Dr. Ben Feingold, chairman emeritus of the Kaiser-Permanente Medical Center allergy division, has found convincing evidence suggesting that the artificial colors and flavors used in 95 percent of all processed foods cause hyperactivity in children.1 “We can turn these kids on and off at will simply by regulating their diets,” Feingold says. “There’s no reason not to wonder whether food additives affect adult emotional behavior as well.”2
Feingold’s research is only the latest evidence describing how the $161 billion per year food and beverage industry has perverted our diets. We’ve gotten our priorities so twisted now that food, which we eat in order to live from day to day, has become in the long run a major cause of chronic ill-health and degenerative disease. Scary stories about the risks of eating are now coming from well-known and sober university deans and government scientists. Ten of them appeared quietly before the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs last spring to testify that our daily diets of processed foods, rich in refined sugar and modified carbohydrates like white flour, are probably major causes of diabetes, heart and arterial disease, and intestinal cancer—among other ailments.3 Most eaters don’t like to believe this or to connect their lunch to a disease that will kill them fifteen years from now. So the hearings didn’t make the headlines as the political scandals did, even though they have greater importance, at least as far as the nation’s physical health is concerned.
The sad history of our food supply resembles the energy crisis, and not just because food nourishes our bodies while petroleum fuels the society. We long ago surrendered control of food, a vital resource, to private corporations, just as we surrendered control of energy. The food corporations have shaped the kinds of food we eat for their greater profits, just as the energy companies have dictated the kinds of fuel we use. And although many of us have plenty to eat from day to day, and plenty of electricity to light our homes, we’re beginning to pay crippling social costs for corporate mismanagement in the long run.
The risks of the American diet started to increase after World War II, as the food industry manipulated our image of “food” away from staples and toward synthetic and highly processed items. We eat between 21 and 25 percent fewer dairy products, vegetables, and fruits than we did twenty years ago, and 70 to 80 percent more sugary snacks and soft drinks. Most Americans now eat more processed and synthetic foods than the real thing.4
For the food business—food manufacturers, drug corporations, and supermarkets—all this makes good economic sense. It’s much cheaper for a manufacturer to make bread look and taste buttery and full of eggs by adding minute amounts of artificial color and flavor rather than real butter and eggs. Coloring and flavoring make a frozen pizza seem rich in ripe tomato sauce far more cheaply than real tomatoes could.
This marvelous chemical additive technology has earned $500 million a year for the drug companies, like Monsanto and Pfizer, that make the additives, and it has given the food manufacturers enormous control over the mass market. Additives like preservatives enable food that might normally spoil in a few days or a week to endure unchanged for weeks, months, or even years. A few central manufacturers can saturate supermarket shelves across the country with their products because there’s no chance the food will spoil. Companies can buy raw ingredients when they’re cheap, produce and stockpile vast quantities of the processed result, then withhold the products from the market for months, hoping to manipulate prices upward and make a windfall. The food industry’s savings are seldom passed on to the consumers, which is precisely why the food industry has embraced processed foods. As Custom Food Products, Inc. promises food manufacturers: “You can make a fortune in convenience foods.”5
Technological food does offer consumers some time-saving conveniences in the short run: they permit us to shop less often and cut cooking time. At most we gain a few hours a week. In the long run, as the Senate hearings and Dr. Michael Jacobson’s Nutrition Scoreboard show, we’re paying dearly for these leisure hours in money and poor health. Contrary to cherished public myths, Americans are not very well fed or healthy when compared with people in other Western nations and with our own potential. We suffer climbing rates of cancer and other degenerative disease, mental retardation, and birth defects; our infant mortality rates are high and life expectancies are beginning to decrease.6
Technological civilization puts many other dreadful pressures on our bodies, including air and water pollution and psychological stress. But eating is among our most frequent and necessary habits, and it is surely a major cause of bad health. A federal nationwide survey would have told us just how badly we eat if the Nixon Administration hadn’t canceled it in 1970 after seeing the embarrassing preliminary results. “A significant proportion of the population surveyed was malnourished or was at a high risk of developing nutritional problems,” the survey, a study of nutrition in ten states, concluded. Large numbers of people suffered marginal deficiencies of vital nutrients like iron, riboflavin, and vitamins A and C.7 The survey seemed to confirm a trend first spotted by a nutrition survey of the years 1955 to 1965 undertaken by the US Department of Agriculture: As the United States became richer and richer, and spent more and more money on health care, and as the food industry produced more and more new foods, many American diets got nutritionally worse.8
The US has the richest natural agricultural resources on the planet; the reason why we suffer nutritional problems is not that our land doesn’t produce enough good food to eat. Instead American eaters are victims of the food business. In order to increase profits food corporations waste and ruin vast amounts of foods in their natural states that would adequately nourish people.
To begin with, as Frances Moore Lappé argues in her brilliant book Diet for a Small Planet, the food industry has diverted enormous quantities of high quality food into producing meat—the one staple still in fashion. The American obsession with beef is not entirely manufactured. Many people simply like meat. Still it makes no sense that one half of the harvested agricultural land in America is planted with crops that will feed animals. Seventy-eight percent of our top-quality grain feeds not humans but cattle chicken, and hogs. As Lappé points out, animals must consume an average of ten pounds of plant protein to produce one pound of meat protein. For cattle, the ratio is a staggering 21:1, which means, to put it in grossly simplified terms, that every pound of steak we eat denies an equal amount of protein to twenty other people. Because of the American emphasis on meat, US and United Nations statistics show that “18 million tons of protein [became] inaccessible to man in 1968. This amount is equivalent to 90 percent of the yearly world protein deficit” (author’s italics).
Some 40 percent of US adults, meanwhile, are overweight or downright fat.9 But the kinds of foods which the food industry urges them to eat don’t contain adequate nutrition. For one thing, food manufacturers destroy essential nutrients which foods naturally contain when they transform them into “convenience” high-profit items. A wheat berry’s outer layers are extremely nutritious but, as Jacobson points out, they are also the major obstacle to making tasteless bleached white flour. So baking corporations “refine” fourteen nutrients out of the flour and then put some of them back, synthetically. In the newspeak of the food industry, this flour is “enriched.” The food industry uses this term in the same way that coal corporations ravage mountainsides into mud flats, replant them with some sod and seedlings, and then announce that the land is “rehabilitated.” One nutrient which manufacturers do not restore is magnesium, one of the trace minerals in which the canceled ten-state survey found Americans deficient. Magnesium deficiencies have been linked to heart disease in humans.10
Bleaching and refining wheat products also eliminate fiber, or roughage, from our diets. Scientists including Dr. Denis Burkitt, a leading English epidemiologist, blame fiber-poor diets for many of the major intestinal diseases like cancer of the intestine and rectum—the number two cancer killer in America.11 According to Jacobson, “populations whose diets consist largely of fiber-rich whole grain foods and vegetables are rarely afflicted by these illnesses.” The American diet is poor in both.
Nutritional humbug (the white potato is a rich source of vitamin C until it’s transformed into “instant mashed” flakes) is causing a more subtle and chronic malnutrition problem than the scurvy, rickets, and goiters of the old days. Chronic micronutrient deficiencies, Jacobson writes, “may cause diseases that take many years to develop, such as heart disease, or cause such problems as slow healing of wounds, lower resistance to diseases and decreased absorption and utilization of nutrients.” So a Denver scientist reports that between 8 and 10 percent of the middle- and upper-class children he studied have deficiencies of zinc (most of them are lighter and smaller than other kids, and have a poor sense of taste),12 and the ten-state survey uncovered widespread deficiencies of iron. Children with iron deficiencies, one witness explained to the Senate committee, often have decreased attention spans, “the time during which they can pay close attention to the teacher.”13 No wonder the antihyper-activity drug Retains is so popular.
Most eaters once assumed that if the food industry put something synthetic in their food it must be safe—but that kind of blind trust has started to crack as the federal government has banned cyclamates, MSG in baby foods, DES in cattle feed, and some synthetic colors which cause cancer. But many other additives may be equally dangerous. Sodium nitrite and nitrate rank among the most powerful cancer-causing chemicals known, and geneticists like Noble laureate Joshua Lederberg suspect they may also cause mutations14—but they are present in virtually every salami, sausage, hotdog, and strip of bacon on the market. Cooked bacon, Jacobson concludes, “is probably the most dangerous food in the supermarket.” The list of additives which respected scientists believe might cause cancer, mutations, and other evils lengthens each year, but the federal government is content to expose the nation to the risks until some researcher has irrefutable proof of them. By that time millions of people will have long been consuming them—and for many the discovery will come too late.
The witnesses who testified before the Senate committee argued that the most widely used food additive—refined sugar—is also one of the most dangerous, although it is never described as a food additive. Food processors saturate our diets with the stuff, from baby food to soft drinks and candy bars to corned beef hash to breakfast cereals. Parents buy their kids “King Vitaman” for breakfast cereal, but since the flakes are about 50 percent sugar they could be just as accurately described as sugar candy. No wonder the typical adult consumes about 126 pounds of sugar each year—while children eat much more.15 For the candy industry alone that means $3 billion each year.16
Everyone knows that eating lots of sugar rots your teeth. But the Senate hearings focused on far more disturbing evidence that the American sugar mania may be a major contributor to so-called “diseases of civilization”—diabetes and coronary thrombosis, hypertension and appendicitis, gall bladder illness and cancer, all the degenerative diseases which most often kill people in technologically affluent societies but which “underdeveloped” non-sugar eaters almost never get. There are lots of other possible environmental culprits besides sugar, of course, but the evidence implicating sugar keeps getting stronger—so strong that an international convention of scientists in West Germany last year urged people to stop eating it.17 Sugar wreaks havoc on the pancreas and liver, reduces the ability of the body to make use of protein, and interferes with blood platelets. Indeed, one witness told the Senate committee, if the food industry were proposing sugar today as a new food additive, its “metabolic behavior…would undoubtedly lead to its being banned.”18
The American food business has built so many known and potential hazards into supermarket foods that the American concept of food itself must change dramatically if we are to escape them. That is the most important message which Jacobson, Lappé, and the Senate witnesses bring us. But the food industry has constructed a powerful system which binds us to its own version of food—and which, as Jacobson and Lappé note, it will be hard to break loose from. Food companies hit us from childhood with $2 billion worth of ads each year, most of them urging us to eat as many soft drinks, candy, and sugar-coated breakfast cereals as possible.19 Coca-Cola alone spent $71 million in 1971 pushing its artificially colored and flavored and sugar-saturated junk.20
Most consumers, as Jacobson points out, know practically nothing about the food they see on TV and in the supermarkets except what the food industry tells them. American schools teach painfully little about eating. Elementary school kids get some outdated pap about the four basic food groups (without being told that the grain group is bleached white and may contribute indirectly to intestinal cancer) and read some “educational” brochures which come mostly from the food industry.21
A lot of industry information is deceptive or just nonsense. If you believe the National Confectioners Association, eating sugar-rich foods will save you a trip to Lourdes. Sugar can “furnish energy, fight fatigue and fever, curb over-sized appetites and all the rest,” including relieving growing pains, preventing diarrhea and convulsions.22 General Mills publishes a “public service” pamphlet which counsels mothers, “Use sparingly foods high in sugar”—and then tells kids watching TV to eat Count Chocula for breakfast, “My supersweet cereal, chocolate sweet for monster chocolate flavor.”23 The US Department of Agriculture’s school breakfast program for poor children encourages schools to forego juice, cereal, milk, toast, and occasional eggs, and instead serve the kids fortified, sugar-laden snack cakes. As the director of Memphis’s largely black school breakfast program explained, “Why, if we let them, they’d eat chocolate every day.”24
The books by Jacobson, Lappé, and Ellen Buchman Ewald are important because they offer some strategies for breaking the food industry’s bind and redefining what eating is all about. Jacobson’s Nutrition Scoreboard: Your Guide to Better Eating gives eaters an easy method of evaluating the relative nutritional worth of foods in the market—the first time, really, that anyone has given people the means to pick and choose and to shun foods intelligently.
Jacobson has a simple system which rates foods according to their “nutritional score.” He awards each food points for containing protein, natural carbohydrates, some essential vitamins, iron, calcium or magnesium, and trace minerals; he subtracts points for harmful ingredients like added sugar, saturated fats, and high fat content. Jacobson didn’t attempt to subtract points for harmful additives like sodium ninitrite and nitrate, or artificial flavoring and coloring, but he warns people to avoid them. The final scores tell you that orange juice (62 points) is a nutritious drink and that soft drinks (-92) are rotten; that broccoli (116) is super healthy while corn (23) is tasty but nutritionally mediocre; and he may surprise parents by showing that water-melon (74) makes a wonderful dessert while Jell-O (-45) stinks.
Jacobson’s Nutrition Scoreboard might inspire readers to explore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, which gives more precise and scientific suggestions for formulating a diet based on vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seeds and nuts, and dairy products. Using her simple methods, anyone can combine different foods in the right proportions to create a meal with balanced, high quality protein—as good as or better than meat. No one has written this book before only because the national obsession with meat has deterred nutritionists until recently from doing detailed plant protein research. Ellen Buchman Ewald, Lappé’s mentor and friend, has written Recipes for a Small Planet, an excellent supplement to Lappé’s more general book. If eating soybean stroganoff with yogurt over bulgar wheat sounds ghastly, one should try Ewald’s recipe to be convinced otherwise.
All three guides could bring about vast changes in American kitchens if they were widely read. Although Lappé’s diet calls for whole grains and other foods that probably don’t exist in most supermarkets, most major cities and college towns already have networks of smaller stores that do carry them. It is not difficult for people to join together and order, and distribute, good foods wholesale if there aren’t already enough stores around to supply them, as some have done in Detroit, Boston, Washington, Baltimore, Berkeley, and other towns across the country. But the fact is only a small part of the middle class will soon be doing these things. Breaking through the food industry system will require government action—banning or sharply limiting use of dangerous additives like artificial colors and flavors, and sugar, and requiring wheat products to contain fiber-rich wheat germ, to give just two examples. Food, if it is to become safe, will have to become part of politics.
February 21, 1974
Congressional Record, October 30, 1973, p. S19736. Before Feingold treated them, his twenty-five hyperactive subjects were downing daily doses of Retains and other drugs to calm them down; Feingold withheld the drugs, simply told the children to avoid processed foods with artificial colors and flavors, and cured fifteen of them. ↩
Telephone interview with DZ. ↩
Hearings before the committee, April 30 and May 1-2, 1973; Part 2, “Sugar in Diet, Diabetes, and Heart Diseases.” ↩
Senator Charles Percy quoted these statistics in his opening testimony, p. 146. ↩
Michael Jacobson quotes this and other food industry ads from the magazine Food Product Development in his book Eater’s Digest (Doubleday, 1972), p. 10. ↩
As Percy mentions, “The life expectancy of the American male is actually decreasing,” p. 146, Senate hearings. ↩
Jacobson quotes the survey, in Nutrition Scoreboard, p. 1. ↩
Jacobson, p. 2. ↩
This statistic was cited by several Senate witnesses, for example Percy, p. 146. ↩
Jacobson quotes Dr. Roger William’s Nutrition Against Disease, on p. 47 of Nutrition Scoreboard. ↩
Jacobson refers on p. 22 of Scoreboard to articles by Burkitt in “Lancet” and “Cancer” medical journals. ↩
Dr. Walter Mertz, chairman of the USDA Human Nutrition Institute, p. 153 of Senate hearings. Jacobson refers on p. 50 of Scoreboard to a study by Dr. K. Michael Hambridge, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado Medical Center. ↩
Dr. Walter Mertz, chairman of the USDA Human Nutrition Institute, p. 151 of Senate hearings. ↩
From a telephone interview with DZ, quoted in “Food Pollution,” June 1971, Ramparts. ↩
Statistics cited repeatedly in Senate hearings—for example, Percy on p. 147. ↩
Jacobson, p. 5. ↩
From a newspaper article entered in the Senate hearings transcript, p. 199. ↩
Dr. John Yudkin, Department of Nutrition, Queen Elizabeth College, London University, on p. 225 of Senate hearings. ↩
Statistics quoted by Dr. Jean Mayer, professor of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, on pp. 259-260 of the Senate hearings, Part 3, “TV Advertising of Food to Children.” ↩
From testimony by Tracy Westen, director of the Stern Community Law Firm, p. 395 of Senate hearings, Part 4. ↩
Jacobson, p. 4. ↩
Jacobson, p. 5, refers to a booklet by the association. ↩
Testimony by Robert Choate, chairman of the Council on Children, Media, and Merchandising, p. 389, Senate hearings, Part 4. ↩
Phone interview with DZ, for “Let Them Eat Cake (Fortified),” in the Washington Post, September 17, 1972. ↩