Do an image search online of “American food” and a lot of iconic, familiar foods pop up: macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, hotdogs, fried chicken, French fries, and lots of sugary baked goods. There’s a reason we have sayings and slogans like “as American as apple pie” and “America runs on Dunkin’℠” (Associated Press, 2006), and why most Americans can recognize a McDonald’s sign before they can read. We love our fast food, that’s for sure; “In 2011, Americans … spent approximately $130 billion on fast food” (Danna & Jordan, 2012). The problem is that while most people would agree that fast food isn’t the healthiest option, they don’t seem to know just how bad it is. Convenience and affordability don’t help things; it’s not that difficult to find fast food, what may be difficult is choosing which particular brand to partake in, though they are all essentially serving the same thing. Taking a look at just how unhealthy processed foods are illuminates what may be the root cause of several Western diseases.
There isn’t much argument that processing food changes the nature of the food itself; what ends up being the source of contestation is whether these changes are helpful or harmful. For instance,
Several sources of information suggest that human beings evolved on a diet with a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA) of approximately 1 whereas in Western diets the ratio is 15/1-16.7/1 … Excessive amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and a very high omega-6/omega-3 ratio, as is found in today’s Western diets, promote the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, whereas increased levels of omega-3 PUFA (a low omega-6/omega-3 ratio) exert suppressive effects (PubMed.gov, 2009).
This issue is especially relevant to the concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) industry, and the numbers don’t lie: “Range fed eggs have an omega 6:3 ratio of 1.5 to one whereas the ‘supermarket egg’ has a ratio of 20 to one … North Dakota State University conducted a study on the nutritional differences between grass-fed and grain-fed bison. The results of that study closely followed that of the egg studies. The grass-fed bison had omega 6 to omega 3 ratios of 4.0 to one, and the grain-fed bison had ratios of 21 to one” (Mercola.com, 2013).
Why do grain-fed animals have higher omega 6 content in their meat? Because omega 6 comes from grains, just “one tablespoon of safflower oil contains over 10 g of omega-6 fats” (Kock, 2010). Normally, this information would not bode well for the grain-based oil industry, but here in the United States, rather than remove the problem, we propose to add a solution to balance the scales. “Clearly, the problem is that we are not getting enough omega 3,” they say, so we take the omega 3-packed fish oil caplets, and then we find out that “excessive fish oil consumption may be toxic to the liver” (Kock, 2010). Thus, we continue to deep-fat fry our foods, and wonder why we’re getting cancer, cardiovascular disease, and inflammatory diseases, not to mention huge. It brings to mind the famous Henry Louis Mencken quote: “For every problem there is a solution which is simple, clean, and wrong.” How encouraging.
At least omega 6 is a naturally occurring substance, but there are plenty of other ingredients in our food that aren’t quite so basic. Take high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) for example; which was developed to find a use for the massive amount of corn the U.S. has been producing since the 70’s. It’s so cheap that it’s cheaper than real sugar, and so all of our yummy sweet things are filled with it, but the jury is still out on whether or not it’s okay to eat. Recently, there have been a slew of HFCS public service announcements stating that there is essentially no difference between high fructose corn syrup and sugar, and that “it’s fine in moderation.” But what if it’s not fine? Studies are beginning to show that it may actually be more harmful than sugar. “A Princeton University research team has demonstrated that all sweeteners are not equal when it comes to weight gain: Rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same” (Parker, 2010).
It used to mean that “calories were calories” and while it was important to ensure there were some nutrients in those calories, eating either 3,500 calories of donuts or 3,500 calories of fruits and veggies was still going to make you gain a pound. Not so, according to Princeton, and it may be because the human body actually does not treat HFCS the same in its system. “HFCS reduces your body’s sensitivity to leptin and insulin, promotes belly fat and increases your blood pressure” (Ogunjimi, 2011). Leptin comes from fat cells, it is a hormone that controls hunger signals to the brain, and if HFCS causes the body to be desensitized from leptin, the brain won’t know when to tell us to stop eating, which is how we can chow down on a 1,500 calorie cheeseburger and still polish off the strawberry shake. Insulin is the body’s blood glucose regulator hormone, and having insulin resistance is what causes diabetes. Mainstream studies haven’t come out and said it yet, but high fructose corn syrup may be one of the leading causes for America’s high rate of Type II.
Next is the subject of the dreaded “trans-fats,” and it’s important to understand exactly what they are and where they come from. Natural trans-fats occur in ruminants, identified as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and while there are several types of CLA, studies appear to show that natural CLA trans-fat can actually “[reduce] LDL (bad cholesterol) and triglycerides and resulted in less atherosclerosis [thickening of the artery walls] in the aortas” (Knowledge for Health, 2011). The problem with trans-fats occurs when we manufacture them on our own. Trans-fats are found in partially hydrogenated oils from vegetables and are used extensively in foods that require a longer shelf life. However, things may be looking up in the trans-fat department: “The FDA once estimated that approximately 95 percent of prepared cookies, 100 percent of crackers, and 80 percent of frozen breakfast products contained trans-fat. Now that trans-fat must be listed on food labels, many companies have removed them from their products” (Harvard School of Public Health, 2013). There is even a trend by some city, state, and federal governments, both here and abroad, to work on banning trans-fats (Laurance, 2010). The bans have some people rejoicing, and others just upset over losing their ability to make their own food choices, even if it causes costly medical bills and even death from diet-related diseases.
There are lots of things that draw Americans to fast food: the taste, the convenience, the price, and even the uniformity. You can go to a McDonald’s in Kentucky and one in Washington State and you’re going to get the same menu, the same taste, the same experience. This is because fast food has revolutionized the food industry here in America. “Fast food chains used to buy their meat from local suppliers in a local region. So fewer cattle were used to get the meat … Today a typical fast food hamburger has dozens or hundreds of strips of beef from different cattle, in different regions blended together. So, if you have one sick cow in the batch, then the risk of getting sick is greater” (Schlosser, 2009). Indeed, this is exactly how mad cow disease got so prevalent, combined with the fact that, until 1997, factory farms that raised cows were feeding them parts of other cows in order to satisfy their protein requirements (Pollan, 2006, p. 76).
Let’s forget the health benefits of eating right for a moment, and let’s think about the ethics of it all. Is it ethical for our government to keep subsidizing a crop to make it “cheaper” when in reality, that money comes from the taxes of working citizens? Is it ethical to be messing with Mother Nature to create food-like products with the only purpose of being a delicious source of empty calories? What happened to Hippocrates’ logic: “let thy food be thy medicine, thy medicine shall be thy food”? Americans need to learn that food is not meant to be a therapist, it’s not meant to get you through a breakup or losing your job; food is nourishment: “nour·ish·ment, noun – food, or the valuable substances in food that a person, animal, or plant requires to live, grow, or remain fit and healthy” (Encarta, 2009). I don’t think a Whopper falls into that category.
If we were eating the right things, we wouldn’t have to scrutinize an ingredient list or nutrition facts table. If you have to ask “what’s in this?” it’s probably not that good for you. “Every day, 7 percent of the U.S. population visits a McDonald’s, and 20-25 percent eat fast food of some kind, says Steven Gortmaker, professor of society, human development, and health at the Harvard School of Public Health. As for children, 30 percent between the ages of 4 and 19 eat fast food on any given day” (SixWise.com, 2009). There are grown adults now that have to “learn” to like “real food” because they simply have never had it before. American food culture needs a kick in its size 48 pants; Michael Pollan states “it does seem to me a symptom of our present confusion about food that people would feel the need to consult a journalist, or for that matter a nutritionist or a doctor or government food pyramid, on so basic a question about the conduct of our everyday lives as humans” (Pollan, 2008, p. 16). We shouldn’t have to wonder about what to eat. There should be food, it should be healthy, natural, and fresh, and we should eat it. Period.