Your Junk Food Addiction Is No Coincidence

Our horrendous dietary practices may not be all our fault, but they are our problem to fix.

In my last column, I spoke about the growing power of a few omnipresent industries that seek to profit by addicting a nation and controlling its habits. Like drug peddlers on the street corner, their desire is to addict you to their destructive products, thus ensuring a consistent, reliable customer who consumes an illogically excessive amount. Today we’ll focus on the first of these: the convenience food industry.

In my last column, I spoke about the growing power of a few omnipresent industries that seek to profit by addicting a nation and controlling its habits. Like drug peddlers on the street corner, their desire is to addict you to their destructive products, thus ensuring a consistent, reliable customer who consumes an illogically excessive amount. Today we’ll focus on the first of these: the convenience food industry.

The source of our manipulation by the food industry is a shift in our collective value system that has prioritized comfort, convenience, emotion, and the perception of fairness over health, discipline, honesty, and the intentional cultivation of human fulfillment. This is not the fault of individuals, but a carefully calculated campaign for which our culture was not prepared. It was the failing of our major institutions to communicate clear guidance and to stand up as leaders should.

The consequences are already dire, and show all signs of getting worse. As I laid out last time, obesity has more than tripled since 1970, and by 2030, over 44% of the adult population will be categorized as obese. Children today are expected to live shorter lives than their parents, and be saddled with poor health the whole way. Consequently, health care costs will become unsustainably high.

More than just physical ailments, our food choices lead to long spirals of depression, low confidence, and a constant, foggy lethargy. Talk to people who have finally lost the weight. They will tell you how much it controlled them; how they dreaded flying or public transportation, feeling as if they couldn’t help invading people’s space. They will tell you how they dreaded warm weather, or how they were uncomfortable all the time.

This epidemic was no accident. It has taken a huge investment of time, money, and resources by the food industry. We have been complicit, perpetuating the cycle of addition in ourselves and our kids.

To reverse our present course, health must become a community dialogue. Our education system must become the authority in human development practices, warning us of pitfalls and instructing us toward best practices.

Addiction as a Business Model

“We may be approaching a time when sugar is responsible for more early deaths in America than cigarette smoking.”

Lewis Cantley

While brilliant marketing and cultural components increase our dependency, chemical addiction is a component of the food industry’s model. Extremely sweet or fatty foods deliver a reward response to the brain similar to that of cocaine, gambling, or modern technology. One animal study even showed that an overwhelming 94% of rats chose refined sugar over cocaine. The combination of corporate strategy, cultural indoctrination, and chemical engineering creates ingrained habits that are harder to break than virtually any other stigmatized addiction.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous poor health habit is the daily soda. At Coca-Cola, the industry leader, executives talk about “heavy users,” rather than “consumers.” The average Coke users aren’t single-can types. As Michael Moss explains in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Salt Sugar Fat, they lean towards the “20 oz. bottle with 15 teaspoons of sugar; liter bottles with 26 teaspoons; and the 64 oz. Double Gulp sold by 7-Eleven stores, with 44 teaspoons of sugar.”

Exacerbating its own health effects, soda has been shown to increase appetite. In a 1987 study of the effects of soda, participants were given 40oz of soda daily for three weeks. At the end, the average weight gain was almost a pound and a half—on track for 26 pounds in a year. Former Coca-Cola executive Jeffrey Dunn puts it plainly: “You can look at the obesity rates, and you can look at per capita consumption of sugary soft drinks and overlay those on a map, and I promise you: They correlate about 99.999%.”

Our Diet Isn’t Normal

To understand nutrition, we need to go way back to pre-history. As Noah Harari contends in his book Sapiens, contrary to popular belief, humanity was healthiest prior to the agricultural revolution that kickstarted the growth of civilizations. Farming created too much reliance on too few crops and livestock. Our bodies were made to thrive on foods available in nature. They work best with whole foods, not prepackaged chemical engineering projects. While preservatives are wonderful for starving people who need any source of sustenance they can get, the vast majority of Americans would do well to stay away.

These statements may sound simple or obvious, but they are foreign or extreme to the vast majority of Americans. So ingrained is our societal dependence on heavily processed food, that most Americans can hardly conceive of lunch without chips and soda, or a day without a drive-thru. They believe eating healthy is having a sugar-infused granola bar, or flavored yogurt, or baked chips, or pasta with spaghetti sauce like Prego, which packs two full tablespoons of added sugar. They are completely at the whim of the food manipulators: giant corporations like General Mills, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Kellogg, Frito-Lay, Nestle, Nabisco, and Cargill.

Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat reveals the story of an industry that is well aware of the consequences of its products, and yet intentionally works to create that addiction. In 1999, heads of the largest food companies gathered at Pillsbury headquarters to discuss the growing health crisis and what to do about it. Some contended that people would demand they accept responsibility and change their products. Then the CEO of General Mills, Stephen Sanger, took over the room and communicated a clear directive to stay the course. Fickle consumers would continue to fail at diets and gravitate back to the almighty salt, sugar, and fat. Their cravings, reinforced by ubiquitous ad campaigns and societal norms, would rule the day.

From the Lab to the Grocery Aisle

Food manufacturers have stepped up their science to sink the hook and increase profits. Sugar enhances the bottom line in two ways: it’s not only addictive enough to stimulate perpetual overconsumption, it’s also a cheap substitute for costlier ingredients. According to Moss, “some of the largest companies are now using brain scans to study how we react neurologically to certain foods, especially to sugar.” And they don’t stop there. Nestle, for example, has figured out how to engineer Dreyer’s Ice Cream (also sold as Edy’s) so that fat droplets distribute more efficiently, thus tricking the body into perceiving an even fattier, tastier reward.

The goal is lifetime customers, so when it comes to addiction, the earlier the better. We see this in the play places and happy meal toys at McDonalds, in Coke’s ploy to be synonymous with every landmark event, and most obviously in cereal commercials. Each cereal comes equipped with a Tony the Tiger, or a Count Chocula, or even a silly rabbit who doesn’t understand that Trix are for kids.

Frosted Mini-Wheats had the audacity to advertise that “a clinical study showed kids who had a filling breakfast of Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal improved their attentiveness by nearly 20%.” Of course, this claim was debunked, as the high sugar content actually disrupts attentiveness. But the lie had already gained traction. Kellogg’s market research indicated a full 51% of adults surveyed believed the claim was true, and true only for Frosted Mini-Wheats.

To be clear, the public has a responsibility in this. We’ve decided as a society to buy what is being sold to us. We’ve embraced the narrative that it isn’t childhood without Pop Tarts for breakfast, dessert at every meal, candy as a reward for the simplest behaviors, and sweets to accompany every sporting event. We equate childhood with constant candy, and dismiss warnings as the extreme views of “health freaks.” Our standard model programs habits that lead to lifetimes of physical and mental angst, while ignoring the devastating consequences of these cultural norms.

The Battle of the Bettys for Home Economics

We didn’t always lay down and concede that most of our country’s diet would consist of nutritionally devoid convenience food. There was a time when schools and parents would never accept a kid’s day fueled by sugar bombs, fast food, and an endless conveyer of processed, packaged, and instant foods.

Before Betty Crocker, there was Betty Dickson. Unlike Mrs. Crocker, Dickson was a real person with wonderful intentions. Having grown up on a farm in South Carolina, she believed in homegrown and home-cooked meals. After graduating college, she began teaching home economics, and soon became the national model of this class, which was designed to prepare students for day-to-day life.

Mrs. Dickson taught students to make grocery lists, budget, and shop so that they got the highest quality ingredients at the lowest prices. Most importantly, she taught them to prepare nourishing meals and to understand how essential this was to the strength of a family and a nation. Cooking was considered a core competency. In her day, the Home Economics Association was instrumental in consumer activism. They fought the push of convenience food, and lobbied in Washington for “nutritious, inexpensive cooked food in the home and in school.”

By the mid-1950s, however, the Food Giants were making inroads. They knew education was their golden goose. To infiltrate the schools was an opportunity to entrench a new generation with convenience food habits and an addiction to the salt, sugar, and fat expertly dosed to strike each child’s “bliss point.” Exhaustive studies were conducted for every new convenience food to find that perfect range of flavor tantalization, certain to create optimal pleasure and addiction. Through the schools, they could redirect the habits of a nation. But how were they to overcome the strength of concerned parents and their allies in the Home Economics Association?

First, General Foods hired an arsenal of its own home economics “teachers.” Though they weren’t employed in schools, they set up everywhere to advocate the emancipation from preparation tyranny that convenience foods offered. These attractive young women held cooking competitions and conducted cooking classes to compete with those in the schools. Next, General Mills created Betty Crocker to be the spiritual lead of a new paradigm in eating. Betty, who existed in name only, advertised incessantly, responded to fan mail, and constantly preached the values of the convenience kitchen: “Just Heat and Serve!”

Still, schools had the power to shape most health norms. The food industry had to insert itself somehow into the daily habits of schools, and redirect the mission of home economics. This final, most devious step consisted of a campaign to win the hearts of a new generation of home economics teachers. In 1957 alone, General Foods gave over $288,250 to a college grant and fellowship program for future home economics teachers. For reference, tuition at Penn, an Ivy League school, cost ,000 in 1957.

With these teachers indebted to the giants, the overwhelming power of this advertising machine was finally heard. Over the next few years, home economics radically shifted its curriculum from teaching skills for a healthy, structured home, to one purely motivated by consumption. It became an indoctrination course for a new set of expectations and values driven by convenience and consumerism.

These were the opening salvoes of the marketing campaign that helped create our current health epidemic. By taking the money from these morally vacant companies, schools sealed the nation’s fate. The institution charged with leading the nation’s development was effectively on the convenience food industry’s payroll from then on.

The Nutrition Landscape in Schools Today

Today, the food industry’s infiltration of education is complete. Our schools rely more than ever on the revenue stream from supplying the salt, sugar, and fat the kiddos have come to crave. Vending machines line the halls, right next to the PTA moms selling cookies. Districts negotiate contracts to sell specific soda products. Every banquet features a pasta buffet, and FCA meetings attract students with the promise of donuts. Superior performance or good behavior is rewarded with pizza parties, there is cake for every single student’s birthday, and clubs sell crates of candy dozens of times a year to raise money.

What you’ll find in the cafeteria is no better. Breakfast is chocolate milk, French toast sticks with loads of syrup, or single-serving sugar bomb cereal. Lunch is nachos, white bread chicken sandwiches, square pizza, or another item that would have been utterly unacceptable 60 years ago. Without a trace of irony, schools call their cafeterias “nutrition departments,” and boast of serving X number of nutritious meals a year. This assertion placates the masses, but belies what’s actually going on.

School sports, far from being bastions of healthy habits, are all sponsored by multiple fast food companies. The buses head for the golden arches after away games, and fast food is brought in for fundraisers or any occasion that requires students to be at school during unusual hours. They sell burgers, fries, hot dogs, and candy at the concession at every game, and even do fast food giveaways at athletic events.

Every conceivable moment of the educational experience has become an endless conveyor belt of convenience food and sweets.

Even the government is complicit. City councils and planning commissions approve the fortification of a fast food wall around every high school. Federal corn subsidies create an environment where high fructose corn syrup, the dominant source of added sugar, is even cheaper. Rather than providing assistance to make eating healthy less expensive and more likely, the government is content to keep business as usual.

Fix the Problem Where It Started

People want to lose the weight. They want to look good and feel good for themselves. They want to accomplish this health change for their own sense of self-worth. The poor health that results from the Food Giants’ dominance of our diets is an anchor that weighs them down and holds them back from being their fullest selves. People want to be healthy, but they’ve lost the ability to resist the chemical, cultural, and societal pressures engineered to keep them addicted and unhealthy.

Our current valueless, profit-obsessed environment has created a stranglehold for the Food Giants over all of education. Crazy as it sounds, they even have their sights set on the fitness industry (see Coca-Cola’s plot to convince us that lack of exercise is the only cause of our health epidemic). Sweets have become such a norm that good people contribute to the madness, thinking they are being nice.

The solution to our food crisis lies where it began. Education must honestly assess this environment and commit to their responsibility to become the authority in human development. They must be above perception and accept that they will face many disgruntled parents and students who don’t understand. At the heart of this goal must be an integrity and independence that never takes the easy road or chases the money. The most vital resource in education is inspired educators guided by knowledge and enabled with the determination that new scoreboards and fancy atriums are a hefty price for a nation’s health.

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