The history of engineered substances called modern food

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” by Michael Pollan

How can people in France or Italy are able to eat all the “unhealthy” meals filled with pasta, bread, and the likes of foie grass but can wind up healthier, thinner, and happier compared to those who consume supposedly healthy diet of low-carb, high protein, and good fat?

This book is the long history of our meal since the dawn of civilisation. The author, journalist Michael Pollan, went back to the very beginning of the food chain to track the process of food manufacturing, from the nature to the plate. And the result is this best-selling book that has since become one of the main go-to guides for healthy eating for more than a decade.

So, what did Pollan discover? The Omnivore’s Dilemma is about the three core food chains that sustain us today: 1. The organic 2. The hunter-gatherer 3. The industrial. While they differ greatly, all three food chains are systems with similar functions that are linking us to the fertility of the earth and the energy of the sun, through what we eat. Even the Twinkies. As Pollan remarks, “all life on earth can be viewed as a competition among species for the solar energy captured by green plants and stored in the form of complex carbon molecules.”

And a food chain is a system for passing on those calories to species that lack the plant’s ability to synthesize them from sunlight. And this lies the problem with the industrial food chain, as the supposedly natural carbon molecules are being greatly modified for profitability.

As Pollan explains, each of us can only eat approximately 1500 pounds of food a year. And unlike many other products – such as shoes or CDs – there is a natural limit to how much food that we can consume until we reach our ultimate limit. This is a bad news for the food industry and its Wall Street investors, with the food industry’s natural rate of growth is only around 1% per year (in the US).

This left corporations like McDonald’s and General Mills with 2 options if they hope to grow faster: 1. Figure out how to get people to spend more money on the same amount of food, or cutting the cost of production for the same amount of food 2. Figure out a way to make people eat beyond their natural limitations. And the food industry pursue these 2 strategies simultaenously and complementarily, mainly by using cheap (but unhealthy) corn for cost cutting.

Indeed, there are around 45,000 items in the average American supermarket, and more than a quarter of them now contain corn. One of the most common examples for cost cutting is replacing sugar with High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), because HFCS is few cents cheaper than sugar (thanks to government subsidy) and the change went unoticed by the consumers, such as the one conducted by Coca-Cola and Pepsi in 1984. Besides in soda drinks, HFCS can also be found in bread, candy, canned fruit, sweetened yoghurt, juice, and many more, including in salad dressings.

As Pollan remarks, “very simply, we subsidize high-fructose corn syrup in this country, but not carrots. While the surgeon general is raising alarms over the epidemic of obesity, the president is signing farm bills designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing, guaranteeing that the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest.”

And with all the nutritions aren’t met with these “junk” food, in search for the required amount of nutritions our body then demands us to eat more and more food and snacks, which normally also still lack the nutritions needed, thus leads to the epidemic of obesity (but fulfilling the corporations’ 2nd goal to make people eat beyond their natural limitations).

Moreover, in the quest of cutting down the cost of production, the meat industry also opted to use these subsidied corn to replace grass as the main source of feeding for cows, with an added advantage of speeding up the fattening process for the cows since corn is a compact source of caloric energy.

As Rich Blair – a person who runs a “cow-calf” operation (the first stage in the production of a hamburger) – commented “in my grandfather’s time, cows were four or five years old at slaughter. In the fifties, when my father was ranching, it was two or three years old. Now we get there at fourteen to sixteen months.” And Pollan added, “cows raised on grass simply take longer to reach slaughter weight than cows raised on a richer diet, and for half a century now the industry has devoted itself to shortening a beef animal’s allotted span on earth.”

As a result of these changes corn-fed cows get fatter in a much quicker time. And their flesh also marbles well, giving it a texture and taste that American consumers have come to like. In the industry terms, it seems that the factory is becoming more efficient in increasing production at a lower cost.

However, according to Pollan, “this corn-fed meat is demonstrably less healthy for us, since it contains more saturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids than the meat of animals fed grass. A growing body of research suggests that many of the health problems associated with eating beef are really problems with corn-fed beef.”

So, how to counter the health problems? They inject the cows with antibiotics. As Pollan discovered, “what keeps a feedlot animal healthy—or healthy enough—are antibiotics. Rumensin buffers acidity in the rumen, helping to prevent bloat and acidosis, and Tylosin, a form of erythromycin, lowers the incidence of liver infection. Most of the antibiotics sold in America today end up in animal feed, a practice that, it is now generally acknowledged (except in agriculture), is leading directly to the evolution of new antibiotic-resistant superbugs.”

This partly explains why French and Italian people are healthier despite their [perceivedly bad] diet. Because they eat more high quality organic food, they do less snacking because they eat more good fat and in overall they meet the required nutritions. In addition, they also use less chemically altered vegetables oil (that will trigger insulin resistance), they use non gmo food, no artificial vitamins, and all other changes as a result of industrialisation of the food chain.

Or in other words, the French and Italians simply eat real food while in America people eat a manufactured, chemical-filled, substance that they label as food.

The remaining of the book then tells the story of Pollan’s journey to several places in America to experience first-hand how organic food chain (aka real farming) and hunter-gathering food chain should look like. And the result of this reporting is a massive game changer. Since the book was published in 2006, the reactions within the food industry have been overall positive.

In Pollan’s own words, “there are now more than eight thousand farmers markets in America, an increase of 180 percent since 2006. More than four thousand school districts now have farm-to-school programs, a 430 percent increase since 2006, and the percentage of elementary school with gardens has doubled, to 26 percent. During that period sales of soda have plummeted, falling 14 percent between 2004 and 2014. The food industry is rushing to reformulate hundreds of products to remove high fructose corn syrup and other processed-food ingredients that consumers have made clear they will no longer tolerate.”

Moreover, Pollan continues, “sales of organic food have more than doubled since 2006, from $16.7 billion in 2006 to more than $40 billion today. The kind of grass-finished beef and pastured eggs that Joel Salatin produces at Polyface Farm were so exotic in 2006 that national sales figures for them didn’t exist; now, you can find these foods in many supermarkets, and both categories are growing by double digit percentages each year. (Carl’s Junior, the fast food chain, introduced a grass-fed hamburger in 2014.) From California to Georgia, there are now hundreds of farms modeled on Polyface’s intricate choreography of animals. And Joel Salatin himself has become an international celebrity farmer, a social type I don’t think existed in 2006.”

Hence, when today you see an evolution towards organic eating, ethical farming, and an overall healthy living, you can trace back the evolution to this book as one of the main instigators. A must read for those who care about where our food is coming from.