Back in the early 1970s, before Boulder decided that such things were too gauche for the older parts of town, an old and somewhat cranky Greek American man named George had a gas station at Broadway and Kalmia Avenue.
I couldn’t tell you how much gas he sold, but he sure sold a ton of candy to the stream of kids leaving Foothill School. I’m sure I was a sugar freak much further than that, but pondering how to spend my scarce resources was a high in itself. It was my first hard-core addiction, and George was my dealer.
That may sound melodramatic, but for millions of Americans consumption of sugar and simple carbohydrates — think white bread — is an addiction that stimulates certain biochemical reactions in the brain and body.
“Because the feelings that come from low levels of serotonin and beta-endorphin are so hard to manage, sugar-sensitive people continue to be drawn to the substances that seem to make them feel better” — alcohol, drugs and sugar, writes Kathleen DesMaisons, Ph.D., author of “The Sugar Addict’s Total Recovery Program.”
Now studies are strongly suggesting that while obesity isn’t great for you, the real problem is consumption of sugar.
“It isn’t simply overeating that can make you sick; it’s overeating sugar,” columnist Marc Bittman wrote in the New York Times last week. “We finally have the proof we need for a verdict: sugar is toxic.”
Sugar is, of course, just one of the culprits in a complex problem that’s making Americans less healthy and driving up the cost of health care. Fat and salt are tasty contributors — as is free market capitalism.
According to free-market purists, markets will naturally meet and sate the desires of consumers. True. Problem is, what we want — indeed, what biology is screaming at our bodies to want — isn’t always good for us. Industry hires food scientists and keeps super-secret food laboratories whose sole function is to find out what we like, what we want more of — and how to make us want still more.
And that usually means sugar, fat and salt.
The goal of Big Gulp-sized processed food manufacturers has long been “to make … the foods we all hate to love that, you know, with those formulas and that marketing creates a situation where we buy more, we eat more, and the companies make more profits. And these are companies that are profit-driven. They are addicted to profits as much as we are addicted to salt, sugar and fat,” Michael Moss said on a Feb. 26 broadcast of NPR’S Fresh Air. Moss is a Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist and author of the new book, “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.”
In a free market, we get to make all kinds of really bad choices about food, whether it’s allowing the torture of millions of sentient beings in factory farms or stuffing ourselves with food so far removed from nature that they contain hundreds of ingredients.
Processed food manufacturers — not to mention agri-giants and factory farming conglomerates — must answer to Wall Street and the desires of shareholders, Moss says, which makes it incredibly hard for them to shift out of sugar-fat-salt-additive mode. Some companies, most notably Kraft, have actually tried to ease up on the goodies, only to find they were losing market share to competitors who had no such compunctions. So Oreos went back to their original fat- and sugar-loaded, irresistible selves.
“I think what you’re looking at is a total inability on (the part of the processed food industry) to collectively decide to do the right thing by consumers on the health profile of their products,” Moss says a former CEO of Philip Morris, the tobacco giant that also owns such enormous food manufacturers as General Foods and Kraft, told him. The former executive, “no friend of government and no friend of government regulations,” went on to say, “in this case I can see how you might need government regulation, if nothing else, to give the companies cover from the pressure of Wall Street.”
Are more regulations the answer? No, answer free-market purists. Americans are living longer despite massive injections of sugar, salt and fat, so what business does the government have telling anyone what or how to eat, or trying to distort the marketplace?
That would be fine, so long as those who develop diabetes or need knee replacements because they are obese don’t expect American taxpayers to foot the bill for their eating choices.
I’m always surprised by the obesity defenders — what else to call them? — who loudly protest that hauling extra weight around is nobody’s business. I’m likewise baffled by those who seem to think life expectancy is the final measure of a good life.
How about feeling good today? Michael Pollan, author of the remarkable book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” argues “the diet we have invented for ourselves is making us sick.” His advice? “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants. And avoid edible, food-like substances.”
To which I respond, Does Bit-o-Honey count as a plant?