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Food for thought
Jon Lebkowsky, 6 Jun 06

HarvestI worked with Whole Foods Market for several years when the company was experimenting with e-commerce, and for most of my life I've been something of a foodie and (often backsliding) student of nutrition. I've also been aware over the years that Americans, including yours truly, have been gaining weight at an alarming rate. WorldChanging ally Bruce Sterling, who's looking pretty trim since he became a citizen of the world, summed it up in his State of the World speech at SXSW 2006:

Americans even look different physically, if you spend time in other countries, now. They’ve always been a very loud, expressive, boisterous lot, but now Americans are fat! By European and Asian standards, the American population is hugely and scarily fat. They literally look swollen up, as if they’d been poisoned, and were about to pop. The Dollar is low, compared to the Euro? The Euro ought to be in intensive care.

Why are Americans so fat? It's the corn.

In Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, he uses an analysis of four conventional meals to explore the origins of fundamental components of the American diet: how food is grown via industrial farming, what organic food is about, and what it's like to grow, and hunt, your own food. He focuses especially on the ominpresence of corn in the American diet, directly and indirectly (dairy from corn-fed cattle and eggs produced by corn-fed chickens). From a New York Times review of Pollan's book:

Big agribusiness has Washington in its pocket. The reason its titans want to keep corn cheap and plentiful, Pollan explains, is that they value it, above all, as a remarkably inexpensive industrial raw material. Not only does it fatten up a beef steer more quickly than pasture does (though at a cost to ourselves and cattle, which haven't evolved to digest corn, and are therefore pre-emptively fed antibiotics to offset the stresses caused by their unnatural diet); once milled, refined and recompounded, corn can become any number of things, from ethanol for the gas tank to dozens of edible, if not nutritious, products, like the thickener in a milkshake, the hydrogenated oil in margarine, the modified cornstarch that binds the pulverized meat in a McNugget and, most disastrously, the ubiquitous sweetener known as high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Though it didn't reach the American market until 1980, HFCS has insinuated itself into every nook and cranny of the larder — in Pollan's McDonald's meal, there's HFCS not only in his 32-ounce soda, but in the ketchup and the bun of his cheeseburger — and Pollan fingers it as the prime culprit in the nation's obesity epidemic.

Pollan's detailed exposé of the American corn draws praise from John Mackey of Whole Foods Market, who has responded to Pollan with an open letter posted in Mackey's blog. Though Mackey wholeheartedly recommends the book, he takes issue with some of its content, especially mentions of Whole Foods Market. In responding for Whole Foods, Mackey writes about the nature and history of organic foods and his own company's actions and practices in support of organic agriculture. Other experts from within Whole Foods Market assisted in writing the letter's report on the company's role within the food industry and its support of organic agriculture, including Margaret Wittenberg, who served five years on the National Organic Standards Board and helped develop the current set of organic standards. Though Mackey's long post has an obvious bias, it's also a good overview of the evolution of organic alternatives in the U.S.

In the days when organic co-ops were plentiful, very little product actually came from small-scale, local, progressive farms. The cornerstones of the income statement in the early co-ops were rice, apple cider, peanut butter, cheese, tofu, eggs, some seasonal fresh products, and membership fees. In the 1960s and 70s, agriculture at the local and regional level was already in decline, having been decimated by low producer prices, lack of concern about diet by the American consumer, increasing desire for fast foods, decline in food quality, and an increasing, government-supported focus on chemical practices. Local agriculture hit rock bottom in the mid-1980s. The Greenbelt Alliance along with developing marketplace forces driven by the increasing numbers of "California Cuisine" restaurants and the for-profit natural foods sector supported many of the young growers who created the next generation of family farms. Without that effort in the 1980s, the snapshot that you capture in "Big Organic" would not have the same appearance. The focus on integrated marketing (including direct-to-consumer sales), crop diversification, product differentiation, and the general move toward agricultural sustainability through Integrated Pest Management (including organic) practices preserved and created the current resources that exist in local and regional agriculture. By offering multiple outlets for their products and working tirelessly to educate consumers, Whole Foods Market stores, along with many regional independent stores, are an integral part of saving and supporting regional and local agriculture.

In his latest interview with Grist, Pollan notes that it may be more important to buy local than to buy organic:

Most of the produce on the East Coast comes from the Central Valley of California. We're taking organic lettuce, grown with great care, terrific cultural practices, and we put it on a truck and we keep it cold from the moment we pick it, 36-degree cold chain all the way across the country for three to five days, and that takes 56 calories of fossil-fuel energy to get one calorie of organic lettuce. Now technically that product is organic. In any meaningful sense of that word, if you think back in the values embedded in that word and its history, I have trouble calling it organic. So organic has become less sustainable as it's gotten bigger.

Say you live in Boston and you want to buy organic. You can buy that lettuce and support the care of some land in the Central Valley of California. If you buy local you can support some land on the outskirts of Boston. So if you're motivated by environmental considerations, you may find -- and I'm not telling anybody what to do, I'm just trying to give them information so they can make their own decisions -- you may find that more of your values are supported by buying local than organic. Because that local buying decision is also an act of land conservation -- you are protecting farms in your community from sprawl by keeping those farms around.

Pollan also emphasizes local in his book, and Mackey's response reflects the complexity of the market's demands:

Some customers prefer to eat primarily from their "foodshed" or they wish to support local growers. Individual Whole Foods Market stores attempt to meet the needs of these customers as far as is practical given the constraints of seasonality and availability of products meeting our quality standards. Other customers want to enjoy particular foods from throughout the world, either because of their ethnic background or because they appreciate expanded choices and novel cuisines. Most of our customers prefer a combination of local, national, and global food choices, and appreciate — even demand — the range of choices Whole Foods Market offers.

We understand the line of reasoning that champions eating locally and in season. Whole Foods Market stores offer as many local, seasonally available foods that meet our quality standards as are available in a particular market area. Our customers, however, regularly desire products that may not be in season in many parts of the United States. Accordingly, due to such market demand, we offer the freshest, most sustainably grown products we can find on a year-round basis while also continuing to develop our relationships with local and regional producers in season. That may mean that a Whole Foods Market customer desiring fresh organic asparagus in January will find only spears with an Argentinean or Chilean origin in our produce department. Many of our customers want fresh asparagus and this is where we can reliably source organically grown produce at that time of year....

Pollan would have a problem with this, based on his June 4 article "Mass Natural":

The globalization of organic food is already well under way: at Whole Foods you can buy organic asparagus flown in from Argentina, raspberries from Mexico, grass-fed meat from New Zealand. In an era of energy scarcity, the purchase of such products does little to advance the ideal of sustainability that once upon a time animated the organic movement. These foods may contain no pesticides, but they are drenched in petroleum even so.

The dilemma here is clear: an inherent business goal of profitable customer satisfaction can conflict with a goal of social responsibility. A company like Whole Foods Market will try to balance the two, and Whole Foods has been pretty successful in doing so: as Mackey notes, the stores work hard at providing local goods as well as harder to get nonlocal items to satisfy customer demand.

What about WalMart, and the many regional grocery chains across the U.S.? They don't try to be socially responsible, they just try to be efficient and keep customers reasonably happy. If they provide more organics, more local foods, and better nutritional alternatives, it'll be because there is a clear and undeniable market demand. And that may be driven, at least in part, by books like Pollan's.

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There is an interesting podcast on Radio Opensource on this argument.

Posted by: Hans on 6 Jun 06

Don't blame the corn. You guys are fat because you eat too much.

The diet and even the nutrition industry are themselves a big con, selling specialist food that is 'nutritious' or 'low fat' (often full of msg).

The answer is: eat less.

Posted by: Gus Abraham on 7 Jun 06

Trade over long distances isn't the problem; the amount of CO2 produced doing it is. But 'local' trade can be more CO2 intensive; for example a friend of mine showed that it took more CO2 to transport timber from Carlisle to London (300 miles) than to ship it from Latvia.

I share all the concerns about pesticides and modern agricultral methods and would like all food to be certified organic, but see these as separate issues.

Posted by: JN2 on 7 Jun 06

The root problem is not corn, but big business! Corn, and more specifically GM corn, contributes not only to obesity, but to pesticide runoff and unreasonble pressures on small farmers who may be producing alternatives. The big sell on "convenience" food means that many people no longer know or care about washing and cooking fresh food. Once again the external costs of big business are not being counted.

Posted by: Rob Rickey on 7 Jun 06

There may be something deeper here. It seems that Americans have developed a phobia for whole, primal, unprocessed food. A cabbage, perhaps with a little dirt on it, or God forbid some slug damage, is very scary. Television abounds with fear-laden tales of germs and dirt. The implication is that only industry has the mettle and know-how to process scary raw ingredients into something safe and packaged. A liter of soda, safely caged in its plastic bottle and sporting the reassuring familiar logo, is like the paper band around the toilet in our hotel rooms. For a people that once could take genuine pride in our mettle, we sure have become a bunch of cowards. We're scared of genuine food.

Posted by: David Foley on 7 Jun 06

Aside from the issue of where the food comes from, I take issue with a "mistake" or "oversight" Whole Foods here in NYC makes all too often. The signs above the produce are labelled with Country or State of origin. It often says Massachusetts or Vermont on the sign, and then when you read the tag on the actual produce, it says "california." i have raised this issue a number of times, and they say, oh, it was from Vermont last week, we forgot to change it. Come On!

Posted by: Dan on 7 Jun 06

I think corn is sort of a red herring in the obesity debate; like a previous poster said the primary cause is simply eating too many calories.

And what's the cause of that?

1) Restaurants serving gigantic portions. This affects not only those meals but also makes people prepare more for themselves at home (using the restaurant meals as models for their own cooking...).

2) Agriculture as a for-profit business, using all the modern tools of promotion. The same things which have made us consume way more goods of other types are also causing us to consume way more food. And it has had the desired effect on the top and bottom lines of big ag: American's consume almost twice as many calories as they really need, and therefore they buy more food per-capita (but not twice as much, see point 3)...

3) Modern processed foods are more calorie dense. This is where the corn comes in, but it isn't just corn. It's also enriched white flour, other suger substitutes, less veggies, sodas instead of water, more dressing on salads, etc.etc. We've been rampantly substituting high calorie processed foods for lower calorie whole foods, and that makes it easier to eat more calories even if the volume of stuff you eat stays constant.

As to the relative share of those three causes, I suspect that #3 deserves less than half of the blame. Does anyone have any real data which might give some insight as to which is most important?

Posted by: Eric Boyd on 7 Jun 06

Dr. Andrew Weil says that the chemical structure of high fructose corn syrup is a problem: that it's not quite good for you, and contributes to obesity more than cane sugar. IIRC, sucrose is better for you than fructose...

Posted by: Nick on 7 Jun 06

Here's a way to solve the problem of American obesity and our reliance on fossil fuels, all in one step:

liposuction + biodiesel

Now you can eat all the crap you want, never get fat, and still be able to drive your SUV!


Posted by: Jon Foley on 8 Jun 06

It's not just fear/aversion that keeps Americans from eating healthily, there's also a financial component. Eating healthy is expensive.

Corn is the most heavily subsidized crop in the U.S.. This makes nutrient-poor corn-based foods and corn-syrup-sweetened products cheaper to make, and cheaper to buy. I've also heard that corn-syrup-sweetened foods are more addictive.

With the increasingly poor financial state of American families, the obesity trend is only likely to increase, unless we decide to start subsidizing other crops.

Posted by: Maida Barbour on 8 Jun 06

Why are Americans fat? I see an emotional component too.

Food is strongly associated with pleasure in places where scarcity is not an issue. It is one of many pleasures, of course, like good company, music, a comfortable temperature, a soft chair, a good book. Much of what drives us is a desire to increase the pleasure of whatever moment we're in.

For Americans in particular, balance seems to be a problem. Hooked on more-bigger-faster, we want MORE and MORE of whatever pleasure we have. Super-Size it! If a bite of chocolate is nice, surely I'll be ecstatic if I eat a half-pound Cadbury bar.

And people can be a little slow to realize that the logical link just isn't there. We aren't happier with a Super-Size meal, we just hope again and again that we will be. (Pleasure was never the same as happiness, but we don't realize that).

Lacking many of the core emotional satisfactions of life due to our too-busy cities with nonexistent community life, we turn to gross bodily pleasure as a substitute for the genuine. Sugary, fatty foods are somehow supposed to make up for the holes in our hearts.

Maybe not true for everyone who's put on a few pounds in the last year, but as a general phenomenon, I'll stick by it: Americans are fat because they are trying to fulfill a hole inside that can't actually be filled with food.

Posted by: Kim on 8 Jun 06

As my Mom used to call it, "Comfort Food." Goes along with our American style leisure industry, couch potatotude. Eat, then eat some more. MMMM.

Posted by: Cliff on 8 Jun 06

Americans are also fat as a result of urban planning that makes it nearly impossible for most of us to do anything but spend all day in our cars. We're driving around to everywhere under the sun or being carted around by our parents to play dates instead of walking to the store or playing outside.

Posted by: Janne on 8 Jun 06

From my experience, Whole Foods is an expensive supplier of an eco-veneer. Apart from the boggling abundance and variety, Whole Foods sells their shopping experience largely on the supposed sustainability of their practices, right? I recently discovered it's impossible for customers to reuse containers in Whole Foods Market deli sections. All the plastics they use to store refrigerated pre-prepared foods are non-recyclable to boot, at least in the Puget Sound region. So I can't reuse their own containers in their stores, I can't recycle them either, and I can't use my own from home. I was told by an employee this stems from fear of litigation, but it's ridiculous. Especially in light of claims on their corporate website: "Portion of our mission is a deep commitment to environmental stewardship that puts us at the forefront of the effort to make the planet whole and healthy. [...] A key aspect of our commitment is the wise use of existing resources." To that end, Whole Foods purports to recycle, reuse, and reduce "whenever and wherever possible." (

Whole Foods Markets offer a veneer of sustainability at exceedingly high prices. Puget Consumer Co-op stores in Seattle allow container reuse, and, if memory serves, the ones they provide are even recycleable in this region. The Olympia Food Co-op, my favorite in the Puget Sound area, surpasses even this with a section in the back of the store where people can drop off clean reusable containers for other shoppers' use, where you're welcome to take one as needed (and at your own risk, of course. That's common sense and understood.) It's also incredibly progressive and forward thinking.

Posted by: Flicker on 9 Jun 06



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