If We Are What We Eat, Then We Are Becoming Coffee Cups


After you've swilled down that last gulp of coffee, make sure you've saved room to start munching the cup.

That's what KFC wants us to do, apparently having decided that they can increase their profits along with our waistlines by inducing us to eat things we wouldn't normally ingest.

As if we are not already devouring (way more than) enough calories, the marketing division at Yum! Brands -- the weirdly-named and-punctuated multinational conglomerate that owns KFC -- has decided that the world would be a better place if we ate our packaging after we're done with it.

"The new cup addresses several of the trends bedeviling the food business today, including consumer concerns about the environmental impact of packaging, as well as their desire for simplicity," according to The New York Times.

The folks at Yum! have probably discovered, as the cigarette industry did in the last century, that tapping into our oral fixations is a lucrative enterprise.

I like the idea of eliminating some packaging waste, but as Barry Commoner reminds us in his Four Laws of Ecology (#2), "Everything must go somewhere." Do the math . . . or, rather, the biology. And the physics, too: matter cannot be created or destroyed in an isolated system. Still, poop is better than trash (maybe?).

Yum!'s innovation just doesn't seem all that yummy. It transgresses Michael Pollan's maxim -- "Don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize as food" -- a mantra that is probably the most intuitively sensible guideline amid the ever-changing flurry of messaging about our diets.

On the same day we learned about edible coffee cups, another story, "Food Waste Is Becoming Serious Economic and Environmental Issue," revealed that it costs $1.5 billion just to dispose of all the food Americans throw away. The actual value of that food itself -- the one-third of all food produced that is never consumed -- is a stunning $162 billion.

When we're throwing out such an obscene amount of food (which is, presumably, actual food: broccoli, juice, cheese, and the like) do we really need to be eating coffee cups? I'd say we have enough things to eat already that we don't need to be inventing new stuff. The average supermarket carries over 40,000 items.

The edible coffee cup may be a sensory novelty, which reminds me of another invention from the 1970s that's still going strong today, edible underpants.

Taffy thongs are harmless enough, and may even have the benefit of spicing up people's sex lives. But it seems to me that there's a line we shouldn't cross (though in all likelihood we crossed it long ago) about what we eat and what we don't.

Pica is a psychological disorder that involves eating things we're not supposed to eat. ("Pica" is the Latin word for magpie, a bird known for eating indiscriminately.) While it's normal for young children to put things in their mouth as a way of exploring objects and exploring their own sense of taste, it's not normal to eat your sofa. Adele Edwards, a pica sufferer from Florida, has eaten seven.

A TLC cable show, "My Strange Addiction," features people who eat cigarette ashes, chalk, glass, toilet paper. Some sufferers of this disorder eat their own hair, stones, car keys, silverware.

French epicure Michel Lotito earned himself a bizarre fame by eating bicycles, shopping carts, and televisions. He called himself Monsieur Mangetout ("Mister Eats-All"). You can watch him eating a car, as his interviewer observes, "you're a nutter, you are." Limiting his metal intake to one kilogram per day, it took him two years to eat a Cessna 150 airplane.

Trigger warning: researching pica will take you into some strange and unpleasant corners of the internet, exposing you to things you can't un-see and websites you probably don't want cached in your browsing history.

The future promises to deluge us with many more foods that Michael Pollan's grandmother wouldn't recognize. At the vanguard of efforts to create ridiculous digitally-designed products, 3-D printers filled with hummus or chocolate or marzipan pastes extrude previously unimaginable edible artifacts. A Cornell lab has made miniature space shuttles out of ground scallops and cheese: brave new world.

Cultural anthropologists remind us that any society is keenly identified with its food -- what and how people eat, and where, and why. More likely than not this ship has already sailed, but in case there's still time for us to repent: let's try not to go down in history as the people whose appetites were so peculiarly deranged that they ate their coffee cups.

Randy Malamud is Regents' Professor of English and chair of the department at Georgia State University.