Image: Rodale Press
If the old saying, you are what you eat is literally true, then we are walking bodies of fat, sugar and salt. That’s pretty close to what Dr. Kessler said in a recent interview on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. The former FDA Commissioner describes the motivation for his new book, The End of Overeating, which answers the nagging question of what drives Americans to overeat. According to Kessler, our brains have responded to a sensory world of enticing food where we eat for stimulation – until our plate is empty. One of the ways to counter this, according to Kessler, is to give the consumer information about what is inside the food he or she is eating, such as product labeling. But consumer behavior is only one small element of the growing obesity and healthcare problem plaguing the U.S.
Scan the American landscape and you’ll find cheap fast food at every suburban mall, city and highway stop, as well as in supermarkets nationwide. Processed foods have become the mainstream food, with foods high in processed fats, sugars and/or salts being the mainstays of the American diet.
With the gravitation of the U.S. food culture toward highly processed energy-dense-type foods, Americans are not just overeating, we are overconsuming . Modern-day foods are now complex and high-tech. A loaf of bread, which might have traditionally consisted of just flour, yeast, water and salt, now typically contains questionable value-added ingredients, such as hydrogenated trans-fats to increase shelf life, and high fructose corn syrup to increase the sweetness. Meats are even more energy intense, if we factored in the two stages of farming – one for the grain crop, and second for the animal that feeds on it. And any assumptions about the costs of production being reflected in the retail price of our foods is canceled out by the cheapened subsidized grain that goes into a bag of chips or a bottle of soda, and provides more calories than a bag of produce of the same weight.
Our overeating habits have directly responded to a ‘cheap food’-centered system, which has become one of petrochemical energy-dependent farming and food production practices, food miles created through long-distance transport, greenhouse gases emitted, and waste generation and disease control in factory farms. Overconsumption has given us a public health crisis overlapping with an economic, energy, environmental and overall quality of life crisis.
Can our food system become sustainable? Why not start with regulations and market incentives that account for the costs of producing such energy-dense products, such as an energy consumption tax for food additives (e.g. lab-derived ingredients)? Certain producers could get carbon credits for foods produced with minimal environmental impact, such as organic producers and produce farmers. We could interpret food miles as carbon miles and taxes, opening opportunities for localized production and distribution of foods. Food vendors could receive tax breaks for the percentage of fresh produce that they sell in proportion to packaged shelf-life goods, for the diversity of perishable and non-perishable food products they offer. Meat prices could proportionally factor in the costs of energy intensive farming, leveling the competition with sustainably and locally farmed meat.
If we are to be a society that values food for people rather than food for commodities, then we can create a marketplace that is diversified with foods that are locally produced, energy-efficient, and of greater nutritional value, giving consumers more than the choice of which brand of chips or soda to buy, but an actual choice between many healthy and tasty food options–options that in turn will help resurrect local farms. Our food subsidies would not target centralized output, rather production diversity, a distributed and thus more secure food supply, and access to the poor.
If we could reorient our food system to one that is more sustainable, then in turn this would help to redirect our consumer culture–where ‘junk food’ is once again considered a rare treat and our waistlines, chronic disease burdens and ecological footprints would all shrink.