Homemade Holiday Pie Or Not, You Can't Escape The Energy Costs Of Modern Food

Dec 22, 2015

Buy your holiday pie or bake your own? While there is something special about homemade, every cook knows it takes a lot of your own time and energy. On the other hand, you can let Sara Lee, Marie Callender or Pillsbury do it for you.

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

"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," said Chef Kathy Guler, owner of Foodies Culinary Academy in Fort Collins, Colorado.

It is no surprise that she is strongly against the store-bought shortcut.

Blending butter, sugar, flour and water to make the crust, Guler encourages a "big strong upper body," when rolling the dough. What follows is about an hour of chilling, peeling, chopping, stirring, and some precarious moves with the delicate dough. The result is a fragrant, buttery, totally gorgeous, Mile High Apple Pie.

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," Guler said with a laugh.

Kathy Guler, seen here baking an apple pie with the author, owns Foodies Culinary Academy in Fort Collins, Colo.
Credit Inside Energy

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014, we spent just 35 minutes [.pdf] on food preparation and cleanup – compared to about 50 minutes just a few decades earlier. To save time, we're buying frozen pie crusts and other pre-made foods that are processed by machines and then brought home from the store.

Dawn Thilmany, a professor of Agricultural Economics at Colorado State University, points out that "washing, processing, freezing, [or] keeping foods cold and frozen" is energy intensive. Fossil fuels are essentially substituted 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.

According to one of the few studies [.pdf] on this issue by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this shift toward energy-intensive processing accounted for just 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," Thilmany said. "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."

Most household sugar is made from a white root vegetable called a sugar beet. There are sugar beet plants all over the country [.pdf], with particularly large operations in Minnesota, North Dakota, Idaho, and Michigan. There's also the Western Sugar Cooperative's manufacturing facility in Lovell, Wyoming.

On a tour of the facility, factory manager Shannon Ellis describes the different machines involved in the processing: motors, slicers, beet pumps, boilers, dryers, and centrifuges. There's also 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.

"So right now we're up to 120 tons per hour of beets," she said. "That's how much we're cutting,"

Processing freshly cut 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.

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

Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.