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The Twinkies Menace

In response to:

Death for Dinner from the February 21, 1974 issue

To the Editors:

A few things must be said regarding Daniel Zwerdling’s food piece in the February 21 issue of The New York Review.

In general, he is not wrong about the profit thrust of the food industry and its emphasis therefore on highly processed food; nor about the possible dangers of eating so much processed food, and of the opposite good effects of a return to relatively unprocessed products.

But, aside from regulation of dangerous additives, I would hesitate to push for more government regulations. People buy junk food because they like it, despite the fact that it is not good for them, and they know it, and despite the fact that it costs a lot.

The junk food syndrome seems to me to relate to anomie, a loss of interest in life, a lack of energetic thrust into the future that is characteristic of the society as a whole.

There are intimations of suicidal boredom here that perhaps require multidisciplinary thinking to plumb.

The thrust of many professional nutritionists is to grants and salaries from the food industry. Government hands out grants to make food even less nutritious.

One group of “nutritionists” at Rutgers received a quarter of a million dollars from USDA a few years ago to “nutrify” Hostess Twinkies and related products, and has just written an article in Food Technology exploring the “nutrification” of the prepared frozen meals offered to center city children free by the National School Lunch Program.

It is perfectly obvious to the writer, a food technologist and food service consultant, that it is possible to offer better food at a lower cost—with systems such as we have recommended for Stamford, Connecticut, but most school officials would rather wash their hands of the problem by farming it out to a big company. Indeed, many school boards as well as lazy executives have opted for the easy answer.

Soy products are not the answer—the incidence of bleeding hemorrhoids, etc. where quantities have been adopted makes it clear that as we consume them, the beans are not suitable as dietary mainstays.

The thrust of government activity, if it is to be anywhere, is in the nature of the research supported.

At a meeting on government sponsored food research a few months ago, in New Jersey, for the Institute of Food Technologists, researchers reported on armed forces food research aimed at more compact rations, on turning beef-fat fractions into cocoa-butter like material, on an assortment of really quite minor problems solved with exquisite and costly ingenuity. But nothing on improving the packaging and shipping of fresh food, particularly fruits and vegetables. Yet it is estimated that about half such food spoils on the way to the consumer. And the other half bears the cost of the spoilage.

Some of this may be explored in hearings by a Senate Committee later in the Spring. It is being initiated by George McGovern and Charles Percy and is being chaired by Dr. Jean Mayer.

Roslyn Willett

New York City

Daniel Zwerdling replies:

The federal government’s economic and political policies allowed and encouraged the food industrial complex to pervert the American food supply; the federal government could force the food industry to change that. FDA could ban harmful food additives. EPA and USDA could force farmers to shift from pesticides to biological farming methods. FTC could require food manufacturers to tell the truth in their advertisements for once, rather than hypnotizing the public with deceptive nonsense. FTC could break up food monopolies; Congress could help legislate non-agribusiness farms back into existence. Congress could fund real nutrition education programs in the schools, which teach students what foods are healthful to eat and which are not (rather than pass special legislation promoting junk food vending machines in school cafeterias)…. I could go on for pages. Will the federal government take these actions? That’s a whole different question, regarding the nature of the American political system and its corporate power and the alternatives, including revolution. The food industry, needless to say, will never transform the food supply on its own.

As for the nature of research: I’d surely love the government to figure out a way to raise and distribute to the public more fresh vegetables and fruits and whole grains and eggs and dairy products—rather than trying to pack those foods with fortification into a Hostess sugar- and fat-laden piece of junk. And why does the government pour its money into researching ways to cure disease, once we already have it—rather than researching how food causes disease, and how food could help prevent it?

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