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The rise in calorie surplus sufficient to explain the obesity epidemic was less a change in food quantity than in food quality, with an explosion in cheap, high-calorie, low-quality convenience foods. And the federal government very much played a role in making this happen. U.S. taxpayers give billions in subsidies to prop up the likes of the sugar industry; the corn industry and their high-fructose syrup; and soybean production, about half of which is processed into vegetable oil, and the other half used as cheap feed to help make dollar-menu meat. Why do taxpayers give nearly a quarter billion dollars a year to the sorghum industry? When was the last time you sat down to some sorghum? It’s almost all fed to livestock. We’ve created a pricing structure that favors the production of sugars, oil, and animal products.
The farm bill started out as an emergency measure during the Great Depression of the 1930s to protect small farmers, but was weaponized by Big Ag into a cash cow with pork barrel politics—including said producers of cows and pork. From 1970 to 1994, global beef prices dropped more than 60 percent. If it weren’t for taxpayers sweetening the pot with billions of dollars a year, high-fructose corn syrup would cost the soda industry about 12 percent more. (And then we hand them more billions through the “food stamp” program to give sugary drinks to the poor.)
Why is chicken so cheap? After one of the farm bills, corn and soy were subsidized below the cost of production for cheap animal fodder, effectively handing the poultry and pork industry about $10 billion each. That’s not chicken feed—or rather, it is!
This is changing what we eat. Thanks in part to subsidies, dairy, meats, sweets, eggs, oils, and soda were all getting relatively cheaper compared to the overall consumer food price index as the obesity epidemic took off, whereas the relative cost of fresh fruits and vegetables doubled. This may help explain why during about the same period, the percentage of Americans getting even five servings of fruits and vegetables a day dropped from 42 percent to 26 percent. Why not just subsidize produce instead? Because that’s not where the money is.
To understand what is shaping our foodscape today, it is important to understand the significance of differential profit. Whole foods, or minimally processed foods, such as canned beans or tomato paste, are what’s referred to in the food business as “commodities.” They have such slim profit margins. Sometimes they’re even sold at or below cost as “loss leaders” to attract customers in hopes they’ll also buy the “value-added” products. Some of the most profitable for producers and vendors alike are the ultra-processed fatty/sugary/salty concoctions of artificially flavored, artificially colored, and artificially cheap ingredients thanks to taxpayer subsidies.
Different foods reap different returns. Measured in profit per square foot of supermarket selling space, confectionaries like candy bars consistently rank among the most lucrative. The markups are the only healthy thing about them. Fried snacks like potato and corn chips are also highly profitable. PepsiCo’s subsidiary Frito-Lay brags that while their products represented only about 1 percent of total supermarket sales, they may account for more than 10 percent of operating proﬁts for supermarkets, and 40 percent of proﬁt growth.
It’s no surprise, then, that the entire system is geared towards garbage. The rise in the calorie supply wasn’t just more food, but a different kind of food. There’s a dumb dichotomy about the drivers of the obesity epidemic: is it the sugar or is it the fat? They’re both highly subsidized, and they both took off. Along with a significant rise in refined grain products that’s difficult to quantify, the rise in obesity was accompanied by about a 20 percent increase in per capita pounds of added sugars, and a 38 percent increase in added fats.
More than half of all calories consumed by most adults in the United States were found to originate from these subsidized foods, and they appear to be worse off for it. Those eating the most had significantly higher levels of chronic disease risk factors, including elevated cholesterol, inflammation, and body weight.
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