I once heard someone say that the standard American diet (high in fat, sugar, salt and processed foods) was a mechanism for providing downstream revenue to the country's health care system. Two recent reports add to the mounting evidence about how this strangely destructive system involving both food and agricultural chemicals works.
One report focuses on the effects of eating soybean oil. That oil is one of the most ubiquitous ingredients in packaged food, and it makes up the lion's share of cooking oils. To test this assertion, next to time you shop for groceries, read the labels of the packaged food and cooking oils you buy (unless you are already careful to avoid soybean oil—in which case you'll have to read labels on things you wouldn't dream of buying).
So, what did the report find? "[S]oybean oil not only leads to obesity and diabetes, but could also affect neurological conditions like autism, Alzheimer's disease, anxiety, and depression." Now, that really does spell lots of revenue for the medical system. The study notes that "soybean oil is by far the most widely produced and consumed edible oil in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture."
If you already know that ancient Romans used leaden cups to drink from—the Romans said it improved the flavor of wine—think back to when you first read or were told about that practice. I thought to myself, "How could they be that foolish? How could they not see what happened to people who worked in lead mines?" Upon reflection I realized that slaves worked in the lead mines, so their condition wasn't very visible to ordinary free Romans.
Now I realize our civilization is poisoning itself through both its food and its containers (see below for containers). In fact, we seem to have supercharged the practice with the proliferation of processed foods containing unhealthy ingredients like soybean oil laced with man-made agricultural chemicals dispersed in the environment for our "benefit." This site estimates that there are now more than 150,000 man-made chemicals of all types loose in our world. (We also seem to be experts at polluting the water we drink and the air we breathe, but those deserve pieces all by themselves.)
Speaking of agricultural chemicals, we also learned last week that one of the world's most widely used pesticides, chlorpyrifos, may "be partially responsible for the global obesity epidemic."
Here's the crux of the findings:
Researchers discovered that chlorpyrifos, which is banned for use on foods in Canada but widely sprayed on fruits and vegetables in many other parts of the world, slows down the burning of calories in the brown adipose tissue of mice. Reducing this burning of calories, a process known as diet-induced thermogenesis, causes the body to store these extra calories, promoting obesity.
This month, after a 14-year battle with environmental and public health organizations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned chlorpyrifos use on food. Curiously, the agency did NOT ban non-agricultural and non-food uses which will be "reviewed."
Chlorpyrifos is just one of many chemicals that concern a group of scientists who published a book entitled Our Stolen Future in 1996 meant to make their findings about endrocrine-disrupting chemicals accessible to the public. Despite their warning, human society has done little to address the threat which comes from agricultural and industrial chemicals and chemicals in food packaging such as bisphenol-A or BPA used in plastics. Instead, obesity and diabetes, two conditions closely linked to endocrine disruptors have skyrocketed. The media and the medical establishment have taken note of the trend, but generally seem very hazy on the cause and offer little on how to reverse it.
Even for those who understand the underlying problem, cleaning up the mess can seem daunting. And, recent revelations about how the chemical industry routinely corrupts the review process of new chemicals at the EPA do not give cause for hope that anything will change soon.
We are left with piecemeal solutions and individual action. There is a well-publicized segment of farmers growing organically raised food for consumers willing to pay the extra cost of producing it. Global sales of organic food reached $106 billion in 2019. Seems like a big number, doesn't it? But when compared to the total size of the world food and agriculture market of $8.7 trillion, it's a drop in the bucket (about 1.2 percent).
But there is the larger question of food choices, organic or not. Food manufacturers are always interested in getting consumers to buy more of their product. It's no secret that they formulate products to foster addiction. In a 2013 study high-fructose corn syrup was shown to be "as addictive as drugs, like cocaine or heroin, with salt proven to have similarly addictive, opioid-like qualities." High-fat foods (often filled with dairy fat or vegetable oil) are also a favorite among food companies.
None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who is even a little bit health conscious about food choices. What is puzzling is the almost complete blackout of this information when it comes to treating people with the very diseases caused by the standard American diet. The medical establishment helps people "manage" their diabetes and heart disease rather than get rid of them.
Very little attempt is made by medical doctors to encourage better eating habits. This is an admittedly difficult subject to broach with patients and risks sending them into the arms of other more "understanding" physicians. But, of course, there is also the fact that medical doctors get almost no training in nutrition.
But probably as important, there is the relentless drumbeat of food advertising focused on the most deleterious and addictive foods. It's hard to convince people that foods which are so widely advertised, consumed and accepted are killing them, albeit slowly.
And, that's how this food system creates such consistent downstream revenue for the health care system. People aren't dropping like flies. They are simply getting sicker and sicker with ailments that are being "medically managed" with drugs and other products such as insulin that produce recurrent revenues for pharmaceutical companies and for various professionals in the medical system. No one seems to be able to change the dynamic. Anyone who tries in a significant way risks being run over by the food industry which is one of the country's most powerful lobbies.
That means small, step-by-step measures are the most likely way forward. That's unfortunate as I know and see so many people who are gradually killing themselves on the American diet. Even ones who know this find it difficult to let go of the food they love (read: are addicted to) the most.
Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.