our Food Processed Future: The Rising Energy Costs Of Convenience


Chef Kathy Guler says keeping the ingredients cold is key to a successful pie crust.

To make or not to make a homemade pie?  That is a classic holiday dilemma. Do you take the easy way out and buy a fairly decent frozen pie, or do you risk making your own, resulting in a potentially burnt and lumpy version?

While there is something special about that homemade option, every cook knows that it takes a lot of your own time and energy.

Here in the U.S., we are increasingly relying on a different kind of energy to produce our food: fossil-fueled machines that bring us pre-made pie dough, bagged lettuce, and those chicken strips with perfect grill marks. But that convenience comes with a growing energy cost.

Before we get into the meat of food processing, I wanted to find out how hard it really is to make your own apple pie. I drove down to Fort Collins, Colo., to visit with Chef Kathy Guler, owner of Foodies Culinary Academy. It is no surprise that she is strongly against the shortcut mentioned above.

Kathy Guler owns Foodies Culinary Academy in Fort Collins, CO.

Kathy Guler owns Foodies Culinary Academy in Fort Collins, Colo.

“You can buy a frozen pie and if you never made a pie you might not even know that there is a dramatic difference between fresh ingredients and the labor, the love that goes into it,” Guler said.

And with that, we dove right into making a Mile High Apple Pie, starting with the crust.

After blending butter, sugar, flour and water, Kathy encouraged me to have a “big strong upper body,” when rolling the dough. At first, I made something vaguely falcon-shaped, but with her help I eventually rolled my dough into a pie-shaped circle.

After about an hour of chilling, peeling, chopping, stirring, and some precarious moves with the delicate dough, we baked a fragrant, buttery, totally gorgeous, Mile High Apple Pie.

Chef Kathy Guler says keeping the ingredients cold is key to a successful pie crust.

Chef Kathy Guler says keeping the ingredients cold is key to a successful pie crust.

So why isn’t everyone making their desserts from scratch?

“I think there is a desire to want to learn how to do things. But the time. Having the time available. People find that it’s really time consuming. We don’t take one piano lesson and play like Beethoven. It takes a little practice. So we have to peel apples. I did a few more than you did,” Guler said with a laugh. “And that’s just from practice.”

These days, we are spending a lot less time in the kitchen. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014, we spent just 35 minutes on food preparation and clean-up. Thirty-five minutes! That’s compared to about 50 minutes just a few decades earlier. To save time, we’re buying things like frozen pie crusts and other pre-made foods that are processed by machines and then brought home from the store.

“Any time you’re washing, processing, freezing, keeping foods cold and frozen, those are all pretty energy intensive as well,” said Dawn Thilmany, a professor of Agricultural Economics at Colorado State University.

We are essentially substituting fossil fuels for human labor. The machines that process our food usually run on coal or natural gas-fired electricity and we’re relying on them more and more as we outsource food prep.

According to one of the few studies on this issue by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this shift towards energy-intensive processing accounted for about half of the growth in food-related energy use between 1997 and 2002.

“As we as a country developed and labor became more expensive because we wanted to give people livable wages, we found ways to mechanize a lot of things. So sometimes you’ll actually go through a food processing plant, it’s not robotic yet, but you’ll see just as much machine time of the products being touched as individuals. If you’ve never taken a tour of a major food processing plant, everybody should,” Thilmany said.

Sugar made at the Western Sugar Cooperative factory is shipped and packaged all over the country.

Sugar made at the Western Sugar Cooperative factory is shipped and packaged all over the country.

I took her advice and headed north to Lovell, Wyo., to check out a factory that makes something you probably eat every single day: white sugar.

“So right now we’re up to 120 tons per hour, of beets. That’s how much we’re cutting,” said Shannon Ellis, factory manager at the Western Sugar Cooperative.

Much of your sugar is made from a white root vegetable called a sugar beet. There are sugar beet plants all over the country, with particularly large operations in Minnesota, North Dakota, Idaho, and Michigan.

Shannon Ellis takes me on a tour of Western Sugar’s Lovell facility and describes the different machines: motors, slicers, beet pumps, boilers, dryers, and centrificals. Then we arrive at a conveyor belt, hurtling loads of what looks like waffle fries down a chute.

“That’s what they (sugar beets) look like when they’ve been cut up,” Ellis explains.

Sugar beets are sliced into waffle-fry shaped 'cosettes' for processing.

Leigh Paterson / Inside Energy

Sugar beets are sliced into waffle-fry shaped \’cosettes\’ for processing.

Processing these French fry shaped sugar beets into actual sugar takes a lot of energy. A full 32 percent of the factory’s monthly costs go to natural gas, around 12 percent to electricity, and 6 percent for coal to operate the factory’s lime kiln.

Later in the tour, we come across a gigantic dryer, tossing around the final product like waves crashing on the shore: pure white sugar.

“It is like regular table sugar but it is actually a little bit warm. Like fresh cookies coming out of the oven, they’re a little bit better. It is pretty good stuff,” Ellis said with a laugh.

This type of sugar and the energy that goes into making it is everywhere in our food chain, from convenient packaged cookies and candy, to our morning coffee, and even in our homemade apple pie.

Our modern food system gobbles up around 10-15 percent of our total energy pie. Much of it goes to the approximate 30,000 food processing plants in the U.S. which are bringing more and more pre-chopped garlic, shredded cheese, and bagged kale right to your table.

What’s Next:

  • Check out Inside Energy’s entire Feasting On Fuel series here.
  • How much energy does it take to make your food? Take the quiz!
  • How exactly do sugar beets make your coffee sweet? Western Sugar Cooperative explains.