Carrying A Few Extra Around The Gut Area? Blame Congress!

Adam Drewnowski, a researcher at the University of Washington, had a question. Why is it that America works opposite of the rest of the world, where the rich are generally thin, and the poor are generally not so. So he decided to take a look:

Drewnowski gave himself a hypothetical dollar to spend, using it to purchase as many calories as he possibly could. He discovered that he could buy the most calories per dollar in the middle aisles of the supermarket, among the towering canyons of processed food and soft drink. (In the typical American supermarket, the fresh foods — dairy, meat, fish and produce — line the perimeter walls, while the imperishable packaged goods dominate the center.) Drewnowski found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Looking for something to wash down those chips, he discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.

It’s been widely remarked that you don’t see a lot of poor people on the Atkins Diet. I had used that for a while, and in the span of a couple of months, dropped from 260 lbs to roughly my ideal weight, the low 220’s. But it’s not cheap. You’re eating decent quantities of fish, meat, fresh vegetables, etc. (Thankfully I’m blessed with genetically low cholesterol, so I never had to worry about that aspect). Think about it… You get a salmon filet and some nice broccoli with cheese sauce, a nice bottle of wine, and you’ll probably spend $5-10 per plate (more, depending on the wine). Feed a couple of people, and you’re out $20 or more. Hell, the last time I bought salmon and asparagus for myself I spent close to $20, because I went to the high-end grocer. You serve tortilla chips and a frozen pizza, with Coke to drink, you can feed the same number of people for $8. And who’s going to get a more healthful meal?

Of course, to some extent these things may never change, as there are certain laws of supply and demand, and corn syrup is cheap. But it’s still quite important to ask why, and whether this is something that’s naturally or artificially occurring. Is corn syrup artificially cheap? They say that high-fructose corn syrup is one of the worst things you can usually put into your body. Sugar is bad, but that corn syrup is horrible. Yet it, and a lot of other nasty multi-syllabic chemicals are found in all those foods in the center aisles of the grocery store. Why is that? Well, look no farther than our imperial federal government, and the corporate welfare state, in the guise of farm bills:

For the answer, you need look no farther than the farm bill. This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation, which comes around roughly every five years and is about to do so again, sets the rules for the American food system — indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world’s food system. Among other things, it determines which crops will be subsidized and which will not, and in the case of the carrot and the Twinkie, the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support to the cake than to the root. Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.) For the last several decades — indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning — U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy.

That’s because the current farm bill helps commodity farmers by cutting them a check based on how many bushels they can grow, rather than, say, by supporting prices and limiting production, as farm bills once did. The result? A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both). By comparison, the farm bill does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce. A result of these policy choices is on stark display in your supermarket, where the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (a k a liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.

The author, Michael Pollan, goes on to lament some of the other nasty consequences of the farm bill, such as it creating such low corn prices that we’ve destroyed Mexico’s indigenous corn farming industry, which leads to northward immigration. Not to mention that having them rely on us for corn production has caused the tortilla price increases that I’ve mentioned here, because our new government intervention forces us to use our corn for ethanol, again increasing the price. (Note that I’m not missing the blind spot here. Increased corn prices due to the ethanol mandate will increase corn syrup prices, which will then make the food those poor Americans eat, the stuff that’s high in corn syrup, more expensive).

But go back to the original point. Our farm subsidies are designed such that they make unhealthy food options artificially cheap. Then, we tax sugar imports. Now, sugar isn’t the most healthy thing we can ingest, but it’s much better than corn syrup. But our government’s policies are making the incredibly unhealthy option cheap, artificially inflating the cost of the bad-but-not-horrible imported option, and the non-subsidized healthy options are expensive. It’s so far out of whack that to say it’s nonsensical is doing an injustice to good, honest nonsense.

If you think the government really wants you to be healthier, ask them why they don’t repeal farm subsidies? Maybe you’ll realize that they don’t have your best interests at heart, they’re looking to reward the people who get them elected. Farmers have more lobbying money than the health nuts, so they get their goods and— as usual— poor people get screwed.

Hat Tip: Reason

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  • Joshua

    This isn’t the ideal solution, I know, but given the growing demand for corn-based ethanol, why hasn’t anyone proposed simply switching the corn used to produce HFCS to produce ethanol instead? It’s not as though the corn farmers would have to have to give up their precious subsidies to do this. Corn is corn, right?

  • Brad Warbiany

    Because nobody has the power to “switch” the corn used for HFCS to ethanol production. Corn is sold to whoever wants to buy it. When government mandates a certain amount of ethanol production, that increases demand for corn, but again, nobody in government controls how much corn can be “allotted” to HFCS manufacturers and how much can be “allotted” to ethanol production. As much as bureaucrats would love to have that power, it’s better for all of us to leave it up to the market.

  • tarran

    Why would big corn ask the government to reduce their subsidies?

    Food manufacturers put HFCS in their food because consumers prefer cheaper food with HFCS to more expensive food with cane-sugar. Adding cane-sugar in place of HFCS is more expensive due to high tarriffs on sugar that are maintained at the behest of the corn-processing industry.

    This ethanol boondogle is yet another way for them to transfer money from consumers into the industry’s pockets without earning it by producing goods that consumers actually want.