The Atlantic's latest silly idea is wrong: No, fast food won't cure obesity

An Atlantic cover story gets absolutely everything wrong about processed food, Michael Pollan and Americans' health

Published June 30, 2013 11:00AM (EDT)

        (Reuters/Fred Prouser)
(Reuters/Fred Prouser)

In one particularly telling moment of Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary "Super Size Me," the vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association – a lobbying organization that represents companies like Kellogg’s, Nestle, Kraft, General Mills, Campbell’s and Pepsi, to name just a few – made what was then considered to be a shocking admission about Big Food’s role in the country’s obesity problem: “We’re part of the problem, and we also are part of the solution.” Nine years later, that has become the industry’s siren song. And now, The Atlantic is selling the same message.

Here’s how David H. Freedman puts it in his cover story, “How Junk Food Can End Obesity”:

To be sure, many of Big Food’s most popular products are loaded with appalling amounts of fat and sugar and other problem carbs (as well as salt), and the plentitude of these ingredients, exacerbated by large portion sizes, has clearly helped foment the obesity crisis… But will switching to wholesome foods free us from this scourge? It could in theory, but in practice, it’s hard to see how.

Making the case that the “science of processed food can save us – if the foodies will get out of the way,” Freedman operates under the mistaken premise that our food system’s only major consequence is a rise in obesity, ignoring other pesky health issues like our population’s growing resistance to medicationearly onset puberty, and cancer; the serious environmental impacts of an industrialized food system (and its direct effect on our health); as well as the basic moral failings of factory farming (to put it lightly). He also uses a series of misinterpretations, false comparisons, “rough calculations,” approximations and at least one “not exactly scientific study,” to peddle the best PR Big Food has gotten since it had the Big-Mac-scarfing Bill Clinton in the White House.

Michael Pollan’s clothes are just fine, thank you.

In the first leg of his lengthy ode to processed food, Freedman argues that because so-called “wholesome” foods can be just as caloric, fattening, sugary and full of carbs as their junky counterparts, “Michael Pollan has no clothes.”

He points to Trader Joe’s “Inner Peas,” a floured, fried and salted pea-based snack. “I can’t recall ever seeing,” Freedman laments, “anything at any fast-food restaurant that represents as big an obesogenic crime against the vegetable kingdom.” Somehow, in all of his research, Freedman failed to ever encounter a French fry. The calorie count on those Inner Peas: 130 per serving; a small order of McDonald’s French fries comes in at 230.

And according to Freedman, “The fact is there is simply no clear, credible evidence that any aspect of food processing or storage makes a food uniquely unhealthy.” That depends on how you understand the word “unhealthy.” I consider it unhealthy that a highly processed beef patty, like the one you'd find on a Whopper, contains antibiotics and hormones, not to mention straight-up poop. These additives might not directly contribute to obesity, but they have been linked to other health problems, which is why they have been outlawed or at least regulated in Europe and other parts of the world.

For Freedman, there is further proof that processed foods are not “unhealthy” in the fact that the FDA allows them to be sold: “Pollan’s ‘foodlike substances’ are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (with some exceptions, which are regulated by other agencies), and their effects on health are further raked over by countless scientists who would get a nice career boost from turning up the hidden dangers in some common food-industry ingredient or technique…”

But the FDA is one of the most chronically underfunded, understaffed agencies in our government. Relying on it to determine what is safe is a losing bet, and as countless food-borne illness outbreaks have made clear, Americans (especially the most vulnerable among us) are gambling every day.

And the FDA doesn't actually regulate our meat and dairy industries – the USDA has that job. That agency, our last and only line of defense against tainted meat and dairy products, maintains such a close relationship with the very agencies it’s supposed to be regulating, that it couldn’t even promote a “Meatless Monday” initiative without having to issue a retraction in less than 24 hours. As far as the promised career boosts for scientists uncovering the dangers lurking in common ingredients, I know of at least a few such scientists who are still waiting to cash in. Organizations like the Center for Science in the Public Interest have been sounding the alarms on ingredients like Splenda, gingko and artificial trans fat for years, with few, if any, “career boosts” to report. “In fact,” Jeff Cronin of CSPI notes, “the prospect of a post-FDA career in the food industry or with a food industry trade group likely exerts pressure in the opposite direction. Why rock the industry’s boat if that’s where you’re headed?” And when Freedman says that Americans can get any nutrients they’re missing from supplements, he is promoting a product that is barely subject to any regulation at all.

Maybe they would eat kale, if corn wasn’t so darn cheap.

Freedman’s next line of attack, over cost, is a fair one, but still fails both to understand the Pollanite ethos and to see the bigger picture driving the current price models:

Where the Pollanites get into real trouble is in the claim that their style of food shopping and eating is the answer to the country’s weight problem. Helping me to indulge my taste for genuinely healthy wholesome foods are the facts that I’m relatively affluent and well educated, and that I’m surrounded by people who tend to take care with what they eat. Not only am I within a few minutes’ drive of three Whole Foods and two Trader Joe’s, I’m within walking distance of two other supermarkets and more than a dozen restaurants that offer bountiful healthy-eating options.

Again, Freedman misinterprets the Pollan message. Pollan doesn’t advocate that every American shop at Whole Foods. Just the opposite, in fact – he criticized the chain in "The Omnivore's Dilemma" for selling out of season, non-local, overpriced foods and even engaged in a back-and-forth with the grocer, standing by his critique, and writing to the CEO, “I have trouble squaring some of your claims… with what I see when I shop at Whole Foods.” What Pollan advocates is not more access to Whole Foods, but more access to whole foods, in the form of farmers markets, CSAs, and artisanal food products. Are these foods more expensive? Often they are, but not always. As Slow Food USA’s $5 Challenge proved last year, making dinner on a budget is surprisingly easy. Freedman also ignores our country’s system of providing subsidies for commodity crops like corn, which keeps the prices of processed foods (almost always corn-based) artificially low, making kale and other healthy foods look expensive only by comparison.

The connection between income level and obesity that Freedman rightfully raises certainly has more causes than just corn subsidies, a lack of Whole Foods in poor areas, and a corresponding myriad of fast food options that fill that gap. Yet when Freedman quotes Lenard Lesser, a physician and obesity researcher at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute, he appears to be trying to rewrite the history of the proliferation of fast food and the impact it had on our nation’s health. “The obesity gap,” Freedman writes, “predates the fast-food industry and the dietary dominance of processed foods.” Lesser tells Freedman that, “The difference in obesity rates in low- and high-income groups was evident as far back as we have data, at least back through the 1960s.” But the first McDonald’s was opened in 1940, the first “drive-in restaurant” version was opened in 1948, the Golden Arches were introduced in 1955, and the 100th Mickey D’s location opened in Wisconsin 1959. By 1963 there were 500 McDonald’s locations and the company went public in 1965. So by the time the obesity gap was first recorded – sometime in the 1960s according to Lesser – McDonald’s as we know it was already alive and well. But maybe Freedman hasn’t watched this season of Mad Men, and so he missed the 1968 car scene in which the Draper women share their vices: Betty’s cigarettes and Sally’s McDonald’s French fries.

One response that Pollanites et al. have had to food deserts is to remake bodegas to stock and promote healthier food options. Designers, foodies and politicians have converged to do what Big Food has been doing for decades: to use the customers’ physical environment to influence their food purchasing decisions. According to what Freedman admits is “not exactly a scientific study,” (i.e., he goes to a newly designed healthy bodega and stands around watching), this effort isn’t working. Yet according to a 2009 report from the Institute of Medicine entitled “Community Interventions to Address Obesity,” 32% of healthy bodega owners in New York reported an increase in fruit sales and 26% reported an increase in sales of vegetables. Healthy bodegas may not be The Answer to obesity, but they are certainly part of the mix.

¡Viva la Pollanite revolución!

The real meat (forgive the pun) of Freedman’s article is in the third section, “The Food Revolution We Need,” where he argues that it’s time for the foodies to step out of the way, so that the food industry can take over.

While Freedman derided the foodie attempts to influence food choices through healthy bodega designs, he lauds Big Food for using similar techniques to sell its junk food to the masses. “The food industry,” as Lesser told Freedman, “has mastered the art of using in-store and near-store promotions to shape what people eat.”  So while the bodegas that put broccoli in the corner, handing the prime-selling real estate to candy and fried pork strips, are “simply providing the foods that people like,” the food industry, pushing Big Macs and an occasional healthier option, like the Carl’s Jr. Charbroiled Atlantic Cod Fish Sandwich that Freedman samples, is “mastering an art.”

Freedman believes that Big Food can use this art in a way that the foodies have failed to do. “We should not dismiss,” he writes, “its ability to get unhealthy eaters – slowly, incrementally – to buy better food.” (Apparently some slow, incremental change is acceptable, but not all. Of fixing food deserts with better access to fruits and vegetables, Freedman wrote: “Even if wholesome food caught on with the public at large, including the obese population, and even if poor and working-class people were willing to pay a premium for it, how long would it take to scale up from a handful of shops to the tens of thousands required to begin making a dent in the obesity crisis? How long would it take to create the thousands of local farms we’d need in order to provide these shops with fresh, unprocessed ingredients, even in cities?”)

Citing as examples the Carl's Jr. cod sandwich and McDonald's Egg McMuffins reformulated with whole-grain flour, Freedman says that Big Food “has quietly been making healthy changes for years.” While he notes the changing market pressures and customer demands that led to these kind of changes, he neglects to mention that the cod sandwich debuted as a Lent-friendly option to bring in business during typically slow periods, that it’s not even listed on the Carl’s Jr. website as part of its regular menu, and that the fat- and salt-reducing tricks other fast food companies have employed likely have more to do with an increasingly health-conscious public and regulations like newly required calorie counts than with a real Big Food-led revolution.

And if Pollan and Bittman are guilty of failing to understand the challenges facing the low-income overweight population, Freedman and Big Food are as culpable for condescending to that population, resorting to dishonest gimmicks that secretly goad them into eating healthier. On Freedman's visit to Fona International, a company that develops and sells “a battery of tricks for fooling and appeasing taste buds,” he is impressed by the “5,000 FDA-approved chemical compounds” and packaging techniques (e.g., “adding weight to food packaging such as yogurt containers, which convinces eaters that the contents are rich with calories even when they’re not”) that not only fool people into not only unknowingly eating healthier, but also convince customers that they’re getting more when in fact they’re getting less. Freedman claims that the chemically synthesized ingredients used to make low-fat foods taste creamier and sugar-free foods more full bodied “have nothing in common with the ill-fated Olestra, a fat-like compound… billed in the late 1990s as a fat substitute in snack foods” that was later linked to everything from “anal leakage” to macular degeneration in the elderly, all without showing a reduction in obesity – but he never explains why they have nothing in common. Olestra, by the way, was approved by the FDA after almost 30 years of testing.

The implacable proponents of healthier foods, processed or not.

If we are to believe Freedman’s version of events, Pollan, Bittman and their followers will accept nothing less than a total abolition of all processed foods everywhere – they are, he says, “the implacable enemies of healthier processed foods.”

But a fairer reading of their philosophies tells a different story. They would likely agree with Freedman that it’s better to cut the calories, fat, sugar, salt and carbs in processed food than to leave them as is. Bittman has even come around on certain processed foods, like fake chicken, because he admits, “it might be better to eat fake meat that harms no animals and causes less environmental damage than meat raised industrially.” But to say that more processed food is the answer to our country’s obesity problem is like saying that we should leave it to cigarette companies to cure lung cancer.

Pollan warns consumers about processed foods that make health claims not because he hates all processed food; rather, he recognizes that those health claims are usually marketing tactics, not nutrition information. See for example foods like Lucky Charms (“Good source of Calcium & Vitamin D”!), Go-Gurt (“Lowfat” and “Calcium & Vitamin D”) and Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup (which got into trouble with the FDA over its claims last summer). For Freedman, the foodies shouldn’t be up in arms over Big Food’s attempts “to offer less-obesogenic fare;” after all, Freedman says, the McDonald’s yogurt parfait that Bittman derides has about as much sugar and fat as Bittman’s recipe for corn-and-blueberry crisp. That one is a breakfast, meant to be a nutritious meal eaten daily, and the other is a dessert, meant as an occasional treat, apparently isn’t so important.

What Freedman ultimately seems to want – a healthier American population – is the same as what we Pollanites (yes, I am one, if you couldn’t already tell) are aiming to achieve. And if he wants to applaud Big Food’s attempts to undo the harm they’ve inflicted, then that’s just fine. But to blame the “growing sway” of the food movement over “consumers and policy makers” for “impeding the progress of the one segment of the food world that is actually positioned to take effective, near-term steps to reverse the obesity trend: the processed-food industry,” is, unfortunately, to seriously overstate our influence, and to downplay the money that Big Food pours into lobbying lawmakers, not to mention advertising directly to some of obesity’s fastest growing pool of victims: children and poor people. As Reuters put it in April 2012, “In the political arena, one side is winning the war on child obesity. The side with the fattest wallets.” Guess who that is.

By Deena Shanker

Deena Shanker is a writer and occasional attorney living in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter @deenashanker.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Big Food David Freedman Editor's Picks Food Health Junk Food Mark Bittman Michael Pollan Obesity Processed Food