August 28, 2008
The politics of food-6: Corn and obesity
(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)
The abundance of corn has made the economics of food shift towards unhealthier foods. If you have a limited budget, you can buy more calories based on corn-based fast-food products that you can from healthier foods. $1 buys 1,200 calories from potato chips and cookies vs. 250 calories from whole foods like carrots; 875 calories from soda vs. 170 calories from fruit juice from concentrate. (p. 108) Is it any wonder that poorer people, in order to feel satiated, are more likely to eat potato chips and follow it up with a soda than they are to eat carrots and follow it up with juice, since the cost of a calorie is five times as much for the latter meal?
In fact, an article published in the January 2004 edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Dr. Adam Drewnowski (director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition in the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine) and Dr. S.E. Specter (research nutrition scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center in Davis, Calif.) reports that the correlation of obesity with income levels is striking. Unlike in the developing world where obesity is often the result of wealthy people eating a lot of rich and fancy food, in the US, obesity afflicts a lot of poor people trying to save money on food.
The study says that:
Energy-dense foods not only provide more calories per unit weight, but can provide more empty calories per unit cost. These foods include French fries, soft drinks, candy, cookies, deep-fried meats and other fatty, sugary and salty items. The review shows that attempting to reduce food spending tends to drive families toward more refined grains, added sugars and added fats. Previous studies have shown that energy-dense foods may fail to trigger physiological satiety mechanisms – the internal signals that enough food has been consumed. These failed signals lead to overeating and overweight. Paradoxically, trying to save money on food may be a factor in the current obesity epidemic.
What are 'empty calories'? This Wikipedia article explains:
Empty calories, in casual dietary terminology, are calories present in high-energy foods with poor nutritional profiles, typically from processed carbohydrates or fats. An "empty calorie" has the same energy content of any other calorie but lacks accompanying micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, or amino acids as well as fiber as found in whole grains but less so in white flour. Michael Jacobson, head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, coined the term in 1972.
Generally, unnecessary calories are converted in the body to fat. However, if calorie intake is limited for the sake of reducing weight, insufficient vitamin and mineral intake may lead to malnutrition. Dieticians recommend in every case that nutrient-dense food such as fruit and vegetables be substituted for empty-calorie food.
Drewnowski adds that the drive for lower costs is replacing nutrition-rich calories with empty calories:
It's a question of money. . . The reason healthier diets are beyond the reach of many people is that such diets cost more. On a per calorie basis, diets composed of whole grains, fish, and fresh vegetables and fruit are far more expensive than refined grains, added sugars and added fats. It's not a question of being sensible or silly when it comes to food choices, it's about being limited to those foods that you can afford.
As result of policies designed to produce more and more corn, corn has been on a silent and unseen rampage though our diet, resulting in a whole host of undesirable effects. The massive output of corn has led to the "rise of factory farms and the industrialization of our food, to the epidemic of obesity and prevalence of food poisoning in America." (p. 62) Since the explosive growth of corn production and cheap food containing mostly empty calories in the 1970s, obesity has risen since 1977 and the average American's food intake has risen by 10%. (p. 102)
Since what we eat ends up being the source material that goes into creating the tissues in our own bodies, it is now possible to analyze human hair to see how much of us originates in corn. It turns out that the US diet contains so much of corn in various hidden forms that our bodies are becoming increasingly made up of tissues that originated in corn. As Professor Todd Dawson (Director of the Center for Stable Isotope Biogeochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley) who has analyzed the corn component in food and in our bodies, says, "we North Americans look like corn chips with legs". We have a greater component of corn in our bodies than societies like Mexico that ostensibly seem eat more corn. (p. 23)
POST SCRIPT: Nuns beauty pageant cancelled
Two days ago, I reported on an Italian priest who had organized a beauty contest for nuns to show off their looks, and asked prospective contestants to send in photos.
He now says he has had to cancel his plans because of objections from his superiors in the church. I can't imagine why.