October 14, 2003

corn-fed people

An interesting article in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine posits a new reason for America’s obesity epidemic: an overabundance of crops, particularly corn. When corn gets dirt cheap, farmers harvest more so they can continue to make a living, thus flooding the market and of course driving the price even further down. Corn goes into snack food as cornmeal, of course, but also high fructose corn syrup and meal to feed chickens and cows, which then are cheaper to raise and bring to market. Instead of passing the savings on to the consumer, fast food chains start supersizing everything. So for the same price, you get more food. What do you do with more food? You eat it, thereby tripling your calories from the average Whopper-plus-fries quick fix meal. Hardening of the arteries, here we come. The farming explosion also explains the ever-growing number of crunchy, salty choices dangling from supermarket racks, enticing you as you walk by.

There’s more to the article, a lot more, about how this happened with alcohol a hundred years ago (farmers had too much grain, grain went into alcohol which became so cheap, people started drinking it for breakfast, lunch and dinner) and about how Nixon’s administration dismantled the New Deal-implemented grain reserve, put in place to stave off just this situation: cheap produce, farmers suffering the consequences. When did the obesity epidemic take off? In the seventies, after the end of the grain bank.

Food for thought, certainly. And a lot of it make sense. But I’m left with one nagging question: are we really that susceptible as a people to the vagaries of pricing and marketing to the point that we ignore our own bodies’ signals to stop eating when we’re full? Do we care so little about our health that we go for the fix of high fructose corn syrup and ignore the fresh fruit in the next aisle? Are we really a nation of five year olds, intent on our momentary gluttonous pleasure? How did that happen? Is it human nature or something else, some societal sloughing off of individual responsibility?

It’s obviously not a recent phenomenon – I mean, whiskey for breakfast? But it’s a pervasive one. Acting without thinking. Do we need a New Millennium version of Prohibition for unhealthy eating, that external punishment for personal actions? I’ve always thought Prohibition was a ridiculous, overly puritan concept but now I can’t help wondering. Is that what it takes? You don’t expect five year olds to have self-control. They need rules, parental supervision. Do we as a childish nation need that too? How awful to contemplate. Nearly Ashcroftian in its paternalistic rigidity. Surely there’s a better way, but what? Suing the fast food companies doesn’t begin to address the problem. Farm subsidies for less production would help, but I suspect we need a Democratic president for that – and a strong reason (a weak economy and a plummeting dollar) to do it. It could happen, I guess. But will it? In time? Did you know our children have a shorter life expectancy than we do and it’s because of the health-related complications of obesity? We’re literally killing ourselves here. A nation intent on instant gratification, not willing or able to look into the future.


Posted by Tamar at October 14, 2003 09:49 AM

"Are we really that susceptible to the vagaries of pricing and marketing to the point that we ignore our own bodies’ signals to stop eating when we’re full?"

'Fraid so. And I can say with equal shame that we in Australia are equally susceptible. Create a market and then sell to it, isn't that the golden rule of business these days? Forget finding a niche, just convince people they already want what you have. Seems to work quite well, at the expense of our health, our bank balances, our leisure time...

It is depressing isn't it?

Posted by: Kay at October 19, 2003 02:20 AM

You write: ..."are we really that susceptible as a people to the vagaries of pricing and marketing to the point that we ignore our own bodies’ signals to stop eating when we’re full"?

Several studies have proven that high fructose corn syrup bypasses the body's normal digestive routine and thus, the body DOES NOT signal that we're full and it's time to stop eating. Studies also show that sugar acts in the brain much like cocaine, lighting up the pleasure centers. HFCS is like crack cocaine telling the body to go get more, more, more. So yes, we, humans, really are that susceptible. The major food manufacturers in America (not Europe, were HFCS is rarely used in food processing, in fact, may be banned) are essentially addicting users of processed food and dooming them to sluggish metabolisms and certain eventual obesity. The only answer is to NOT EAT PROCESSED FOOD.

Posted by: Nancy at December 19, 2003 05:56 PM

Hi John

Posted by: John Doe at October 5, 2004 08:11 AM