Food Facts

The information presented here is excerpted from the above book. Marion Nestle is Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and author of several food related books

1. Food is an enormous business that generates well over $1 trillion in annual sales in the United States alone. Food must be produced, processed, distributed, and prepared before it is eaten, each of these steps conducted by companies with special interests in what the government and nutritionists say about food choice

The food industry is vast. It encompasses everyone who owns or works in agriculture (animal and plant), product manufacture, restaurants, institutional food service, retail stores, and factories that make farm machines and fertilizers, as well as people engaged in the transportation, storage, and insurance businesses that support such enterprises

2. Problem is not production but distribution

The world produces an abundance of food, more than enough to meet the needs of its more than six billion people. But food is distributed unequally. Not everyone has enough resources to obtain adequate food on a reliable basis. In public health terms, such people lack “food security.”

In the 1960s, the discovery of widespread malnutrition in rural areas of the South shocked the nation and led President Lyndon Johnson to declare war on poverty. Congress enacted food assistance programs such as food stamps. These helped. The prevalence of malnutrition declined.

Beginning in the 1980s, however, reductions in government expenditures, rising inflation, and losses in higher paying jobs widened the income gap. Government agencies began to document increasing levels of food insecurity.

Today, USDA economists say that nearly 15 percent of US households are food insecure, with 5 percent seriously so. The least secure segments of the population are households with children headed by single women, especially those black or Hispanic. Economists estimate that 22 percent of American children live in homes with incomes below the poverty line. Hunger, they conclude, still exists in America.

For many out-of-work and out-of-luck Americans, some formerly in the middle class, having to balance food purchases against other necessities has become a normal part of daily existence

When Congress enacted food stamp legislation, it made the program an entitlement. Anyone who met income limitations could obtain benefits. The program is now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in recognition that participants use Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards rather than stamps to purchase food.

In 2012, the declining economy and increasing rates of unemployment drove a record-setting 46.6 million Americans—many of them working for low wages and half of them children—to obtain SNAP benefits. Although the average benefit was only about $135 per month, the total cost to taxpayers was $75 billion that year

The critics of federal food assistance complain that the programs cost too much, are beset by fraud, and mostly encourage dependency.

3. The prevalence of obesity in the United States began to rise sharply starting in the early 1980s. Since then, our food environment has changed in ways that encourage eating in more places, with greater frequency, and in much larger portions. 

Through the 1960s, federal agricultural policy aimed to keep prices high by reducing the supply of commodities. The USDA paid growers of commodity crops to let land lie fallow. But beginning in the 1970s, Congress removed such restrictions and began rewarding farmers for growing as much food as they could fit onto their land. The number of calories available in the food supply—available but not necessarily consumed—rose from about 3,200 per day per capita in 1980 to 3,900 by the year 2000.

Calorie availability is calculated on the basis of all food produced in the United States, plus food that is imported, minus food exports. Per capita includes men, women, children, and tiny babies. Overall, 3,900 calories a day is roughly twice the average need of the population. Even if a great deal of food is wasted, calories are still available in great excess.

Beginning in the early 1980s, food became more widely available. Fast-food places proliferated. The sizes of food portions increased. People began to eat outside the home more often and to snack more frequently.

Americans on average have gained 20 pounds or more since the early 1960s, but heights have increased by an inch or less. Any level of overweight can raise the risk of disease in susceptible people, but mortality rates increase most in the extremely overweight.

Obesity makes type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other problems much more likely to occur

4. Obesity strikes the poor disproportionately

Arguments about food assistance must deal with one of the great ironies of hunger in America. The highest prevalence of overweight and obesity is observed among the poor. Researchers examining the apparent paradox of hunger in the land of plenty note that food insecurity is a significant predictor of overweight, particularly in low-income groups. They explain the paradox as an effect of inadequate resources. SNAP benefits, for example, are meant to be supplemental and typically run out after two or three weeks, leading recipients to depend on the cheapest sources of calories—the snacks, fast food, and sugar-sweetened sodas pejoratively called “junk foods” or, more politely, “foods of minimal nutritional value.”

To prevent obesity, people must reduce calorie intake (“eat less”), preferably by eating more healthfully (“eat better”), or they must increase calorie expenditure (“move more”). Doing all three works best. But these actions are exceedingly difficult for most people to manage in today’s food marketing environment

5. The overabundance of calories forces the food industry to be highly competitive, but other changes in the early 1980s required even more competition. Shareholders began to pressure corporations to reward them with higher immediate returns on investment. Food companies not only had to compete for sales against 3,900 calories a day, but now had to increase sales and report growth in profits to Wall Street every 90 days. Competitive pressures forced food companies to consolidate, to become larger and more efficient, to seek new markets, and to expand existing markets

6. The Prevalence of Industrial Agriculture 

The current food system in the United States is largely based on industrial agriculture—CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) and enormous farms—and supermarket aisles overflowing with snacks, candies, cookies, sodas, and sugary foods that bear little resemblance to the plants, crops, or animals from which they were derived. This system is highly efficient and provides an abundance of foods from which to choose at relatively low cost, but with unfortunate consequences for health and the environment, especially when companies cut corners on labor and safety practices. Pressures to keep wages low, for example, mean that only immigrants are willing to do farm labor. Immigrants have always done work that nobody else wants to do, and farm labor is the most recent example. One unintended consequence of policies that restrict immigration is to reduce the supply of agricultural workers

Federal dietary guidelines may encourage consumption of fruits and vegetables, but federal subsidies go almost exclusively to the growers of food commodities such as corn and soybeans. These crops are grown mainly for animal feed. The invention of new machines led to greater efficiency and meant that fewer workers were needed

In 2005 and 2007, Congress passed energy policy acts that required increasing percentages of ethanol to be mixed with gasoline. Farmers quickly began diverting corn crops from animal feed to ethanol production. By 2012, more than 40 percent of US corn was used to produce ethanol. Given the oil and gas used to produce fertilizer and to plant and harvest crops, it is debatable whether ethanol actually adds to our energy supply. But one result of the diversion is not debatable: Using corn to produce biofuels drives up food prices. This happened in the United States and also throughout the world.

7. Conflicting advice of what to eat which makes it difficult distributing food to the needy

In the United States, the USDA has issued dietary advice to the public for nearly a century. Until the mid-1970s, USDA nutritionists advised people to eat a variety of foods every day from different groups—dairy, meat, fruits and vegetables, and cereals, and sometimes fats and sweets—to prevent nutrient deficiencies. Such advice elicited little controversy

After World War II, disease patterns shifted. Nutrient deficiencies declined and were replaced by chronic diseases related to obesity and poor diets. It became necessary to advise eating less of foods containing nutritional factors that raised disease risks—saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar, salt, and alcohol—and eating less in general to balance calories. “Eat less” advice conflicts with the food industry’s sales imperatives. It also conflicts with the USDA’s mission to promote greater consumption of American agricultural products. Once “eat less” and “eat better” advice replaced advice to “eat more,” the history of USDA food guides became one of ongoing controversy

In the early 1980s, USDA nutritionists began work on a food guide to help the public prevent obesity and related chronic diseases. Their research, which involved more than a decade of conceptualization, testing, and political clearances, led to the pyramid-shaped food guide finally released in 1992.

In 2005, the Bush-era USDA released a new version of the pyramid cleansed of its “eat less” messages. Instead, it emphasized the less controversial “move more.”

In June 2011, the USDA introduced the Obama-era food icon: ChooseMyPlate. The plate is a sharp departure from previous food icons. It gives much greater prominence to foods from plant rather than animal sources. MyPlate pushes dairy foods off to the side and calls for vegetables, fruits, and grains on three-quarters of its space. Even so, its design can still confuse, as it allows considerable leeway in interpretation. People can pile whatever foods they like on plates of any size. Snacks and fast food do not require plates.

The principal recommendations for preventing obesity and chronic disease were first issued in the 1950s and have not changed since: Eat more vegetables and other plant foods (“eat better”), balance calorie intake with physical activity (“move more”), and go easy on junk foods (“eat less”).

Through all of this, experts stress that nutrition research is tough trying to determine the effect of a food separate from issues of diet and health 

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