Tag Archives: this is why you’re fat

Peanut Butter is a Nutritional Catastrophe

Now that I’m not eating sugar, peanut butter is one of the hardest foods to find. All of the major brands contain significant amounts of sugar (usually disguised as dextrose or some syrup), even the organic brands. This got me thinking about the peanut butter I used to eat when I lived in the states, so I went to the Jif homepage to look up the nutritional information on their Reduced Fat Creamy Peanut Butter, which was a staple of my breakfast from about 10 years old to 19.

I’ve been out of the US food environment for quite awhile, and Germany and Denmark, say what you want about them, don’t have deceptive labeling or choice-overload the way the US does. Still, a few things surprised me about the spreadable options back in my homeland:

  • All of Jif’s peanut butters have exactly the same calories per serving: 190. As a kid, I would have been better off just eating the full-fat version rather than the ‘reduced fat’, which just makes up for the lost fat with extra sugar.
  • Even the ‘natural’ peanut butter has a shitload of sugar in it, and basically the same nutrition info and ingredients as the standard peanut butter. If you want proof that the term ‘natural’ is pure marketing, look no further.
  • The Jif Omega-3 Peanut Butter is a joke. It’s still laden with sugar, and the nutrition label admits that it contains ‘less than 2%’ of the ingredients that contain omega-3s.
  • All of Jif’s peanut butters contain sugar, even the ‘natural’ and ‘simply’ versions.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that American consumers should just ignore what is on the front of the label and go straight to the nutrition facts on the back. What does it say about America’s political culture that consumers have to maintain constant, hawklike vigilance just to avoid eating products that are demonstrably unhealthy? I’d like to see a survey of how many Jif consumers know that their peanut butter is up to 30% sugar.

Jif obviously has the right to make peanut butter with the nutritional profile of cake frosting. What’s less obvious is why it is allowed to market such cake frosting as ‘natural’, ‘simple’ and containing health-promoting ingredients without any regulation by the government. It’s one thing to make an unhealthy product. It’s another to hide behind a cloak of nutrition and trick consumers into feeding that product to their children.

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The Obesity Epidemic Is Over (If You Want It)

So I’ve listened to another 25 hours or so of Rudd Center podcasts, and I’ve come to two conclusions about what America needs to do to end the obesity epidemic:

1. Make prevention the only objective
If you’re already fat, you’re screwed. Diets and exercise are so unlikely to work in the long run that you might as well say they don’t. Habits are hard to break, the food environment is a persistent siren and keeping weight off basically means you’re hungry for the rest of your life. Government investment in weight-loss programs for adults are unlikely to have large effects.

Which is why the government should aim its entire obesity effort at preventing childhood obesity. Food industry arguments about personal responsibility, consumer choice and free speech break down when it comes to minors. Children cannot meaningfully understand marketing messages or give consent. They are profoundly subject to their environment and significantly less capable of long-term thinking than adults.

As obesity researcher Yoni Freedhof puts it:

Try to imagine childhood obesity as a flooding river with no end in sight. While teaching children how to swim might help temporarily in keeping them afloat, given that the flood isn’t abating, chances are, even with the best swimming instructions, the kids are going to get tired and sink. So while swimming lessons certainly can’t hurt, what we really need to be shouting about doing is actually changing their environment and building them a levee.

Big Government is perfectly placed to take drastic efforts to prevent childhood obesity. You can’t accuse the government of being a ‘nanny state’ when it comes to children: Protecting children is what nannies do. The government has a clear responsibility–and a profound obligation– to manipulate the economy, environment, infrastructure and legal framework to protect children from companies that lie to them and an environment that manipulates them.

The government needs to lay it out for food companies: When Americans turn 18, you can have them. Until then, they’re ours.

2. Hold companies responsible for obesity outcomes
One of the best ideas I heard on the Rudd Center podcasts was a dude who said that food companies should be given responsibility for quantitative indicators of children’s well-being. So Coca-Cola wants to control all the vending machines in a school district? Fine, but over the next five years the obesity of children in all of those schools has to go down by 5 percent. If obesity goes up during that time, you lose access to them.

This principle could be applied at a city, state or nationwide scale. The best program the government could undertake would be to gather together the major associations of food manufacturers, beverage companies and restaurants and tell them the following:

‘Look, 30 percent of the kids in this country are overweight or obese. We will reduce that to 15 percent, and we’ll do whatever it takes to get there. You can either help us in this goal voluntarily or we will force you through legislation. For the next five years, we’ll work with you to develop voluntary marketing codes, reduce the fat and sugar in your products and promote physical activity. If childhood obesity hasn’t gone down in five years, we’ll legally restrict your ability to sell food in schools. If it hasn’t gone down in 10 years, we’ll ban all marketing to children nationwide. If it hasn’t gone down in 15 years, we’ll tax the shit out of any product that has added sugar.’ And so on.

The food industry always argues that voluntary marketing standards and product guidelines are preferable to legislation. If those standards don’t have any impact on the rise in childhood obesity, however, they’re as useless as day-old French fries.

Holding companies responsible for outcomes instead of processes gives them the freedom to develop their own approaches and an incentive to police each other. Under this plan, industry confederations like the American Grocery Manufacturers and the American Restaurant Association could set industry-wide standards for, say, portion sizes or added sugar that all their members would have to abide by. An objective benchmark allows the government to say ‘you guys figure it out. Or we’ll do it for you’.

Other government agencies already take this approach. The Fed, for example, has committed to keeping inflation around 2 percent, and has said it will do whatever it takes to hit that target (including allowing unemployment to spike above 10 percent). It’s time the rest of the government took the same approach.

Every OECD country has committed to a free-market model that provides food companies unlimited access to consumers, and fuels a cycle of overconsumption, obesity and morbidity. I wonder if any of them will commit to ending it.

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Do I Look Fat In These Genes?

By now everyone knows about the studies showing that how much you eat is significantly affected by how food is presented to you. You eat 28 percent more from a 12-oz. plate than from a 10-oz. plate. You consider a serving of cereal to be about 2/3 of a bowl, regardless of how big the bowl is.

The guy who’s responsible for a lot of this research, Brian Wansink, gives good interview:

“Most of us don’t overeat because we’re hungry. We overeat because of family and friends, packages and plates, names and numbers, labels and lights, colors and candles, shapes and smells, distractions and distances, cupboards and containers.” […]

“What I find most surprising is that across the hundreds of studies we’ve done across thousands of people, almost nobody is willing to believe that they are influenced by their environment,” Wansink said. “We all want to believe we are too smart to be influenced by the lighting in a room, or what the person across the table is doing. That’s why these cues are so dangerous to our diet.”

This is both remarkable and unsurprising. More than 90 percent of the population believes they’re an ‘above-average’ driver. Everyone else is affected by marketing ploys, social cues and environmental triggers. Me, I eat exclusively when I’m hungry and stop the moment I reach satiety.

One of the most powerful drivers of human behaviour is that we like to be told what to do. One of Francis Fukuyama’s core insights in The Origins of Political Order is that there is basically no such thing as a pre-rules society. From the first hunter-gatherer tribes, humans developed norms and structures to guide individual behaviour.

Humans have a strong desire to do the right thing, but it’s not as strong as the desire to do what you’re ‘supposed’ to. Religion, parenting and politics are just near and far ways of giving you guidance for how to behave in a given situation. You say ‘excuse me’ when you bump into someone on the bus because you’ve been told that’s the appropriate thing to do. You shake hands with people when you meet them because someone somewhere told you that’s what one does.

The anxiety we feel in unfamiliar situations doesn’t come from the situations themselves but from the ambiguity about which rules apply. This is why we talk about each other all the time: Someone else didn’t follow a rule. No other species, to my knowledge, writes or reads advice columns.

When you eat, the size of a bowl is the world’s way of telling you how much cereal you’re ‘supposed’ to have. The cakes next to the cash register are telling you that it’s appropriate to have dessert with your meal. All of these cues are permission slips to consume more. And about 30 years ago, we started following rules from companies that want to sell us food rather than signals from our own bodies.

It’s great that Wansink is working with elementary schools to make sure the environment is encouraging better choices. I shudder to think, however, of all the other areas of our lives where it isn’t.

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The Obesity Epidemic Will End, But Not How You Think

I think the reason I’m so interested in obesity as a public policy issue is that its basically unsolvable. Its cause is multifactoral (rising incomes, falling physical activity, fewer family meals, etc.) and its solution is basically a list of things we as a society are not willing to do (restrict marketing, raise taxes on sugar, end subsidies, etc.). So we circle the problem like neanderthals hunting mammoths, poking at it with little sticks, hoping to hit a tendon.

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. They bring on authors and researchers in areas related to food, and ask them what they’re working on and what they’ve found. The conversations cover a wide range of topics including history, politics, economics, marketing and education. Most of them are fascinating. Here’s a couple tidbits I’ve picked up listening to these podcasts on my commute for the past few weeks.

  • Obesity began to rise in earnest in the early ’80s, right about the time when the Farm Bill stopped paying farmers to not-grow crops and started paying them to grow as much as they could. As the number of calories available to every man, woman and child in America grew from 3,200 per day to 3,900 per day, the food companies ensured that it all got processed, marketed and consumed. The more I learn about economics, the more convinced I am that this, above anything else, is why we’re all fat.
  • Everyone compares Big Food to Big Tobacco, but there are a number of other industries that might make interesting corollaries. Car companies, for example, resisted seat belts for decades before they accepted, then actively marketed, them. Same with air bags.
  • The most interesting comparison I heard related the ongoing food fight to the battle for gun control. If you think of the life cycle of each gun from design to manufacture to marketing to final sale, most government interventions have been exclusively aimed at the final point. Instead of regulating the relatively small number of gun manufacturers and sellers, the US aimed regulation at the huge number of gun owners and users. It’s not a fair comparison to food, obviously, but it demonstrates that there are a number of legal interventions that may be much more impactful than aiming at end users.
  • In spite of all the research and experience on obesity, it’s surprising how little is still known about it. Performing nutrition experiments on humans is an ethical minefield (‘Yeah, we’re gonna need you to live in a lab, gain 40 pounds and fill out a bunch of questionnaires. Aight?’), not to mention prohibitively expensive, so basically all we know about obesity is from fattening and starving a bunch of rats.
  • Weight stigma is a large and growing issue in workplaces (and courtrooms) across America. Both men and women report being discriminated against because of their weight. Women report constant verbal harassment, whereas men report being passed over for promotions.
  • Weight loss pills, for reasons as corrupt as they are disappointing, are regulated as food, not drugs. Therefore anyone can manufacture pills, put them in a bottle and tell you that they’ll help you lose weight. Most of the ones currently on the market are slightly modified speed. Maybe we should be thankful they have any content at all.
  • Food companies are becoming increasingly sophisticated in marketing to children without their parents’ knowledge. They’re already designing online games websites that include marketing, and they get the kids’ cellphone numbers so they can text them with ads. This is some Blade Runner shit.

Personally, I think the obesity epidemic isn’t going to be solved by academics, public health advocates or politicians. It will be solved by pharmacists. The first company to release a pill that reliably suppresses appetite, speeds metabolism or makes broccoli taste like marzipan will make billions. For a problem that encompasses as wide a range of issues as obesity, sometimes all you need to know is one thing.

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What Does ‘Natural’ Even Mean?

I’m not surprised that the term ‘natural’ has no official regulatory meaning on food labels. Sure, it’s a shame that any company can call any product ‘natural’, but that’s not because of the government’s failure to regulate the term. It’s because of the public’s vacuous understanding of that term in the first place.

Honey, spare ribs, tree bark and poison ivy are all equally natural, and are not recommended in large quantities. Frozen vegetables, yogurt and dried fruit are all ‘unnatural’ in that they’ve been processed significantly, but they’re not particularly bad for you.

Face it: ‘Natural’ is a marketing term disguised as a factual claim. Ignore it and it will eventually go away.

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Why The Sustainable Food Movement is Doomed

I want to root for these snowboarders trying to get their peers to drink water instead of Gatorade or Red Bull, I really do. I just can’t shake the feeling that their effort, and the broader movement to get people to cook, garden and eat ‘real food’, are doomed.

OK, here’s my logic:
The foundation of the modern economy is the idea of ‘value added’: You’re willing to pay more for a completed product than you are for its component parts. I buy a car from Volkswagen because I lack the skills and equipment to make one myself. They buy metal, rubber and grease, then rent some humans 8 hours at a time to put them together. They make profit by asking me to pay more for the completed car than they paid buying the materials and renting the humans. I know this is how they make profit, they know I know, the world goes around and around.

Food companies are no different than auto companies. They buy a bunch of raw materials, put them together and sell you a product for more than they paid. No big woop.

As opposed to cars, though, the raw materials that go into food products are readily available. The tomatoes, olives and basil sit in the grocery store 10 feet away from a shelf stocked with canned pasta sauce. I can buy a loaf of bread in a plastic bag or I can get some yeast and flour and go home and make one.

In this context, food companies can only make profit in two ways:
The first option is offering their customers convenience. A loaf of bread costs more than yeast and flour, but it saves you three hours of mixing, kneading and loitering around waiting for it to rise. You’re willing to pay extra for this because it saves you time.
The second option is offering their customers unique products that basically can’t be homemade or created in small batches. Coca-Cola, for example, big-ups its ‘secret formula’. You could make cookies or fudge at home, but you couldn’t make a Butterfinger. Pop-Tarts, whatever the fuck those actually are, are the offspring of a conveyor belt, not an oven.

For food companies, all the profit is in the processing. And the more processed something is, the more money the company makes.

Check out the top 10 food brands in America:

  1. Tyson
  2. Kraft
  3. PepsiCo
  4. Nestle
  5. ConAgra Foods
  6. Anheuser-Busch
  7. Dean Foods
  8. Sara Lee Corp.
  9. Mars
  10. Smithfield Foods

These companies aren’t getting rich selling foods straight off the tree or out of the ground. They’re successful because they’ve engineered products consumers are willing to pay a premium for.

Look at this graphic on ConAgra’s homepage:

What the fuck are these products?! SmartPop? Café Steamers?! Every capitalized word on these packages is designed to remind you that all the work has already been done. Don’t lift a finger! It’s already Reddi!

Tyson’s homepage is even more ghastly. Check out the righthand bar:

Grilled and Ready! Heat and Eat! Don’t get up, we’ve got this!

Every time a consumer reaches for an ingredient rather than a package, the food companies lose profit. This is why Big Food fights every effort to reform the food system. From better labelling laws to promoting farmers’ markets to getting snowboarders to drink more water, it’s all the beginning of consumers telling food companies: What do I need you for?

A safer, healthier and more organic food culture doesn’t mean you won’t buy food from these companies anymore. It means you’ll buy less profitable food. That’s what they’re scared of.

These companies can either fight the reform of the food system or try to make money off of it. The food industry already offers a million products labeled ‘light’, ‘low-fat’, ‘no carb’, ‘natural’, ‘heart-healthy’ and so on. All of these terms are complete nonsense, and just represent a way for the food companies to even further process raw materials and charge you a premium. You could probably make cream cheese at home if you really tried, but you definitely couldn’t make Lite cream cheese.

So even if the companies above sign on to the sustainable-food movement, their profit-maximizing natures dictate that they still have to offer us convenience or unique products, the things that got us into this mess in the first place. As long as the cost-benefit analysis favors processing over simplicity, they have no incentive to offer healthy products. And we have no incentive to buy raw materials ourselves.

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