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Food-Alienation Nation

June 26, 2011

Over the past several decades Americans have become increasingly alienated from their own nourishment. Ideally, food should help keep us pleasantly healthy and alive, and although taste is important, it should not render nutritional value an irrelevancy to us. Our current system, however, produces many foods whose ingredients are merely tolerated by or toxic to, our bodies, rather than integral to them. As a result, much of the American diet slowly undermines our health while providing us enough flavored calories to survive the decline.

Study after study, and even headline after headline, identifies this or that chemical or hormone in our food that may cause or hasten some disease or ailment. What would be more helpful, however, is a concerted effort to shift our attitudes toward healthier notions of what food is and ought to be. Our bodies are not synthetic, so the food we use to reconstitute them should not be either.

While there is starvation in the U.S., the more serious and unchecked problem is that calories are cheap and abundant, but healthy long-term nourishment is not. Highly synthetic, non-nutritional food products tend to come from large food and beverage corporations. Their low quality and low nutritional value necessitate companies investing billions of dollars to generate a ubiquitous, manic message that their products are worth both buying and eating.

As these commercial exhortations pollute our ideas about nourishment, the advertising sleight of hand is often missed by the consumer. Particularly disconcerting in this regard are products like Diet Coke, whose ads don’t even have to claim that the drink provides nutrients. They just have to present it as a calorie-free alternative to something that is known to contribute to obesity. Diet Coke thus reaches its demographic by first offering itself as a calorie-free beverage,[1] and then builds its image around the aspirations of this “on-a-diet” population.

Take, for instance, the commercial shown during the Oscars. Against the lifestyle portrayed in the advertisement, Diet Coke is meant to appear at once casual and essential. It is the union of a glamorous, assured lifestyle to a $1 can of flavored waste. To round out its image, Diet Coke has conspicuously worked to raise awareness of womens heart health (their target demographic leans toward women).

Marketing makes the money here. The product itself does not matter much; it must be palatable. One has to acquire a taste for it, and then she can enjoy the marketing, availability and affordability that is Diet Coke. Of course, it has been widely suggested that diet sodas do not aid in weight loss, and can actually lead to health problems. Aspartame specifically, has been thought by some to contribute to an astonishing range of ailments, from headaches to seizures to cancer.

There are many other products that contain aspartame and the like, but they are not at the same heightened risk as Diet Coke of being perceived by the public as slow-acting poison. Thus, their ad campaigns can promote the products themselves, rather than portray them as merely a part of a grander lifestyle — typical marketing redirection.

Yogurt can be a healthy choice too, even though “light” yogurts use aspartame or similar artificial sweeteners. From television commercials one wouldn’t think that plain yogurt was even sold in the U.S. With plain yogurt, there’s little more to the calories than the milk fat, but a milk fat percentage alone isn’t much for a commercial. Instead, companies need marketable taste sensations, such as Boston Cream Pie and Black Forest Cake.[2]

Of course, yogurt is a product of the infamous dairy industry, where cows’ living conditions and diets are sacrificed to profit. Consider the use of Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH); a genetically engineered version of a naturally occurring hormone which is used to make cows produce more milk. Its use has remained highly controversial in the U.S. for almost twenty years. No matter its health hazards, the purpose of rBGH sounds suspicious; it was developed to make cows produce more milk than is natural. This urgent need for dairy products stems not from a milk shortage or an underfed American population, but from a demand for profit at the greatest heights of the “food” chain. Cooperating with this demand is, yes, the American palate. (We do love our cheese, as well as our cheez.) Precisely who is responsible for the national addiction to highly palatable, chemical-laden foods is debatable (commercials, corrupt politicians, parents, school lunches, addictive chemicals – all have been implicated), and more likely synergistic.

When it comes to regulating artificial hormones in food sources, however, corporate interests should not trump public health. Australia, Canada, the E.U., Japan and New Zealand have either banned or severely restricted the use of rBGH and the distribution of products derived from rBGH-treated cattle. In the U.S., however, profit-generating, synthetic concoctions enjoy the status of “innocent until proven guilty” (and even when proven guilty they often walk free) at the expense of public health and long-term sustainability.

Cows treated with rBGH develop numerous ailments that they would not suffer from otherwise.[3] The increased lactation induced by rBGH drains the cows of their own essential nutrients. Additionally, rBGH contributes to increased production of Insulin Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1), a hormone that contributes to the development of cancer, which is released into the cows’ milk that we consume.

Further, rBGH greatly increases the risk of mastitis, a painful inflammation of the udder, which is treated with antimicrobial substances that enter the milk and aid in the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria — an extremely serious problem. More and more strains of salmonella, for instance, are becoming resistant to antibiotics. In a study by Dr. David G. White et.al published in the New England Journal of Medicine in October 2001, it was reported that not only were 20% of their beef samples contaminated with salmonella, but also that “the percentage of isolates” (strains) “that were resistant to ampicillin, chloramphenicol, streptomycin, sulfonamides, and tetracycline increased from 0.6 percent during the period from 1979 to 1980 to 34 percent in 1996”. The report further states that “our data provide support for the theory that the food supply is a major source of antimicrobial-resistant salmonella”.

Current government regulations on the quantity of antibiotics that can enter our milk and beef are incredibly lax.[4] In the U.S., products derived from rBGH-treated cows do not have to be labeled, as there have been massive lobbying and legislative efforts by Monsanto, the maker of Posilac (a brand of rBGH), to ban the use of non-rBGH labels; however, polls consistently find that the vast majority of consumers want rBGH products to be marked. Fortunately, because the rBGH controversy has been well-publicized, many big-name distributors and smaller companies have vowed not to make or sell products derived from treated cattle.

Ultimately, the problem is simple: public health is not a large-scale corporate interest. The food industry’s major players are known for seeking (often successfully, due to their distended political influence) fewer restrictions on their advertising techniques and methods of production. The former affects the information consumers use to choose what to eat, and the latter affects what companies can put in their products; each of these effects has an impact on public health.

Not every product of a giant corporation is hazardous, however. Take the brands Naked Juice and Lärabar, owned by PepsiCo and General Mills respectively. If Big Food companies made more plant-based products like these, there would still be debate about genetically modified ingredients (though Naked Juice denies using any GMOs), but at least they would be moving in the right direction. Naked Juice, a brand of smoothie drinks, boasts an extensive product line that has “Nothing to Hide™”; its only ingredients are fruits, the occasional vegetable, and, for its new lower calorie smoothies, coconut water. (The drinks also contain “natural flavors”, but moving on.) Overall, these are natural, beneficial ingredients, and they are blended to make some pretty delicious products (though expensive at $3.49-$3.99 a bottle). What Naked Juice does want to hide, or at least not to advertise, is that it is owned by PepsiCo. “PepsiCo” does not appear on bottles of Naked Juice or on the Naked Juice website, as PepsiCo knows well that much of the Naked Juice demographic wants nothing to do with caramel-coloring, high-fructose corn syrup or aspartame.

Similarly, Lärabar is a brand of fruit and nut bar that does not contain artificial ingredients. Their “Peanut Butter Cookie” flavored bar, for instance, lists only dates, peanuts and salt as its contents. The bar is dense in calories (220 per bar) and nutrition, with 360mg of potassium (10% daily value or DV), 4g of fiber (17% DV) and 7g of protein (8% DV); the sodium content is low at 45mg (2% DV). Again, you will not find the name of the Big Food company that makes and sells this product on the bar’s packaging or website. General Mills has an enormous line of food products, from Lucky Charms to Hamburger Helper, which, with their marshmallows and partially hydrogenated oils, would help Lärabar sales by association.

When the product is “chemical swill” or heavily sugared and dyed cereal, the Big Food or Beverage company name is plastered all over the packaging. But when the product is actually worth its salt in nutrition and doesn’t contain synthetic ingredients, the owning corporation’s name is nowhere to be found. These companies know their reputation with those who want and can afford to eat “real” food, and it isn’t good. Meanwhile, they perpetuate the ignorance and obedience of the remaining consumers with brand-identities and taste sensations, thereby alienating them from the food that wards off disease and promotes longevity.

Today, we have the knowledge and technology to optimize our diets more effectively than any time in history. It is unfortunate that so much research and talent get put toward engineering homogeneous, cheap “food” to be sold to millions of people at once. What’s worse, because so much research is financed by the makers of the very food additives we are wary of, it’s often impossible to find or recognize reliable information as a consumer.

So, what to do? One option would be for the government and philanthropic groups to try to beat the enemy at its own game and invest in advertising. Of course, using taxpayers’ money to bash synthetic foods and food additives, or even to suggest that “real food = good, fake food = bad”, would not go over well with Big Food nor the free-market idolizers in congress, not to mention the taxpayers themselves, as the spin would be: big government trying to control our diets. The bigger obstacle, however, is money. It’s unlikely the government and non-profits could ever match the corporate billions that would be necessary to form a redoubtable presence of “health” in commercial consciousness.

Alternatively, Big Food companies could lobby for subsidies on healthier and a wider variety of ingredients than just corn. If they would be willing to do so, the cheap calories currently on the shelves of convenience stores in our country’s “food deserts” could start getting replaced with much more wholesome foods and beverages that pose no threat to public health. And, to the advantage of these companies who so wish to sway affluent, conscious consumers, public trust in the food industry could begin to be restored.

Jackie Colvin is a freelance writer living in Chicago.


[1] Food and drinks are supposed to have calories unless they are naturally calorie free (water, tea, coffee etc). The concept of zero-calories was made to be exploited, refashioned and exploited again – it was not intended to help people lose weight.

[2] Why not just buy plain yogurt and add real fruit?

[3] Below is a link to the text copied from the warning label on the packaging of rBGH. It is disturbing.


[4] Dr. Margaret Miller was a top chemical laboratory supervisor at Monsanto (the maker of Posilac, the brand name of rBGH) from 1985 until 1989 and soon after became deputy director of the Office of New Animal Drugs at the F.D.A. Her position with the F.D.A. began shortly before Monsanto was to submit its report on rBGH for F.D.A. approval. The rampant udder infections (mastitis) in rBGH-treated cows made it necessary to administer more antibiotics to cows than was legal at the time. Miller was a part of the decision to increase the legal limit of antibiotics in milk from 1 part per 100 million to 1 part per 1 million. See: http://www.nytimes.com/1994/04/18/us/question-is-raised-on-hormone-maker-s-ties-to-fda-aides.html?scp=1&sq=margaret%20miller%20monsanto&st=Search



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One Response to Food-Alienation Nation

  1. Benjamin on October 11, 2011 at 11:34 pm

    “What would happen if everybody ate lots and lots of fresh organic food that was minimally processed?
    I think we would have an epidemic of health. I think the stock market would tremble. The drug industry is a half trillion dollar a year, worldwide conglomerate; almost three hundred billion dollars just in North America. This is really really big business. What would happen if everybody were well?

    There’s no money in health. You see, good health makes a lot of sense, but it doesn’t make a lot of dollars.”
    — Andrew W. Saul, Ph.D. from Food Matters

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