The Situation of our Food – Part I
Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 25, 2007
As many of our readers likely already know, Michael Pollan is an environmental journalist and educator of unparalleled eloquence and unusual influence. What many people may not realize is that Pollan is (as far as we’re concerned) also a first-rate situationist.
This week, Pollan has a great piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine entitled “You Are What You Grow.” The article touches on themes and sheds light on issues that have come up in previous posts, including here, here, and here.
We have excerpted the opening section of that article below.
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A few years ago, an obesity researcher at the University of Washington named Adam Drewnowski ventured into the supermarket to solve a mystery. He wanted to figure out why it is that the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person’s wealth. For most of history, after all, the poor have typically suffered from a shortage of calories, not a surfeit. So how is it that today the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?
Drewnowski gave himself a hypothetical dollar to spend, using it to purchase as many calories as he possibly could. He discovered that he could buy the most calories per dollar in the middle aisles of the supermarket, among the towering canyons of processed food and soft drink. (In the typical American supermarket, the fresh foods — dairy, meat, fish and produce — line the perimeter walls, while the imperishable packaged goods dominate the center.) Drewnowski found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Looking for something to wash down those chips, he discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.
As a rule, processed foods are more “energy dense” than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them “junk.” Drewnowski concluded that the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly — and get fat.
This perverse state of affairs is not, as you might think, the inevitable result of the free market. Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?
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For the answer, go to the full article here, or check back here next week for Part II of this series. For those interested, there are two worthwhile audio interviews of Michael Pollan on NPR’s Fresh Air, available here and here). For a longer law review article on the situational sources of obesity, by several Situationist contributors, click here. If your situation permits, take a look at the video below, in which Michael Pollan speaks (in 2002) at Berkeley about “Cannibis, Forgetting, and the Botany of Desire.”