Monday, July 22, 2013

Can Fast Food Cure Obesity?


The following article is featured in the current issue of The Atlantic. 


Here's the summary: Demonizing processed food may be dooming many to obesity and disease. Could embracing the drive-thru make us all healthier?

Since I'm a grocer and one of those whom the author refers to as a "Pollanite" (a fan of the work and point of view put forth by Michael Pollan in books like The Omnivores Dilemma), I felt that I should pass the article on with a few comments of my own.

The argument that the author presents is one of expediency, and is directed at what he sees as the number one health problem in the United States, that of obesity. He makes a case that the food ethic presented by the natural food business in trendy upscale stores like Whole Foods is not only unrealistic when applied to the general population but actually counter productive. He goes on to cite several examples comparing the nutritional value of the so called 'healthy' snacks offered in the elite markets to common examples of mainstream fast food. In these examples he finds that the 'healthy' alternatives often contain considerably more of the ingredients (sugar, fat) that contribute to obesity than the cheaper (by a considerable margin) and fast alternatives. 

This argument presents a much deserved 'shot across the bow' to an industry that I've watched or been a part of since 1973. The 'Natural Food' biz has grown from a fringe movement into one of the most profitable growth industries in the nation. In the process it's thrown overboard a great deal of the ethical 'baggage' that provided its original raison d'etre. Once upon a time the idea was to provide an alternative to the heavily processed gunk produced in laboratories and offered in conventional grocery stores. Among other things it represented a return to a deeper engagement with the food we eat (cooking). Nowadays the business offers hundreds of new items every month that respond mostly to media fads and advertising campaigns that cater to the very same ethic of processed 'convenience' that has driven the American food business since way before the first tofu burger was ever thought of.

Nevertheless, the author's critique of the industry that supports and hypes 'healthy' eating, much of which I agree with, represents a serious misreading of the work of Michael Pollan. If the writer had truly read a book like The Omnivores Dilemma he would have noted that Pollan's take on the Whole Foods mentality in many ways echoes his own. Pollan notes that the key to profitability in the natural foods industry has for decades been that more money can be made by processing food than by growing it, and this has led the industry down some very questionable trails. 

Statistically the problem of obesity is greater in poorer communities where elite foods are simply not available. Even if they were, the author asks, would lower income people want to switch from the kind of food choices they are used to more 'healthy' alternatives? Wouldn't we do much better against the scourge of obesity if the fast food industry actually changed its formulas so that the poor and ignorant masses can still eat at MacDonalds but get less that will make them fat? Since nobody has time to cook anyway, given the rat race involved in mere survival, can't we just program the whole fast food business for less carbohydrates?

These argument make sense only when the focus is on obesity as the number one health problem in America. This extremely simplistic view excludes factors like our attitude toward the land, our over-amped and over-extended lifestyles and our largely dysfunctional relationship toward the systems that keep us alive and breathing. The contention that poor people would prefer MacDonalds over healthy food, even if it were made available to them, I find to be incredibly elitist. The people who raised me were poor and grew up in an era before 'fast food.' They made due with the basics and they cooked their own meals and they were healthier for it. To assert that the problem of obesity can be solved technologically with a little bit of progressive laboratory engineering, while a typically American approach, is laughable and a little bit frightening, as it calls up an image of the ultimately perfect lab manufactured food source for the masses: it's called "Soylent Green." 

 


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