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The labels on packaged food are for information—not moral judgment.
I feel guilty that I don’t call my grandparents as often as I should, that I distract myself from world events by obsessing over panzanella, and that I take too many not serious things too seriously and too few serious things seriously enough. I don’t feel like my choice of popcorn—or chicken salad, or guacamole, or mac and cheese, or brownies—deserves a place on my guilt list.
I go to Trader Joe’s to buy groceries because it’s three blocks from my apartment and has the most reasonable prices in the neighborhood. I do not go for self-condemnation. Yet when I see two versions of popcorn—one with herbs and spices, the other with "reduced guilt"—I immediately feel like a moral verdict is being returned.
Of course it's not news that food is inextricably linked to value judgment. Why else would we have sinful brownies and indulgent grilled cheese sandwiches? But with both popcorns positioned right next to each other in the store, I have to make a decision right then and there: Can I handle taking on extra guilt in my life right now? How's my wickedness level this week?
Maybe the popcorn packaging wouldn’t bother me as much if it were a free pass. But this isn't guilt-free—it's guilt-reduced. I'm going to feel guilty either way, TJ's tells me; I just have to pick my order of magnitude. I already experience a deluge of feelings when I'm grocery shopping (especially when it's 8:45 P.M. on a Sunday night and my toes just got run over by a shopping cart); I don't need the food labels to weigh in.
Is there a reason why the reduced guilt popcorn costs $.30 less than the more offensive one, I wonder? Perhaps that penny-pinching is just another thing to feel reduced-guilty about.
First photo by author; second photo by James Ransom