The knowledge is as common as the sight of golden arches along the highway: Unhealthy eating has long been the default in America. Food that can sit on shelves for years takes up the most space in grocery stores and the invention of microwave meals was seen as genius.
But the proliferation of processed and mass-produced foods is having deadly consequences. “Nearly half of all deaths [in the United States] are linked to the cumulative effects of poor diet,” says Renata Micha, associate research professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “Americans are over-consuming salt, processed meats, and sugary-sweetened beverages. We are under-consuming fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, vegetable oils, and fish.”
Why are processed foods clogging our grocery store shelves, even when whole foods are known to be better for you?
So, why, exactly are Americans filling up on junk? Why are processed foods clogging our grocery store shelves (and, in turn, your arteries), even when whole foods are known to be better for you?
It’s a deeply complicated question, but at the core, it’s because government subsidization of commodity crops—crops that can be traded, stored for a long time, and grown in bulk—incentivizes farmers to grow foods like corn and soy (which are not inherently unhealthy, but are used to feed livestock and are converted into additives, sweeteners, and refined carbohydrates—namely, junk food). And when supply goes up, prices for consumers go down (it’s Economics 101). If you watch a lot of Netflix, you may already be familiar with the idea: Docs like Food, Inc., King Corn, and Ingredients have made the topic of industrialized farming super-digestible.
Here, an industry expert shines a light on this processed food pipeline—and also shares tips on how to change the system for the better. Just because it’s deeply rooted doesn’t mean it always has to be this way.
Keep reading to learn more about the scary way the government is hurting your health—and what you can do about it.
Why it’s so hard to escape corn and soy
Most people know that cutting out processed foods is a healthier way to live, but escaping them is hard. Corn- and soy-based additives are in seemingly everything—and it’s no accident. “The government subsidizes commodity crops such as corn and soybeans but does not subsidize what’s called ‘speciality crops,’ also known as fruits and vegetables,” says Sam Polk, the founder of Groceryships and Everytable.
Polk explains that because the government is financially backing corn and soy (among other commodities), the food system has been structured to prioritize those ingredients. This system dates back to the Great Depression, when the first Farm Bill was introduced to help farmers get back on their feet. Times—and consumers—have changed since then, but despite the specific terms being updated every five to six years, the greater implications of the bill have not.
“If you think about the middle of the grocery store, it’s basically [products] filled with these commodity crops that have been incredibly subsidized, and then also they’ve removed the nutritious things inside them, like the fiber or any moisture that makes them fresh. So they’ve created these incredibly cheap, self-stable products,” Polk says. “That shelf stability is a key factor that has made our food system what it is because it’s so much better for businesses when a box of cereal can sit on the shelf for six months and there will be no degradation of it.”
And unfortunately, unhealthy food’s grasp extends beyond the grocery store…
Why there are more McDonald’s than Sweetgreens
While it’s getting easier every day to find a quick nourishing meal, healthy grab-and-go is nowhere near the level of ubiquitousness as fast food. “The main reason for that is, sure, people like burgers and fries, but more importantly, we built this brilliant supply chain,” Polk says. “Potatoes are incredibly cheap and never go bad. Even when they start to go bad, you can just fry them. Soda never goes bad. For the burgers, you can freeze the beef and the cheese never really goes bad because it’s so highly processed. The only fresh food is really a piece of lettuce.” The end result: another food system driven by supply chain and business efficiency, not what’s actually good for you.
Polk knows firsthand that, contrary to what some may believe, many people in lower-income areas will buy salads over Happy Meals if they’re able to afford it. His healthy fast casual chain Everytable has a sliding scale payment system based on the average income level of the location. In a high-income area, you can expect to pay $6 or $7 for your kale salad (still half the price of most other healthy places). In a lower-income neighborhood, that same bowl of greens will run you $5. The model works because the food is made fresh daily in one central location, rather than in each individual restaurant kitchen.
Proof that Polk’s system is working? The profits. Not only does he plan to expand from five to 12 locations in 2018, but Polk says that each of the Everytable outposts sells roughly the same amount of food, regardless of neighborhood.
How to change the system
Hearing about businesses like Everytable is inspiring, but the task of undoing an entire food system still feels beyond reach. Polk, however, is encouraging. “There is a movement [happening],” he says. “In War and Peace, Tolstoy makes the point that we always think it’s the politicians and leaders making the big changes, but actually it’s really the consciousness and willingness of the people that bubbles up enough to have its final expression in the change of laws or change of practices at the very top.”
So what can you do? One way is voting with your dollar by supporting brands that prioritize health. Another way is with your literal vote. “What I look for in any politician is someone who is focused on the voice and importance of every single person, especially those at the bottom of the economic ladder,” Polk says.
Some politicians are already making healthy food choices a priority. Last year, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey released a new report full of recommendations for retailers in his state to promote and distribute more healthy products. “Countless studies have demonstrated that lack of access to nutritious food—particularly severe in underserved communities—manifests itself in all areas of human development, from increased rates of diet-related diseases to reduced academic performance,” Booker said at the time. “The importance of the initiative cannot be overemphasized.”
“We have an opportunity to turn policy around,” Tufts University associate research professor Renata Micha says.
Another way to propagate change: Use your voice. “We have an opportunity to turn policy around,” Micha says. “We can support the implementation and evaluation of public health interventions to improve the way Americans eat.” She’s onto something: The USDA is already changing food labels so they are more clear and call out sugar in a bigger way. On a local level, soda tax laws have proven to lead to healthier choices.
Many people are using their passion to start healthy food businesses, hoping to disrupt the model already in place by making nourishing food more widely available. But you don’t have to give up your day job to work toward changing the system. “You can accomplish anything you put your mind to,” Polk says. “If we can figure out how to launch rockets into space, we can also figure out a way to create a food system that supports fresh healthy foods in a really delicious and scalable way.”
If you’re curious to learn more about America’s connection to wellness, here’s a brief history lesson. Plus, here’s what happened when I tried cutting a major commodity crop—soy—from my diet.