Is Healthy Eating Possible in a World of False Advertising?

American food banks are rejecting junk food for healthier fare, and so food corporations are hedging their bets elsewhere. 

The lower class is not having a good run in the United States. While that's always been the case, the rhetorical focus has been exclusively on the middle class over the last several presidential elections. As George Carlin used to say, the poor are there just to scare the middle class. 

The reason for our current economic disparity is multifactorial, but suffice to say that the lower class is usually considered a burden by politicians. One popular charge from the Right—specifically, Newt Gingrich, which then caught fire in the conservative filter bubble—is that Obama was a “food stamp president.” 

The $70.9 billion program, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), offered 44.2 million Americans an average of $125.21 per month for food assistance in 2016. It is only one, albeit the largest, of fifteen federal assistance programs in the nation. As such programs are perpetually under attack, places such as food banks have to figure out how best to survive. 

The link between poor nutrition and food assistance is obvious. Cheap nutrition equals processed sugar- and carb-heavy foodstuffs. Food deserts plague low income neighborhoods. Scarcity creates an addiction to what’s at hand, and what’s at hand is not healthy. These organizations have to first deal with these problems of perception and production. 

Recognizing this, food banks are fighting back. Washington D.C.’s Capital Area Food Bank supplies 444 nonprofit partners with 46 million pounds of food each year. In 2016 it cut back on junk food by 84 percent. The SF-Marin food bank banned soda donations in 2014. Arizona’s Borderlands Food Bank keeps “imperfect” produce—perfectly edible vegetables and fruits with cosmetic shortcomings—in circulation by distributing between 35 to 40 million pounds of it each year. 

In state after state food banks counter the criticism that the poor don't eat well because they’re inclined to be [fill in adjective here]. And they’re combating this misperception by offering healthier choices. While good news for our health, this is terrible for businesses that rely on cheaply produced products. 

Major companies recognize we're eating healthier. Rather than honor this trend by producing better fare, they’ve instead turned to emerging markets to hook unsuspecting citizens on cheap nutrition. Recently the NY Times published this expose on food giant Nestlé breaking into the Brazilian market, which is helping to create more obesity and promoting diseases like type 2 diabetes, the very problems Americans are fighting against. 

I first started writing about this problem in 2010, when in July of that year Nestlé’s Até Você a Bordo (Nestlé Takes You Onboard) departed the Brazilian port city of Belém on a three-week tour along the Amazon River. The brightly colored ninety-foot boat was stocked with over 300 economy size versions of sugar-laden foods. Brazil was not the only target: that year the company announced it would spend $150 million over a three-year period in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mozambique, while dumping $1.5 billion in Brazil, Russia, and India, along with $2 billion in Asia and $1.6 billion in Latin America.

Bloated marekting budgets have bloated our waistlines. Since 1980, obesity rates have jumped 2.5 times in America and Brazil; in China rates have skyrocketed by a stunning 7.7 times, while the African nation of Mali is 15.5 times. Meanwhile food companies have adopted the same argument as American politicians regarding food assistance recipients. As the Times reports, Nestlé consultant Mike Gibney tows the company line like a good soldier: 

If I ask 100 Brazilian families to stop eating processed food, I have to ask myself: What will they eat? Who will feed them? How much will it cost?

Perhaps a better question is: How much will Nestlé profit? How much is the company spending on production? In 2009, 32 percent of the corporation’s global sales occurred in emerging markets throughout Asia, Latin America, and Africa. This prompted the company to beef up international marketing and infrastructure, with a goal of generating 45 percent of total income in these regions by 2020. 

More reliant on emerging markets, Nestlé is relying less on quality food. The focus is on marketing. Between 1996 and 2001, Nestlé lowered its processing expenses from 51.8% of total sales price to 44.5%. For every dollar a consumer spends, nearly a quarter pays for advertising. When I asked Michele Simon, a public health lawyer and author of Appetite for Profit, about this, she replied, 

Whenever I hear ‘convenient food,’ the question in my mind is, ‘convenient for who?’ There’s nothing wrong with packaged food or fast food. The problem arises when it becomes a way of life, and that’s what the industry is interested in: changing our natural way of eating. Which means eating foods from nature that are not always convenient. We’d have to buy food more often and do more preparation than what a company like Nestlé offers. It’s made out to be way more trouble than it actually is.

NYU professor Marion Nestle (no relation), author of numerous books on nutrition, including Food Politics and What To Eat, put it to me rather succinctly: 

It is the job of corporations to sell as much product as they can and to increase sales every quarter.

Nestlé’s barge ran until this past July, a seven-year odyssey catering to previously unreachable consumers throughout the Amazon. Private boat owners have taken over where the food giant left off. While Nestlé offers 800 products, top sellers are sugar-rich Kit-Kats and sweet yogurts. 

Nestlé is not alone in this endeavor. Corporations have proven that in America unhealthy foodstuffs with unpronounceable ingredients and unknown bodily effects sell quite well, when packaged and priced for convenience. It’s a shame it took Americans so long to catch on, and to be clear we’re still the primary market—for now. Sadly, the focus remains on low income neighborhoods where choices are scarce. 

With food banks picking up the nutritional slack and the other Amazon making Whole Foods more affordable—although at what cost is open for debate—Americans are realizing that we have a serious nutrition problem. That the companies that helped create it are turning their backs on us should not surprise anyone. It should, however, ring an alarm across the rest of the planet. 


Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

Related Articles

Major study: Drug overdoses over a 38-year period reveal hidden trends

It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction

From the study:
Surprising Science
  • It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
  • If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
  • The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Keep reading Show less

Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.

How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."