Tag Archives: HFCS

30 Years of Messing Up Food

Over the weekend, I finally had the opportunity to watch King Corn, a documentary following an acre of corn.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you do.  Like Michael Pollan’s books, especially The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it helps connect the dots regarding U.S. food policy, industrialized food, fast food, and more.

King Corn also inspired me to dust off my copy of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, the book that in many ways sparked my interest in sustainable food systems.  As a history of the fast food industy, I am hoping a reread will help me better understand fast food’s role in creating today’s unsustainable food system, especially before the early 1970s when U.S. agriculture policy took a 180 degree turn.

At this point, here are what I believe are the major contributors that have created the food “mess” we find ourselves today (What’s missing?):

  1. Urban Sprawl – The U.S. interstate system, cheap oil, and the rapid growth of the auto industry contributed to a significant migration of people out of America’s cities to the suburbs.  I am sure there were other contributors.  Regardless, this exodus provided the perfect accelerator for a young fast food industry to move beyond its humble roots to the mainstream.  Soon, fast food joints were popping up at every interstate exit.  With such significant growth opportunities in sight, fast food industry leaders recognized the need for even cheaper food to fund its expansion.
  2. U.S. Agriculture Policy – In the early 1970s, under Ag Secretary Earl L. Butz, and as pointed out in King Corn, the U.S. shifted from a policy of paying farms not to produce, to subidizing over production.  According to the New York Times, “Mr. Butz maintained that a free-market policy, encouraging farmers to produce more and to sell their surplus overseas, could bring them higher prices.”
  3. 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act –  This Act of Congress required that any food product that wasn’t the real thing must include the word “imitation” on its label.  Around the same time that Secretary Butz was moving agriculture through its 180 degree swing, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) quitely repealed the Act, thus giving food manufacturers something they had been lobbying for for decades.  Without such labeling, something like Sara Lee’s Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread, along with its very long list of ingredients could be classified as “real” bread the same way as freshly baked bread with 4-5 whole food ingredients. [Thanks to Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food for pointing out this critical policy change (quote).]
  4. High Fructose Corn Syrup Industry – In my recent post titled Is Industrial Food Stealing Farmers Lunch Money?, I highlighted a 12-cent shift in the allocation of consumer expenditures on food since the early 1980.  That 12 cents of every dollar now goes to the “food marketing system” instead of farmers who saw their share go from 31 cents of every dollar to 19 cents (a 40% decline).  What I learned from King Corn is that this shift began around the same time that significant corn surpluses motivated large investments in developing cheaper high fructose corn syrup, which was helped by declines in corn prices.

The result of all of this is an abundance of cheap food in America, much of which would be better defined as fast or fake cheap food.  Of course Earl Butz, during an on-screen interview in King Corn, was proud of the fact that we can now feed ourselves with 16-17 percent of our take-home pay, leaving us more money to spend on other things.  On the surface, this makes a lot of sense.

Unfortunately, increasing amounts of  our money now goes toward rapidly increasing health care costs, which in large part are due to our deterioting health caused by what we eat.  If it hasn’t happened already, I’m betting before too long that consumer spending on food plus health care will leave us pretty much where we started – tight family budgets and a lower quality of life.

Seems like the perfect time to shift from our “Quantity Economy” to one of quality.  Granted it likely means eating less and paying more, but the alternative is not sustainable.

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Is Industrial Food Stealing Farmers Lunch Money?

Every year, the USDA calculates consumer expenditures on food, both at home and away from home (e.g., fast food), which totaled over $1.1 trillion in 2008.  They also estimate how much of every dollar spent goes to farmers (“farm value”) and the food marketing system (“marketing bill”). 

The marketing bill, according to the USDA, “provides a composite estimate of the value added to agricultural products by the food marketing system for all types of food, including both at-home and away-from-home foods.”  In other words, it is the amount of every dollar US consumers spend on food that does not go to farms, and is used to pay for labor, packaging, transportation, energy, miscellaneous, and corporate profits of “food marketing system” participants (USDA data table). For more information on what makes up the food marketing system, check out the USDA’s “The U.S. Food Marketing System: Recent Developments, 1997-2006” report.

The farm value “is the value of the farm products equivalent to foods purchased by or for consumers at the point of sale by farmers.”  Combining the marketing bill and farm value equals consumer food expenditures.  OK so far?  Pretty straighforward, so let’s focus on one key data point that has been keeping me up at night:

Farm value has declined from 31 percent of every dollar spent by consumers in 1980 t0 19 percent in 2008, representing a 40 percent decrease in revenue flowing to farmers.

Making up the difference is the food marketing system, which divided its newly acquired 12 cents on the dollar between:

  • Labor – 126% increase
  • Misc – 123% increase (includes advertising and promtion)
  • Corporate profits – 120%
  • Energy – 112% (fuel and electricity)

So, how does the USDA explain this significant shift of who gets how much of the pie?

The farm value share has declined over the years due to large supplies of farm products holding down farm prices while increased expenditures for food marketing services have caused retail food expenditures to rise.”

I am assuming that the “large supplies of farm products” are really the 4-5 monoculture crops, not specialty vegetable crops (e.g., tomatoes, beans, lettuce, etc.), since so much of the fruits and vegetables we eat are currently imported.  According to a recent New York Times article, the four largest monoculture crops are expected to cover approximately 228 million acres in the US (corn-85 million, soybean-76 million, wheat-59 million, cotton-9 million), which is more than two-and-a-half times the 85 million acres in our National Parks and just over 51 percent of all US croplands.

As corn and soybean crops are major contributors to the manufacturing of low-cost sweeteners (e.g. high fructose corn syrup) and oils used in the highly-processed foods dominating supermarkets and fast-food establishments, is it any surprise that 12 cents on the dollar shifted to industrial food companies in the last 25-30 years?  Probably not.  But, did you know the specifics of how much so before reading this?

Regardless, I hope you will help me in educating more people about yet another significant and very real challenge our smaller farmers face in growing diverse crops.  This challenge joins what seems to be an ever growing list.


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Danimals: A Case Study in “Nutrient-Based” Marketing

Earlier this week, my post Experiencing Food v. Thinking Nutrients highlighted how “our instincts seem geared toward detecting sudden changes, while we miss the build up of truly life-threatening situations.”  This weakness is being regularly exploited by food manufacturers bent on making us believe that we eat for nutrients, rather than for the simple pleasures of eating.

This approach makes their job much easier, but creates major headaches and health issues for the rest of us, especially parents, who want to do what’s best for their children.  Much of this starts with making sure kids have the energy (food) to engage in all the joys of childhood, which is why Fooducate’s “Inside the Label – Liquid Yogurt Candy” post on Danimals drinkable yogurt is so disturbing.

Using pop star Hannah Montana to co-market the product (on a Disney web page), cartoon characters on the box, and promoting “LGG” – something I had never heard of before reading Fooducate’s post, Dannon marketing is hitting on all cylinders.  They go further in highlighting Danimals has no high fructose corn syrup, yet substitutes with three teaspoons of good old sugar. As Fooducate points out:

“The fact that Dannon emphasizes the absence of HFCS is another indicator of marketing to confused parents that suddenly think sugar is fine to consume. Both suagr and HFCS are bad in the quantities consumed by today’s youth.”

Dannon Shelf Dominance

Dannon Shelf Dominance

You can get an eye full of all of this on the official Danimal web page, including their claim: “Helping Kids Stay Healthy Everyday.”  You’ve got to be kidding me!  What’s worse?  Check out the visual breadth of Dannon products in the typical supermarket.

It seems the deck is stacked against us, but we have just begun to fight.  For example, my favorite part of Fooducate’s excellent and informative post, which follows the conclusion that Danimals could do a lot better, was the recommendation for using real foods to reproduce a truly health Danimals alternative at home:

“Here’s how to make a Danimal-like treat in 90 seconds:  place a cup of plain yogurt, half a cup of water, a few strawberries, and a spoonful of brown sugar into blender, and mix for 30 seconds. You’ll get all the benefits of Danimals plus real fruit, minus the extra sugar.”

I’ll drink (a drinkable yogurt) to that!


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