In the early nineteenth century, Americans were also confronted with a surplus of corn. Farmers responded by making the economically sound calculation to distill their excess corn into cheap whiskey. The result was an epidemic of alcoholism that eventually culminated in Prohibition a century later. Pollan compares America’s alcohol crisis in the early nineteenth century to the obesity epidemic today. Now three of every five Americans are overweight, and a child born in 2000 has a one-in-three chance of developing diabetes.
By comparing the contemporary American obesity epidemic to the public health problem of alcoholism in the nineteenth century, Pollan can point to different scenarios in which the drive to maximize profits and efficiency leads to a variety of public health problems and social ills. In both cases, the explosion in consumption was linked to industrial attempts to get people to consume more of that excess corn.
Pollan dates the upswing in corn consumption to the 1970s, when President Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, instituted a policy of driving up agricultural yields in order to drive down the price of corn. The result was that food became cheap and plentiful. People started eating more—and with the invention of high-fructose corn syrup, they had even more incentive to buy those appealingly sweet fast foods and eat through the corn surplus.
People may have convinced themselves that they want to buy more sugary foods, but Pollan suggests that these consumer desires are actually the result of savvy manipulation by the industrial food system. In order to solve the problem of excess corn, these companies have a vested interest in getting people to eat more.
In 1980, corn became an ingredient in Coca-Cola; by the mid-1980s, many soft drinks used high-fructose corn syrup instead of sugar. The companies then began “supersizing” their sodas, since the new ingredients were so cheap. At McDonald’s, executives knew that people were reluctant to order a second serving of fries, for fear of looking gluttonous. So they started offering larger portions, like the Big Mac, which allowed people to order more food in a single serving. Sales increased dramatically as a result.
People’s reluctance to appear “gluttonous” suggests that there is indeed a natural human resistance to eating these “super-sized” portions produced by fast food companies. It is only through the intervention of calculated marketing strategies that people can be induced to order more food than they might otherwise be inclined to eat.
One might think that people would stop eating these “gargantuan” portions when they feel full. But this isn’t the case. In an environment of food scarcity, humans evolved to feast whenever the opportunity presented itself, storing up reserves of energy against future famine. (Of course, in today’s environment of food overproduction, famine never comes.) The nutrients in these supersized portions—namely, sugar and fat—make the problem worse, since humans are also evolutionarily predisposed to prefer those tastes. In this way, processed foods are able to manipulate the omnivore’s evolutionary impulses.
The “super-sized” portion is unnaturally large, but it also has a powerful ally in human evolutionary biology. Because people evolved to feast in expectation of future famine, eating large amounts of fatty and sugary (i.e. high-calorie) food will give people feelings of pleasure and enjoyment. In this way, “fast food”—a modern creation—taps into a very old human impulse passed down from prehistoric times.
The problem has gotten worse since the 1970s, Pollan argues, because the price of a calorie of sugar or fat has plummeted since then. This means that obesity and diabetes become more prevalent further down the socioeconomic scale, because energy-dense foods like a Big Mac are now the cheapest on the market. But despite all the public concern about the obesity epidemic, Pollan points out that the government is still subsidizing the cheap corn that guarantees that “the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest.”
Most people tend to make food choices that maximize efficiency—in other words, they will buy food that offers the most calories for the least money. Unfortunately, these choices also tend to exact a toll on human health. In today’s food environment, cheap food is often unhealthy, meaning that the obesity problem disproportionately affects poorer Americans.