Understand the fundamental dilemma of the United States through addictive food

A scamp

A scamp

When Hostess went out of business, I immediately faced the prospect of not eating a Ho-Ho ever again. I am familiar with Swiss Cake Rolls; it’s possible I ate an entire box of them this weekend, but they are not Ho-Hos. It’s not even that I like a Ho-Ho so much. It has that flavor and that texture, though, both of which lie between chocolate and wax. A Ho-Ho is not good so much as it is particular, and the idea of never having another one makes me appreciate the alcoholic’s principle of One Day at a Time. In short, I am addicted, like the American food executives in Michael Moss’s million-page exposé want me to be.

It’s a long one, even for the New York Times Magazine, but it’s worth it. Of particular interest is the systematic, terrifyingly quantitative approach that makers of processed food have taken to “optimize” their products for popular taste. “I’ve optimized soups,” says Dr. Howard Moskowitz, PhD experimental psychology. “I’ve optimized pizzas. I’ve optimized salad dressings and pickles. In this field, I’m a game changer.” The game, of course, is making people eat.

By a lot of scary metrics, Nabisco et al are winning. Their single-minded focus on making food people will eat a lot of—not food that tastes good, necessarily (see page 5) and certainly not food that is nutritious—is probably at least partly responsible for the documented rise in obesity among Americans. Still, there is something discomfiting about that claim. If I bake a delicious cake and leave it on your doorstep, I am kind of responsible for your increased sugar consumption. But I sure didn’t make you eat it.

Here we encounter a classic case of the tension between liberty and well-being. The good people at Cadbury are free to make as many cloying variations on Dr. Pepper as they like. It’s in the Constitution. Their freedom is made possible by my freedom not to drink Dr. Pepper because it is operatively poisonous. Yet millions of people disagree with me and think Dr. Pepper is great, and they have the Type II diabetes to prove it. Presently, one third of Americans are obese. Clearly, the freedom to not consume Dr. Pepper and Yoplait (more sugar per serving than Lucky Charms) is not widely exercised.

So we have a problem. America, as it expresses itself through presidential fitness initiatives and rap videos, does not want to be a nation of fat people. Yet we also keep eating foods that make us fat, in part because such foods are widely and easily available. Which, then, is the will of the people? Do we restrict the liberty of industrial conglomerates to make addictive Doritos in order to help people choose food that will give them the healthy bodies they want, or do we allow Yum Brands to make whatever even though it thwarts people’s long-term desires?

It sounds like a conflict between individual/corporate liberty and the general good, but when you consider that obesity strongly correlates with poverty, it starts to look more like a conflict between liberty and equality. There are plenty of reasons that rich people are generally slimmer, but one of them is the price and availability of processed foods. I lived in a few New York neighborhoods where I had to take the subway to buy vegetables, but I was never far from Popeyes. When you consider that processed food is cheaper, less nutritious and more widely available than groceries, the free market choices of low-income consumers start to look more like coercion.

We want a free society, and we want an equal society. The problem is that liberty—in this case, the liberty of General Mills to manufacture ever more addictive sugarfats—tends to expand inequality: in this case, the unequal distribution of mass among the citizens. Balancing this equation in a modern context is complicated by unequal scaling. The scope of our economy, and thus of our potential inequality, has expanded dramatically since 1776. Our liberty, as measured in individual choices, remains about the same size.

It’s hard to reconcile the claim that people eat Gushers and drink Pepsi purely of their own volition with evidence that people are also doing it a lot more. Do we want to be fat? It seems more reasonable to say that the individual choice to eat a Ho-Ho is purely my own, but the aggregate of choices reflects forces beyond our mere collective will. The poorer I am, the more Doritos I eat. The more Doritos I eat, the richer Yum Brands gets. There is a vicious circle in there somewhere, and the engine just might be each our liberties.

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  1. If we can regulate heroin availability, we can surely do the same for evil, engineered foods. The same individual liberty vs. equality/health/corporate liberty/whatever arguments would apply.

    There were plenty of veggies in our hood, but you had to go to the grocery store, rather than the bodega. It was a whole extra block away.

  2. Huzzah!
    “Balancing this equation in a modern context is complicated by unequal scaling. The scope of our economy, and thus of our potential inequality, has expanded dramatically since 1776. Our liberty, as measured in individual choices, remains about the same size.”

    FWIW, Cadbury doesn’t own Dr.Pepper. The Dr.Pepper-Snapple Group is no longer owned by Cadbury. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dr_Pepper_Snapple_Group

  3. Also, a significant reason those processed foods are so cheap is directly related to the corn subsidy. Since that subsidy comes from taxes, most of us are paying a hidden cost on those high fructose corn syrup foods, but those who eat more of them reap a greater economic benefit in terms of calorie per cent. That is of course ignoring the cost of health care related to obesity, but most people don’t calculate that anyway.

  4. Okay here we go again
    1) Thinking you know what is best for everyone (after all you have to be stupid to be poor right)
    2) Making corporate America the villain and the creation of the new class structure based on lifestyle I am better than you because I am a vegetarian! Or have a smaller carbon foot print. Making a moral judgment after all it is okay to discriminate and humiliate fat people they are immoral right? What percent of organic food is locally grown and what is grown by corporate farms? (Studies have found the food is the same and has no more nutrition than that of the non-organic but it cost 40% more (and it appeals to both your vanity and your guilt at the same time) or are you a willing pawn in the battle between corporations? On one hand you have the corn syrup company’s and the other the organic company’s it isn’t the first time advertising has been used to create a market or need that doesn’t exist
    3) Completely ignoring the other 2 variables in the equation (genetics and activity)
    4) The statement that the rich are fitter than the poor and only attributing it to diet is a false correlation you would have to include activity, health care, stress, being poor is more stressful I would think, and if you ask someone that is rich what their day is like? it’s a constant run from sun up till sun down and lots of skipping meals.( it’s not all sitting around counting your money)
    5) Genetics: with the advent of modern health care we have eliminated survival of the fittest. People that 60 years ago that would have died before having children, are now surviving and having offspring thanks to the invention of artificial insulin. Births rates are nonlinear they are geometric so an explosion of diabetes is to be expected. Are these diseases previously under diagnosed? These diseases were not routinely screened for in the past unless there was a problem and preventive screening and testing has improved as well so higher rates are observed. The influx of genetic material from cultures that have experience famine in the past (the feast and famine cycle) being genetically predisposed to storing body fat to cope with times of future famine is a natural defense mechanism.
    6) The correlation of body fat: if you look at the data this has been on the rise since the 1900s and has been a steady progression since, that’s before the advent of the use of corn syrup which has only been around since the late 40s early 50s.
    7) Increase in addictive personality traits among the population? If you can’t get people to stop doing things that are illegal and bad for them by passing a law, what makes you think you can pass a law to make people make better food choices?
    8) Is this a new way of punishing? what will the law accomplish higher costs because in order to keep getting the same quantities multiple smaller servings will be purchased instead of one large one .
    9) Effects on the environment? More packaging to be disposed of yes I know what you’re thinking 2 16oz sodas equal a 32oz bottle but handling multiples of smaller objects takes more than handling one large object.

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