Having studied abroad in the United States for years, one of the many kinds of food that I miss from Nha Trang, my hometown in Vietnam, is a hamburger. This may sound odd to you; after all, the US is the birthplace and global capital of hamburgers. The truth is, the hamburgers I ate in Vietnam bore very little resemblance to the ones served at McDonald’s here in the US. And although that means the hamburger I had was inauthentic, it did not stop me from enjoying the dish. In fact, it stirred my curiosity about how the hamburger came to Nha Trang, and what the recent arrival of McDonald’s and other fast food chains means for the future food scene in my hometown.
Doesn’t it feel as though every time we walk into a grocery store, we are susceptible to purchasing the myriad concoctions the food industry develops that line the shelves, such as Coca Cola Zero and Twinkies? Isn’t it also the case that these types of food may be somewhat less expensive than the healthier options we seek? Does that mean that we should be buying white bread instead of wheat bread and soda in place of water?
In this way, my goal here is to discuss some of the most prominent and visible effects of our food system–namely, obesity and food insecurity, which are two concepts that undeniably have widespread impacts across the country. I will attempt to underscore the important conversation surrounding this complex, dynamic relationship and attempt to unravel the somewhat antithetical interconnectedness that the two possess, in order to assess and compare the two concepts within the parameters of our food system.
Why do some regions in the United States have incredibly high rates of obesity at the same time that there is a growing number of food-insecure people in those regions? How does obesity, defined by the CDC as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30.0 or higher,2 relate to food insecurity, which is defined by the USDA to be “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life?” Some suggest3 that food insecurity is a consequence of insufficient financial resources in the household, thus inhibiting those without adequate financial means from purchasing substantial, nutritious, and healthful foods to sustain their lives. In this way, the relationship between obesity and food insecurity is ultimately complex.
These maps illustrate obesity as a percent prevalence among males in 2001 (top) versus in 2011 (bottom). These data provide an example on just how drastically obesity rates have increased within the last several decades (IHME).
Food for Thought: Tracing Our Food
Sometimes I think it’s important for us to sit back for a moment and think about where our food comes from. For instance, it’s interesting when we think about how we always have the same variety of produce, and all the same types of snack food, meat, and dairy products at each corner you turn in the supermarket, regardless of what time of the year it is. Besides seasonal produce and holiday food items, most everything we buy always looks the same and is grown or manufactured in the same place.
We are Industrial Eaters
With this in mind, most of us usually tend to disregard how our burger at McDonald’s got from “farm” to plate, and we don’t pause to think about how that same burger could have once, in its raw beginnings, shared a corn field in Iowa with the cup of soda we’re drinking, or with the soft-serve ice cream we’re about to have for dessert, or even with the bowl of cereal we had for breakfast. But are we okay with that? Are we okay with being unknowing, susceptible, industrial eaters?
On my flight to San Diego last December, I remember flying for a long time over seemingly endless acres of land perfectly square sections of land. Here’s a view out of the window of the plane as we flew over acres of farmland, somewhere in the Midwest.
In this way, I argue that we should, in the least, be observant of what we eat, in order to contribute to a healthy society. My intent is to thus illustrate that much of the food available to us is industrially made, manufactured, and processed. By exploring the effects of the Green Revolution, in terms of industrialized agriculture, I will use the concept of “industrial eaters” introduced in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma to extend my argument to an assessment of the current food culture here in the United States.
Are we okay with being unknowing, susceptible, industrial eaters?
Hunting and gathering was where it began. For ages humans have selected food to consume, and even in the beginning there was a choice as to what kind of food to eat. During the hunting and gathering stages this choice may have concerned which berry to pick, but today this choice manifests itself in the form of what restaurant to eat at, or what to pick from the supermarket. In either scenario, humans have selected food that is easily accessible to them, whether it was accessible because of geographic, or economic reasons. The commercialization of accessible food in today’s world because of competition has also led to the perversion of nutritional science.
When I lived in Connecticut, I lived relatively close to a port town. As such, seafood was easily accessible, and most restaurants contained quite a few seafood options, regardless of what the cuisine was. I could go to a Chinese restaurant, Mexican restaurant, or Italian restaurant, and on each of the menus there would be cod in some form. As a child, I assumed this was the norm, but when I moved to North Carolina I was proven wrong. North Carolina is far from the cold Atlantic waters that help foster bountiful seafood, and the area I moved to was much more inland than my residence in Connecticut was. Seafood was much less accessible, but chicken, potatoes, and grain based meals became the norm. Fried chicken and waffles, grits, and biscuits all became staples of my diet in the South, because these were the foods that were the most accessible. My diet changed as my location of residence did, based on the accessibility of certain types of food. My personal experience made me realize this, but I also learned this fact through research into this topic that was completed in 1970. This research traced the genetics of widely used rice, to determine the origins of wild rice. The research concluded that wild rice was found most frequently in the humid tropics and subtropics of Asia, Africa, Central America, and Australia.2 As wild rice naturally thrives in these regions, it can be inferred that the humans who lived in these regions also had easy access to rice. These areas are also regions where the diet is heavily supplemented by rice, as is seen in the popular dishes of these regions. This anecdote and research both come to the same conclusion; geographic accessibility to food dictates the popularity of food.
Now that it has been established that geographic accessibility to food dictates popularity of food, we must consider how economic accessibility to food dictates popularity. In the mid to late 1900’s, as we saw a rise in the industrial processing and production of food, and we also saw a rise in the popularity of fast-food.1 Both of these came about for the same reason; they provided food that was cheap, predictable, and fast.1 There continued to be the option of more expensive, healthier options, but the price and predictability were simply unbeatable. This fast-food was also accessible to all, because of its low price. The same phenomenon that we saw occur with geographic access to food occurred with economic access; the more accessible option (the cheap industrial option), became the more popular item. In fact, McDonald’s, a restaurant that came into business during this initial boom of easily accessible foods, is now a multi-national conglomerate, and a staple of the American experience. In both geographic and economic circumstances, accessibility led to popularity.
As accessibility has increased (due to the cheapness of fast-food, and the geographic accessibility due to the chain nature of these restaurants), so has the competition between possible options for the consumer. Take for instance the McDonald’s example outlined earlier on in this paper. As its popularity has risen we have seen more competitors on the market; Wendy’s, Burger King, Chick-fil-a, and more. To differentiate themselves, competitors have had to beat each other both through innovation and the application of marketed nutrition science.
Nutrition science is a hard science that was developed to quantify and qualify the nutrients that are present in daily diets. From the humor system that was developed by the ancient Greek physicians, to the modern day caloric calculations, knowledge of nutrition was developed and used to help everyday consumers maximize their health through diet. However, in order to gain a leg up on competitors, these companies that have easily accessible food have taken choice facts backed by nutritional science about their food, omitted others, and made it seem like their food is the healthy choice (often making options seem healthier than they are). As you can see in the picture below, taken from Chick-Fil-A’s website, this Chick-Fil-A salad’s nutrition facts appear to be positive, but they omit the dressing that comes with the salad. Without the dressing, the salad consists of 510 Calories, and contains a large amount of protein, and a healthy amount of carbohydrates. However, when the salad dressing is factored in, the total nutritional value of the meal heavily drops, as the caloric content of the dressing is nearly 3/5 that of the salad, and contains more grams of fat and sodium than the salad itself. This is not good for the consumer, who is being misled about what nutritional value their food contains. The perpetuation of fast, cheap food option because of accessibility has led to misuse of nutritional science.
In America, obesity was such an issue that the former first lady Michelle Obama had to create an initiative to stop it. This could be due to the fact that accessible food is usually the most popular food in a region, and fast food is one of the most accessible foods in the U.S. To maintain their competitiveness in an environment where fast food is so accessible, these companies have perverted representations of nutritional science and made it work in their favor to get the masses to believe that this fast food ‘healthy’. Further research should be done to determine the exact effects of fast food on the obesity epidemic, and the regulation of nutritional science and facts that are used by the fast food industry, and the opinion of the public on these nutritional facts.
1Freedman, Paul, et al., editors. Food in Time and Place: The American Historical Association Companion to Food History. 1st ed. Ch. 8., University of California Press, 2014.
2Kiple, Kenneth F., and Kriemhild Connee Ornelas, editors. The Cambridge World History of Food. 1st ed., Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000.