May 31

The Role of Processed Foods in the Obesity Epidemic

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

The rise in the number of calories provided the U.S. food supply since the 1970s is more than sufficient to explain the entire obesity epidemic. Similar spikes in calorie surplus were noted in developed countries around the world in parallel with, and presumed primarily responsible for, the expanding waistlines of their populations. By the year 2000, the United States was producing, after taking exports into account, 3,900 calories for every man, woman, and child—nearly twice as much as many people need.

It wasn’t always this way. The number of calories in the food supply actually declined over the first half of the twentieth century, only starting its upward climb to unprecedented heights in the 1970s. The drop in the first half of the century was attributed to the reduction in hard manual labor. The population had decreased energy needs, so they ate decreased energy diets. They didn’t need all the extra calories. But then, the so-called energy balance flipping point occurred, when the “move less, stay lean” phase that existed throughout most of the century turned into the “eat more, gain weight” phase that plagues us to this day. So, what changed?

What happened in the 1970s was a revolution in the food industry. In the 1960s, most food was prepared and cooked in the home. The average “not working” wife spent hours a day cooking and cleaning up after meals. (The husband averaged nine minutes.) But then, a mixed blessing transformation took place. Technological advances in food preservation and packaging enabled manufacturers to mass-prepare and distribute food for ready consumption. The metamorphosis has been compared to what happened a century before in the industrial revolution, with the mass production and supply of manufactured goods. This time they were just mass-producing food. Using new preservatives, artificial flavors, and techniques such as deep freezing and vacuum packaging, food corporations could take advantage of economies of scale to mass produce ready-made, durable, palatable edibles that offer an enormous commercial advantage over fresh and perishable foods.

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Think ye of the Twinkie. With enough time and effort, any ambitious cook could create a cream-filled cake, but now they are available around every corner for less than a dollar––or delivered straight to your door for 30 cents! If every time someone wanted a Twinkie, they had to bake it themselves, they’d probably eat a lot less Twinkies. The packaged food sector is now a multi-trillion dollar industry.

Or, consider the humble potato. We’ve long been a nation of potato-eaters, but they were largely baked or boiled. Anyone who’s made fries from scratch knows what a pain it is, with all the peeling, cutting, and splattering. But with sophisticated machinations of mechanization, french fry production became centralized, and could be shipped at -40o to any fast food deep fat fryer or frozen food section in the country to become America’s favorite vegetable. Nearly all the increase in potato consumption in recent decades has been in the form of french fries and potato chips.

Cigarette production offers a compelling parallel. Up until automated rolling machines were invented, cigarettes had to be rolled by hand. It took 50 workers to produce the number of cigarettes a machine could make in a minute. The price plunged, and production leapt into the billions. Cigarette smoking went from relatively uncommon to almost everywhere. In the 20th century, the average per capita cigarette consumption rose from 54 a year to 4,345 cigarettes a year by the time of the 1964 Surgeon General’s report. The average American went from smoking about one cigarette a week to a half-pack a day.

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Tobacco itself was just as addictive before and after mass marketing. What changed was cheap, easy access. French fries have always been tasty, but they went from being rare, even in restaurants, to omnipresent access around every and each corner (likely next to the gas station where you can get your Twinkies and cigarettes).

The first Twinkie dates back to 1930, though, and Ore-Ida started selling frozen french fries in the 1950s. There has to be more to the story than just technological innovation…which we’ll explore, next.

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