Most Americans are familiar with the food pyramid developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It emphasizes the importance of eating more food from the grain, fruit, and vegetable groups (plant foods); fewer servings from the meat and dairy groups; and limited intake of animal fats, oils, and sweets. Most Americans also understand that keeping their weight within normal limits is important to good health and that people who are overweight need to eat less and reduce sugar and foods high in fat in the diet. Yet the number of people who are overweight (over the ideal weight for their age and height) nearly doubled between the late 1970’s and the early 1990’s. At least 14 percent of children aged six to eleven, 12 percent of adolescents, and 35 percent of adults are overweight. The rate of obesity (having more than 25 percent body fat in men and 30 percent body fat in women) rose from 12 percent to almost 18 percent among adults in the years between 1991 and 1998 alone.
Compared to the people of other nations, most Americans consume more food in general, but especially more animal-based foods (meat, fried foods, dairy products, and grain dishes with high-fat sauces), causing them to be overweight and contributing to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and many chronic illnesses, which are the major health problems in this society. The medical costs for diet-related conditions was more than $70 billion in 1995. Obesity in children is associated with health problems that were formerly seen only in adults, such as “adult- onset” high blood sugar and high blood pressure. The state of affairs is so bad that, in December of 2001, U.S. surgeon general David Satcher announced that obesity would soon become the Number 1 killer in America. Satcher has urged schools and industries to develop new policies to deal with this growing epidemic.
In Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, Marion Nestle, professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University and former nutrition policy advisor to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, places the blame for this deplorable state of affairs squarely on the food industry. In this well-organized and well-researched book, she skillfully mounts a carefully documented argument that, to a large extent, the powerful food industry in America determines what people eat. Because more food is produced than is needed in this country, food companies, in fierce competition with one another, must encourage the public to eat large quantities of their products in order to increase sales and profits. Portion sizes have increased markedly in recent years; “super-size” sodas and fries, “jumbo” milkshakes, enormous cookies, and larger muffins and pizzas are the order of the day. Nestle charges that food companies, using clever marketing strategies, “routinely place the needs of stockholders over considerations of public health” and they “will make and market any product that sells, regardless of its nutritional value or its effect on health.” Raw food producers receive only about 20 percent of the retail cost of food—the rest goes to labor; processing (such as converting cheap potatoes to expensive potato chips) and additives to increase food value, attractiveness, or convenience; packaging; and advertising. Food companies spend over $33 billion annually on marketing and advertising, including more than $11 billion on direct media advertising in television, magazines, billboards, supermarket displays, and the Internet. Given this kind of intense psychological pressure, most people find it difficult to resist overeating.
School children are increasingly becoming the target of advertising. According to Nestle, “The amount of money spent on marketing directed to children and their parents rose from $6.9 billion in 1992 to $12.7 billion in 1997.” Children are especially vulnerable to television advertising because they watch television for many hours, commercials are endlessly repeated, and children are less aware of the difference between commercials and program content. Beyond television, there is Internet marketing, the use of logo items, “educational” counting books and puzzles, and prizes. Companies also target schools. Many schools,...
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