Nutrition is a funny thing in America. As a people, we leap from fad to fad, craving simple, silver-bullet solutions to complex problems.
Remember the low-fat craze?
It started in the early ‘70s with the well-intentioned US Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. They determined that Americans were dying from heart disease related to food consumption—specifically eating too much fat and not enough fruits and vegetables. They created a set of guidelines suggesting that Americans eat less fat and more carbohydrates.
What We The People Heard
Fat bad. Carbs good.
It soon became the national mindset.
Nevermind the fact that the committee meant eat more complex carbohydrates with lots of dietary fiber like vegetables and whole grains. Nevermind the committee actually recommended that we decrease our sugar intake. Nevermind the committee’s suggestion that healthy fats still make up about 30% of caloric intake.
Fat bad. Carbs good.
Americans love bad guys, and fat was the easy public enemy. That silver bullet we were looking for was looking us right in the face. Cut out the fats, and we would cut out our belly fat. They even used the same word for each other - perfect! The national food industry leapt at the marketing opportunity to sell low-fat! and fat-free! versions of everything. And we ate it up.
So began the fat-free era.
*shudders*Guess who benefited the most?
Believe it or not, it was the corn farmers of America who benefited from our collective rejection of fat. Stay with me here…
Without fat, food has no flavor. Which means something has to make up the balance. In cooking, the four main elements of taste are: acid, fat, sweet, heat. When we take away the fat from foods, they fall flat. But, we can rebalance that with sweetness. A little bit of sugar, and suddenly that same food tastes rounder, fuller. More delicious. Those fat-free chicken nuggets would taste like salty sawdust without a sweetener. And sugars digest quickly so we want more, and more often! Sugary food is great for business.
There’s only one tiny problem - sugar is expensive. Sugar cane grows in the tropics, which means lots of logistics from processing to preserving to shipping to import duties. That doesn’t work if you’re a growing industry trying to churn out products by the millions to feed a hungry nation.
The solution? Corn syrup. Render it down into a shelf-stable sweetener and put it in everything. Forget the calorie density—sell it as fat-free! and convince consumers it’ll help them slim down.
(Spoiler alert: It didn’t.)Guess who benefited the least?
We the consumers. Diabetes and obesity skyrocketed through the ‘80s and ‘90s. American palates craved sweeter and sweeter bites. A generation of baby teeth melted under an onslaught of sugar and citric acid.
We were head over heels addicted. And our pushers were more than happy to oblige.
Enter The Agribusiness Mindset
The product of every addiction is concentrated power.
Who controls the spice controls the universe.
American agribusiness is no different. The US government has been subsidizing farm businesses since the Great Depression, for a few important reasons.
- Level the commodity market
- Keep farms afloat during bad seasons
- Protect farmers from fluctuating prices
- Support investments in the industry
- Boost production
But the fat-free era and our newfound sugar addiction coincided with the beginning of direct payment farm subsidies, and the collision resulted in an industrial corn boom.
All that surplus corn had to be consumed somehow, so it was configured for many purposes, from livestock feed to auto fuel to good old American bourbon. And of course corn syrup. The market glut created its own demand.
Furthermore, farm subsidies in part led to consolidation of farms, meaning these subsidies were paid to a shrinking handful of businesses, resulting in more farmland owned by fewer companies with increasingly specialized interests.
Commence The Vicious Cycle
Those companies accumulated more money to spend on lobbying the US government for more subsidies, meaning more funding, more power, more control.
Once upon a time, food was grown locally by a member of the community. Someone who was in touch with the land, and with the people who consumed their crops. Someone with an interest in feeding people.
But now, those community members aren’t the ones making decisions about what and when to plant. It’s a bunch of suits around a conference table. Big food brands make decisions based purely on the bottom line, not on sun, soil, and seasons. To the suits, “nutrition” is a marketing term. Once a food company goes public, its focus is on growing its market share and making money for shareholders. Producing the best, healthiest, most nutritious food possible is a secondary objective.
That’s where you get high fructose corn syrup. Process the stuff a bit more (to punch up the fructose) and it’s even sweeter per volume—meaning cheaper as an ingredient, but uses more corn. Add a touch to your low-fat salad dressing and voila! Tastes good, sells even better. What a great way to reap more profits from taxpayer-funded corn subsidies while at the same time creating an artificial demand.
The Bigger The Brand, The Less You Matter
Think about it: it’s a simple numbers game.
A business that serves 1,000 loyal customers has a lot more available energy to satisfy your individual human needs. The conglomerate with a hundred million consumers all across the country must focus on things like supply-chain optimization, lobbying, and litigation.
That means preservatives, chemical adjustments, genetic engineering, etc., just to make sure the same apple is the same red in every big-box grocery store in America. Food industry giants don’t sell food—they sell branded packaging filled with food-like material.
And we the people bear all the costs.
Only in the last few years has Congress moved to adjust the policy and stem the flow of direct subsidies to commodity farmers and offer more assistance to encourage smaller spreads, crop diversification, and eco-friendly farming methods. But there’s a long way to go.
Join The Local Resistance
So what can you do about the corporate takeover of American diet?
For starters, know where your food is coming from. Buy local as much as you can, from farmers, butchers, bakers, and so forth. Find out where your local restaurants get their meat and produce, and see if those farms sell to individuals.
Reject the idea of silver-bullet diets or fad nutrition. Eat things that grew, minimally processed.
Go to farmers’ markets and find the folks with dirt under their fingernails. Talk to them. Get their stories. Learn about terroir and why an ugly squash might actually taste better than a photogenic one. Join a CSA and subscription-support a local farm in exchange for monthly boxes of gorgeous heirloom produce.
And most importantly, stop thinking of fat as the bad guy!
If you forget everything else, remember this: There are three basic types of calories: Fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Each has a different role in sustaining life. As a baseline, healthy fats (i.e. not trans fats or hydrogenated fats) should make up 1/3 of your daily calorie intake.
Let fat back into your life. It’s full of flavor, keeps you satisfied longer, and is a necessary part of balanced nutrition. Don’t let the big food brands dictate your menu. You’re a person, not a line item.
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