Porking up with the FDA

Michael Pollan has yet another interesting food article up. By way of treehugger.com.

For most of history, after all, the poor have typically suffered from a shortage of calories, not a surfeit. So how is it that today the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?

Drewnowski gave himself a hypothetical dollar to spend, using it to purchase as many calories as he possibly could. He discovered that he could buy the most calories per dollar in the middle aisles of the supermarket, among the towering canyons of processed food and soft drink. (In the typical American supermarket, the fresh foods — dairy, meat, fish and produce — line the perimeter walls, while the imperishable packaged goods dominate the center.) Drewnowski found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Looking for something to wash down those chips, he discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.

The reason?

This perverse state of affairs is not, as you might think, the inevitable result of the free market. Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?
For the answer, you need look no farther than the farm bill. This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation, which comes around roughly every five years and is about to do so again, sets the rules for the American food system — indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world’s food system. Among other things, it determines which crops will be subsidized and which will not, and in the case of the carrot and the Twinkie, the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support to the cake than to the root. Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.) For the last several decades — indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning — U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy.

I’m really impressed that he got 875 calories of pop for a dollar.

Also, I’m not a fancy-pants blogger, but “Where in the store can you get the most calories per dollar” is not really relevant to the question of why poor people are fat. Are poor people scared of exterior walls?

The subsidy thing is interesting but you’re delusional if you think poor people would eat more carrots if they were cheaper. Newsflash: Potato chips and twinkies taste better than carrots. These sweet or salty snacks are immediately gratifying to the sense of taste in a way that vegetables aren’t. That’s why people with no self-control (including specifically the poor, which is why they’re poor) eat tons of them. You’d have to price them out of their reach to stop that. I suspect that would require not just stopping subsidies but imposing cigarette-style taxes (and those taxes didn’t stop the poor from smoking, either).

Wow. Just wow.

Why are you surprised?

The subsidy thing is interesting but you’re delusional if you think poor people would eat more carrots if they were cheaper.

heh, try looking at the prices of a pack of chicken breasts and a bag of chicken nuggets next time you’re in the local supermarket. I could gorge myself on processed crap for at least a month on what I spend a week on vegetables.

Yeah, kind of floored me to.

The best determine of how rich you will be IS (drumroll please): How Rich Your Parents Are! We got rid of our nobility only to recreate it couple centuries later. Oh how I love patterns!

Eating healthy is definitely more expensive. My taste in food does not run towards the extremely expensive, IE the best steaks and whatnot. But, my food bill now compared to when I was working through college is larger by a factor of 10. Why? Because I get fresh chicken breast instead of processed lunch meat. I get real vegetables. I get the herbs and spices which can be achingly expensive, the herbs and spices which bring back the taste that you lose when you take away fat and salt from everything.

Sure, but so what? Chicken nuggets are easy to prepare and offer instant gratification to the underclass palate. Chicken breasts require some real cooking skills to prepare. Chicken nuggets would have to be a LOT more expensive than chicken breasts before the unwashed masses would switch to the latter.

True but irrelevant if we’re talking about obesity like Jason’s article does. Unhealthy food doesn’t magically make you obese – it’s too much of any food that does it. The fat hordes would only stay slim if the only food they could afford was such that they couldn’t or wouldn’t eat enough to become obese. Basically, a diet of vegetables and, I dunno, dry bread? Steak vs McDonald’s is really neither here nor there. There were lots of fat people (who could afford good food) before there was supermarket crap food. I refer you to the traditional English breakfast recipe in EE.

Yeah, what about meat products?

How about the fact that you can get a 50 pack of hotdogs for like 5 bucks, yet there arn’t any fresh meat products you can find that will come even close to the price per pound?

I do not think your statement is accurate. It is not just about quantity, but quality. You can easily eat small quantities of food that will make you extreemly fat.

Take a typical McDonalds meal: a fries, a big mac, and a drink. It is cheap, and not a large quantity, however it has a huge amount of fats and sugars. If you were a budget concious person, you would find thier ‘value meals’ very affordable and would fit your budget nicely.

In fact, looking at most all of the ‘cheap’ foods, they are mostly really bad for you. If your food budget is 40 bucks a week per person, fast foods can really help you keep that budget without going hungry and giving you a break from all the Ramen noodles you will be eating.

Because you don’t want to know what parts of the animal end up in those hotdogs…

Not for any sensible value of “small”. One McDonald’s meal a day plus some breakfast/supper does not make you fat, to use your example. Much less “extremely” so.

For a family of 4, $40/week/person translates to $8,320/year for food. While that might be sustainable for a lower middle class family, I doubt it’s sustainable for a truly poor family.

I think the way to really stretch your food dollar, without spending too much time on food prep, is stuff like Ramen noodles, canned soups and veggies, and the like.

Sure, but so what? Chicken nuggets are easy to prepare and offer instant gratification to the underclass palate. Chicken breasts require some real cooking skills to prepare. Chicken nuggets would have to be a LOT more expensive than chicken breasts before the unwashed masses would switch to the latter.

No they wouldn’t. They’d need to cost just enough more that when minimum wage family of four go food shopping that it makes more sense for them to buy a pack of chicken and a bag of potatoes/carrots than it does for them to pick up a bag of chicken nuggets and some oven chips.

I know there are anomolies, I’ll chuck my anecdotal lazy middle class mum from my childhood who fed her kids in the 70’s/80’s nothing but frozen, processed crap because she hated cooking. I’m sure in that case you’re absolutely righ, you could make chicken nuggets twice the price as a pack of fresh chicken and she’d have still bought the nuggets because she had the money to make the choice.

Are we really looking at the correct link here? Are poorer people fatter on average (and I am a little surprised by that data - is it really valid?) because they eat more twinkies than wealthier people?

Or is it because all Americans are fatter in general, but wealthier people are more worried about it? I doubt the billion dollars per month going to the diet book of the week are coming from people on welfare - it’s typically yuppies who are trying all the diets, buying the membership and personal trainer at Ballys, etc. I would hypothesize that wealthy people are thinner on average (although I’m still suspicious of that data) because they are more concerned with their weight and appearance and the peer pressure to look thin and svelte, and the resources to buy the Nurtisystem at hundreds of dollars per month and the health club membership and the jogging shoes, etc.

I don’t know why this went downhill so quickly into declaring everyone who’s poor is lazy.

Who knows? As the article points out, however, the gap between what people should eat to be healthy and what’s actually cheap is pretty enormous. Furthermore, what our government actually makes cheap through massive subsidies is crap that’s horrible for you. That probably explains a lot about the general state of things.

A quarter pounder with cheese value meal with medium fries and drink is 510 calories for the burger, 380 for the fries, and 210 for the coke, for a total of 1100 calories. Take me, a 30 year old 160 pound male with little exercise - the USDA recommends a total diet of 2400 calories. If you’re already at 45% of that just from lunch, you’re going to gain weight unless you eat like a monk for the other two meals. Going to heavy exercise ups the budget to 3000, which probably still isn’t enough to burn it off.

Basically, fast food is so high-density with calories that if you eat it regularly and aren’t some high metabolism 20 year old you pretty much have to gain weight.

Chicken breasts require some real cooking skills to prepare.

I am either living disproof of this assertion, or an exception that proves the rule. No way to tell, really.

It’s certainly an interconnected series of problems, the inherent lack of work ethic in the untermenschen only being one facet of it. If it adds more ammo to reducing or jettisoning farm subsidies, that’s great. Unlikely though–all sorts of musicians will exercise the renewal option on their original two-year contracts to care about the mythical family farmer and there’ll be even more blood on the scarecrow, and what congressperson can stand firmly before that?

I think that is a separate issue in its own right. In an odd way, I think that our health experts are really overselling exercise. Exercise is great, we all should do it, it keeps you healthy. But I think people get the impression that exercise does more than it does to keep weight off (per your metric above, heavier exercise than most people probably do gives you a whopping 1/6 more calories to play with in a day, which as most Americans eat, is basically about half of an afternoon snack). I still think the primary problem in this country is people shoving too much food in their faces. Exercise is a distant second.

I personally don’t get the idea that those crap foods somehow “taste better” than the more healthy varieties. That’s pretty much bullshit, and people are buying things that are cheap and bad for them for 2 reasons:

1: it’s cheap

2: it’s the way they were raised, and they don’t know any better.

Alice Waters has been running the Edible Schooyard Program for a few years now, and it does show that, when properly educated and shown the difference, people actually want to eat more healthy things.

Good eating habits start at the breast, from baby food, from what parents cook for their children, and what schools serve them for lunch. If school cafeterias are constantly serving frozen chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and soda, that’s what these kids are going to get used to as what is “normal.”

It’s like my boyfriend. He was raised on a middle class diet of middle class southern foods. So what is generally palatable to him is very different than what is palatable to me (raised on the west coast with a lot of fresh fish.) I’ve been slowly introducing things to him to widen his palate, and it does work. But it’s a challenge.