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Car Culture: Healthy eating on rise — except in cars

Phil Berg
Car Culture

In the days before food labeling, the favored road snack of Patrick Bedard — longtime car tester and 42-year veteran of Car and Driver — was a package of Oreos. The texture, ease of consumption and lack of crumbs convinced Bedard it was the perfect food for driving.

Our commuter culture has sprouted a number of new choices since Bedard’s innocent road trip days, especially because of the rise of convenience stores.

On a trip from Detroit to the New York auto show in 2005, I stopped at as many of convenience stores as I could find along Interstate 80 through Ohio and Pennsylvania. I found nothing that didn’t contain high-fructose corn syrup. Healthy? That’s another story.

As 1960s pioneering naturalist Euell Gibbons once said, “Eat only what spoils, and eat it before it spoils.” According to several food industry surveys, young millennials are increasingly choosing real food like this.

But the convenience-store choices since my 2005 trip have only slightly improved offerings, which now at least include apples, bananas and salt-free nuts.

Still, these do not make a meal. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says every American averages eating just short of 2,000 pounds of food a year. There is a figure from nonprofit DoSomething.org that says Americans eat 20 percent of all meals in cars, which works out to about 400 pounds in the car. To me that’s either an astonishingly high weight penalty, or an amazingly efficient use of our time.

Whole Foods Market suggests these on the road: apples, bananas, oat muffins, baked potatoes, carrots, peppers, tempeh patties, celery, radish, cucumbers, oil-free hummus, low-salt miso soup, spelt rye and grain crackers, natural peanut butter, nuts, seeds and oatmeal. Also, the Whole Foods folks suggest bringing a thermos with hot water for mixing up dry soup. A second thermos is good for coffee, tea or water — or to pre-make a fruit-and-veggie smoothie.

However, that’s not what most drivers are consuming. According to a 2013 survey by Insure.com of 1,500 drivers, the top choice of road food today is the candy bar. The folks at Insure.com at least suggest that the ease of eating a candy bar means it’s “about as safe as road food gets.”

Second place, however, went to french fries (each American averages 29 pounds per year), which Insure.com complained often left their driver’s hands saturated with grease. Third-place potato chips added to the grease problem the issue of crumbs on your shirt. Fourth-place chicken nuggets were ranked harder to handle than fifth-place doughnuts.

Fruit was sixth, finally, although Insure.com found that dripping juice made for an eating disaster, as did a juicy seventh-ranked hamburger. Drivers reported the next eight choices of nourishment to be various headliners of all the chain fast-food suppliers.

My personal favorite has sometimes been a Subway veggie sub, but I have to admit it ranks up there with texting as a potentially lethal distraction during a drive.

So I’m leaning toward adding a new in-car behavior: fasting.

Phil Berg is a Metro Detroit area freelance writer.