Archive for the ‘food’ Category

What would you think if someone told you that they were fighting for a “share” of your stomach?  Bring to mind organ harvesting? alien invasion? theft?

But this is in fact what the food industry is doing, and has been for some time.  I first heard this term last week when I took part in a to-remain-nameless gathering of food experts in the bay area.  It was in the context of a discussion of how we might, as eaters, make healthful choices in the American food marketplace.  Someone in the room recalled being at a food industry gathering, recently, where executives from a soda company were debating how to increase their “stomach share.”  They were seeking to expand their line of products (from sodas, to juices, waters, and exercise drinks) to make sure that whenever someone put a beverage in their stomach it was from company X.   Rather than merely competing with another brand in, say, “the marketplace,” the “stomach share” metaphor takes the battle to the consumers’ own body.  The question is not just how can we ensure that the consumer is buying the maximum amount of our product, but also how can we ensure that whenever the consumer is ingesting it is our product that’s got a majority share of the space.

This stomach talk reminded me of another phrase I’d come across in my research for Empty Pleasures—“prosperity stomach.”  Coined in 1966 by Henry Schacht, an executive from a diet-food company, and mentioned in a talk to newspaper editors called “How to Succeed in Business without Getting Fat,” the phrase referred to a troubling problem faced by the food industry.  Because people (at least the middle class) did less manual labor and had more money to buy the cheaper food produced by American industry, they had begun to gain weight.  That wasn’t really the problem from Schacht’s point of view.  More troubling was that this weight gain meant that they could not—or would not—buy all of the food they wanted—food that industry could profit by selling.  The answer? Diet Foods.  By developing more foods that had fewer calories, manufacturers and marketers could enjoy profits in excess of the stomach barrier.

“Stomach share” and “prosperity stomach”—terms invented nearly fifty years apart—remind us that the food industries have long viewed consumers as reducable to mere storage spaces for their products.  Within this climate, the wonder is not that our stomachs have expanded, it’s that they have not expanded even further.


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Slow foods & local foods are fabulous, and we should be grateful to those who have made them part of the landscape.   Thanks to advocates in recent years, many of us can now purchase a tomato from the store and know where it came from or have a conversation with a grower while getting apples at the local farmer’s market.  These encounters allow us to better understand our food, and they make eating more pleasurable by connecting us to the past, and to each other.

But they do not solve the fundamental problem we face with American food and the way we’ve been taught to use it.

Our generation has inherited a food system—and by that I mean everything from how our food is grown, to how it is processed, to its flavors, to its branding, marketing, and store shelf placement—that depends on convincing people to eat and drink way more food than they need, way too much of the time.

Within this system, it would be wonderful if everyone could go local—slow—organic.  But better health doesn’t depend on it.   Better health does depend on being able to eat moderate amounts, for rational reasons, and stopping when one is full.

It’s not a zero sum game, of course.  We can have local/slow food and ethical/sustainable food production and marketing practices.  Yet I notice that I hear far more about the importance of yummy foods and regional farmers than I do about the importance of fair, just, and rational food landscapes.  Why not advocate for the heirloom tomato and the concept of a once-in-a-while soda and the removal of nutritionally bereft (2 for 1!!) foods from the end of the aisle at the grocery store?  Consider what would happen if some of the efforts we put into creating and sustaining farmer’s markets were diverted to build better barriers between food promoters and American stomachs.

I think part of the problem is that the food revolution has become, in a way, too tasty.  We want to advocate for structural change, but we want to do it through a good meal that we enjoy.  Fighting for accurate claims in food marketing (diet! natural! healthy!) or dissecting grocery store product placement—these are a long way from meals many of us who care deeply about food would even want to eat.  Thus, while we feel occasional outrage (bewilderment?) when we see a mega display pushing 3 12 packs of soda (+chips!) for $10, the attention can easily drift away from problems that, if solved, would benefit someone else (who doesn’t “eat right” anyway…) to those that benefit ourselves.

We should sit down together at the table of slow/local and celebrate our good fortune.  And, when the meal is done, take that tasty energy we’ve ingested and use it to regulate industry claims and prevent the over-making and over-marketing of all kinds of food in the US.

That way, no matter how fast their food moves, all eaters could have a better shot at health.

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Mayor Bloomberg would like to prevent New Yorkers on food stamps from trading “stamps” for soda.  Under his newly proposed plan, food stamps won’t be an acceptable form of payment for beverages (other than milk and some fruit juices) that contain more than 10 calories per 8 oz serving.   By cutting down on soda consumption, the Mayor and his staff have argued, people will consume fewer calories and be healthier.  But what’s actually going to happen, in most cases, is that soda drinkers are going to remain soda drinkers–they’ll just swtch to “diet.”

High fructose corn syrup and sugar contribute hundreds of inessential calories to the average American body each day.  And many of these come in the form of sodas that have, year by year, been getting bigger, cheaper, and more smartly advertised as instant pleasure delivery systems.  This is not good for us, and we should cut our consumption.

But diverting those who currently drink large quantities sugared sodas to artificially sweetened ones is not a good solution. Even the most compelling argument—that diet sodas have few or no calories and so therefore will help people lose weight over regular sodas—can be refuted.  Current research emerging on artificial sweeteners suggests (counter-intuitively) that for many users they actually lead to weight gain.  And while sugar and corn syrup are sweet, the artificial sweeteners on the market today are sweeter–200 to 600 times so, per part.  So, while they don’t contribute calories, they may encourage our desire for ever-sweeter foods (most of them food-stamp eligible). And one merely has to google artificial sweeteners to find a litany of consumer complaints that they have caused a host of ailments–claims that while largely unsupported by science ought to give us pause.

While we can, and do, consume too much of it, sugar does at least provide caloric energy.  Artificial sweetener, on the other hand, has nothing our bodies can use.  That’s been, in fact, its selling point: we can have the pleasure of consumption without consequence. This promise has been very good for the pharmaceutical companies that make sweeteners, the food and beverage companies that put it in our food and drinks and the marketers that have helped nearly 200 million of us Americans become regular consumers.  Yet one is hard pressed to find evidence that it has made us healthier.

Unless the loophole is closed, many food stamp recipients will simply switch from Coke regular to Coke Zero. When that happens, artificial sweetener and soda makers will lose little.  They may even sell more once their products are state-sanctioned good-for-you options.

If we are going to legislate nutrition—and I’m not sure we should—let’s at least make sure we don’t create new problems out of the ones we face right now. Diet soda is not a healthy choice.

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Today’s NPR story on the relationship between weight loss, emotions, and hormones called leptin revealed how far we have come in our understanding of food and our bodies–and how far we still have to go.  In “Rational or Emotional? Your Brain on Food,” Columbia University Medical Center researchers reveal that weight loss can cause both a slower metabolism (which can make it harder to burn calories) and lowered levels of leptin–a hormone that works to control appetite.  It turns out that when people who have lost weight are given injections of leptin they have more activity in their brains in areas “associated with conscious decisions.”  While the study isn’t definitive, the report suggests that increasing these hormone levels may help people who have lost weight make better decisions to keep that weight off in the future.

Who wouldn’t be excited about an injection that could enhance will power, especially in keeping off that hard fought few pounds?  But will it, really?  For this we have to look at the method.  Researchers measured people’s will power by giving them an MRI and then showing them various plastic containers of foods–gummy worms, candies, cookies, bell peppers–and measuring brain activity as they contemplated the yumminess (or lackthereof) in the items.  But how many of us confront that moment of food choice (bell peppers or gummy worms, hmm…) while laying in a scanner staring at slow-moving food separated in plastic bins?  Aren’t we in fact making food choices in precisely the opposite conditions–standing in chaotic fast food lines, ordering from menus with one hand on the iphone, managing crying children or chatty friends, just after breaking up with girlfriends, while walking the aisles with hundreds of brightly packaged jumbled munchies vying for our attention?

Studies like the one at Columbia are essential if we want to understand the complex ways in which our bodies react to appetite stimulation, and we should.  Still, we need to see them for what they are: questions asked and answered in a vacuum.  The reporter herself acknowledges this when she opens the piece recalling the overwhelming smell of peanuts sold by a street vendor that challenge her calorie resolve, even in the midst of the story.  Would those peanuts have impacted her the same way in the MRI tube with a set of researchers well aware of “good food choices” watching her reactions?  We live in a complex culture and it is there that our food choices are made.  We can isolate the data in the lab and come up with technological solutions, but these are only going to address part of the problem.  And they may make new problems all their own.  We need to study food where we eat it–in the real world. For that we need scholars trained in socio-cultural aspects of food production and food choice, and scientists ready to bring them on board.

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