Food, Inc.

Food, Inc., first a documentary then a book, brought our attention to disturbingly inhumane practices in the raising of animals on corporate farms (now called CAFOs, for concentrated animal feeding operations).  Another disturbing farming trend is the government-subsidized monoculture of corn and soybeans (especially the genetically modified versions).  Now people are openly asking—must the food corporation’s drive for efficiency require the sacrifice of our national soul and health?  The food corporations are as American as the free enterprise system, yet all too often they abandon anchoring values and drift into uncharted waters.

In pondering the nature of food corporations, I have come to three conclusions:  First, in the corporate culture, growth, especially the growth of profits, is everything.  Second, growth requires change that is never without risk.  Third, much of the risk will fall upon the customers who eat the food.  So there is an inherent instability at work where we can never be really safe, there is always risk.  Protective laws can be passed, but they will lag behind the newest innovation; that old phrase that warns the consumer to beware—caveat emptor—will always be with us. 

When I graduated from engineering school the economy was bustling so with a little effort I got a handful of job offers.  I chose Procter & Gamble for one reason—they stood head and shoulders over the other companies I interviewed.  Though primarily a soap company, they also had food products, including Crisco.  Crisco, as everyone now knows, was full of trans fats.  Dr. Walter Willett, the esteemed Harvard epidemiologist, added his authority to the many warnings about trans fats in a 1994 paper titled, “Trans Fatty Acids: Are the Effects Only Marginal?”  Willet and his associates estimated trans fats were responsible for over 30,000 U.S. deaths each year from heart disease alone.   If Willett is right P&G, a venerable and well-managed company, is responsible for a share of those deaths. 

I tell this story to confirm a sad truth: even the best of companies in their rush to invent new, more profitable food products will make mistakes and the brunt of those mistakes fall upon the innocent consumer.  Did I say innocent?  Actually we had been warned.  In the scripture known as the Word of Wisdom, we are advised to make out food from herbs (vegetables and legumes), fruits, a little meat, and grains.  There is even a warning about “the designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men.”  And according to what I have read, companies producing trans fats conspired against the people who first warned about trans fats.  It’s hard for the heads of companies to heed, or even hear, criticism about the products that pay for their salaries, bonuses, and stock options.

Few of us live on farms anymore so we need the food companies, at least the better ones.  But we also need to open our eyes and realize the nature of the world about us.  Food companies spend over $30 billion a year to convince us to buy processed foods.  (This comes to about $100 per person—we pay for it whenever we buy their food.)  There is arrogance in this, an unspoken assurance they can make us believe and buy whatever they are pushing.  The ads are clever, creative, convincing and, in my view, deceptive.  Learning to ignore their siren song is part of opening our eyes.  Food ads must be viewed with the highest degree of skepticism.  My personal rule:  Heavy advertising equals unhealthy food. 

Do you remember the adage for avoiding tempting but unhealthy foods: “Don’t shop when you’re hungry”?  A recent Healthy Change counseled weekly menu planning. We have a corollary that will make you a wiser shopper:

When our kids were growing up I would do the weekly shopping on Saturday night.  The confusion of finding things caused me to make a standard shopping list, organized by the aisles of the store.  My beautiful wife kept the list handy during the week, checking needed items.  We used it for years; it saved time, slashed the need for second trips, and reduced impulse purchases.  You could tear part off and give it to a child old enough to help—good training.  When the children were older we just gave them the list, the keys to the car, and a ten-dollar bill for their efforts.  The weekly  list will simplify your life and make you a wiser shopper. 

Need a form for your shopping list?  I’ll design a standard shopping list this week for general use and make it available on the next post.

Your shopping dollars are like votes.  Buying unhealthy foods is a vote to sustain the companies that make them.  Use your bucks to vote for those good companies offering healthy (and less processed) products and starve those who don’t.  The one thing that could reform the food companies is an aroused public using their dollars to support only healthy foods.  The corporations who don’t reform will follow the downward path of the tobacco and fast food companies, selling to a shrinking faction of society.

One closing thought:  Perhaps the real solution is to replace the men who head the food corps—men, we all know, are the gender least associated with nurturing—with women.  One company has done this.  A few years ago PepsiCo was the largest and arguably the unhealthiest of all the food corporations.  Besides sugary soda drinks they were pushing fast foods (Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, KFC, all leaders in their sector), and snack foods (Frito-Lay, the king of the chip aisle).  Then one bright day, PepsiCo tried a new tact—they hired a woman to fix a sick corporate strategy.  Her name is Indra Nooyi, raised in India and educated in America.  Under Nooyi’s guidance, PepsiCo got rid of their fast food companies and began to offer healthier products, including the purchase of Tropicana (fruit juices), Quaker Oats, and Naked Juice (more juices).  Nooyi was also given the top job at PepsiCo—the position of CEO.  Incidentally, growth has soared at PepsiCo under Nooyi’s policy that the corporation has a "duty of care" for their customners.  I buy very little of PepsiCo’s products—we try to buy less-processed foods—but I admire Indra Nooyi and PepsiCo’s turn towards reform.

Please share your ideas on how we can advance the cause of food reform.

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (23)

It is interesting that you posted this - as today, I read and studied D&C 89:4. I am profoundly inspired by your site, and I've started a spiritual -in-depth study of the word of wisdom. As I was studying verse 4, I was led to the topical guide under: conspiracy, wickedness, and deceit. While studying, I also thought of the movie Food Inc., and how the people at the heads of these companies do not have our best interests in mind. They have bottom lines to be worried about.

Additionally, I thought about the fact that these corporations often have more power to influence the government than actual science or health facts do. So our best bet - on learning how to take care of our temporal salvation - needs to be done spiritually. We can have the spirit be our guides - The spirit will help us to discern between truth and error, and this can be helpful when navigating the world of food.

April 12, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterchococatania

The list is definitively a good idea. We never go to the store without it. It's good to avoid buying processed food you don't need but it's also good to help you save money.

We have a rule at my place that works really well. Processed snacks, like cookies or chips, never make it to the grocery list. Personally, I try to avoid process food but my husband will eat anything. I do make snacks, but if he wants more, then he has to buy it with his own money. That way, I don't feel like I'm wasting money on foods I don't approve of...

April 12, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkanmuri

Thank you for your great post. I appreciate the "make a list" reminder. I've been failing to do that the past month and it shows in my pantry and budget. At 16 I was exclusively in charge of the family grocery shopping. I am still grateful that my parents trusted me with such a big family responsibility. I learned quickly that the perimeter of the store contained most of the items that I like to buy.
I like to use the list that your daughter has on her blog.

April 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCammie

Your comment about advertising really struck a chord with me. It's true: I hear plenty of advertisements for fast food, convenience foods, "magic" foods injected with vitamins and minerals, etc. When is the last time anyone heard an advertisement that said, "Buy pears"? If the product could be grown on a tree or in the ground, I don't see companies pushing people to buy it. They profit much more from the synthetic than the organic, but my body benefits from the latter.

To echo part of what chococatania said, I also feel that these corporations have a tremendously heavy influence on the government, thereby affecting the guidelines of what is or is not acceptable to ingest. The cynic in me feels that there is a vicious chain of profiteering: the food industry pushes the sale of foods that are unnatural/unhealthy, which makes us overweight so then people buy into diet crazes and exercise fads. These foods also cause other health problems in consumers, which then prompt them to visit a doctor who ultimately prescribes them medication. Food and drug companies make enormous profits, as do the oil companies who fuel the factories that produce those products, and so do the government officials receiving endorsements from these corporations in exchange for their vote. And we the consumers pay for it with our pocketbooks, our health, and sometimes our lives.

I try not to live in that cynical mindset. Instead, I too vote with my grocery list, and grow some of my own food as well.

April 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKelsi

I always take a list when I go grocery shopping. You are absolutely right, I never catch myself buying things that are not on my list. They also make note pads now with magnets on the back of them. So I put the note pad on the front of my frig and whenever I remember I need something, my list is right there on my frig. This would be great for people with a family, so anyone can add to the list at anytime. Thanks for the great post.

April 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLulu

LOVE the list. I shop off of one each time we go out (mostly because I forget - but still). I try hard not to impulse buy and the list does help that as well as helping me stick to closer to the budget. Especially when it seems like we keep getting less and less for our money.

:: sharing on Facebook ::

April 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKristy

King Korn is another great documentary if you haven't already seen it. I watched it the same week I watched Food Inc.

April 12, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjessica

Food Inc. is a great documentary.
When I'm shopping I like to think of a phrase from In Defense of Food-- is this real food or a "food-like substance?" It helps me feel better about putting my money toward REAL food and I totally like what you say --that we are voting with our purchases. (It's why I paid a dollar more for the the hormone free eggs today and ponied over the dough for pistachios instead of crackers:)
Anyway, the list is a great idea.
Thanks for another great post. I love this blog!

April 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLC

I liked the idea of thinking of dollars as votes. Reading this blog, I have often thought of that concept more or less. I sometimes think, "I can't afford that," when it comes to buying more healthy foods (because they tend to be more expensive) but then I think, "I can't afford to give my money to the people making the unhealthy stuff." Worst case scenario, the responsible food companies who offer quality products could die out if everyone's investing their money in the junk that's out there.

April 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

Angela, you're right on target. In a later post we'll get to the topic of value. We can live better but break even by spending more on important items (organic berries, pasture-fed beef, omega-3 eggs) but at the same time increase the value items (whole grains, legumes, vegetables in season). Doing this reduces the processed stuff in the middle. If we stay with this plan we can reap the benefit of reduced health care costs. Best.

April 12, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

"Buying unhealthy foods is a vote to sustain the companies that make them" ~ YES! i rarely watch TV because i can't stand commercials. feeling like i'm being manipulated.

i live in herriman, utah. mcdonalds just opened last weekend. people were lined up on foot before sunrise to be the first 100 customers. every time i drive past i feel a twinge of anger. their clever advertising promises "joy in a box" .. buy our food and you'll be happy. their commercial with a catchy tune "what else could one girl need?" (a happy meal, her friends and her family). it really makes me sad.

looking forward to your shopping list template.

April 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

I absolutely agree with your sentiments here. I am only 29, and yet feel that I suffer the consequences of eating processed foods (i.e. not following the word of wisdom) with my own health problems. Sometimes it is difficult to see that the degenerate food I sometimes eat is so very capable of slashing away at my body. But it only takes a few days of healthy eating, made possible by a careful grocery list, to feel the amazing change for the better that wholesome food offers.

April 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTara

I recently joined a group that allows you to buy fresh food (vegetables, dairy, meat) directly from a group of local farmers. Most of it is organic, and the farmers get a reasonable price for their produce.
It's an initiative that is partly subsidized by the flemish government - called 'Voedselteams'. It has made think more about the food industry, and how shopping 'euros' are indeed votes.

April 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLieve our challenge. ccc

April 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercristie

I wanted to share an article from today's New York Times that is very relevant to your blog:

April 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGem

Skip, I would love to see your take on Gary Taube's article in the NYTimes, "Is Sugar Toxic?" I know you've already talked about sugar, but I think this is a fascinating article that addresses the idea of sugar in a different way. I would also love to hear what people think about baking/cooking with alternatives such as maple syrup and honey.

April 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKiera

Kiera, I'm impressed you picked up so quickly on Taubes' N.Y. Times article, "Is Sugar Toxic?". I thought it a brilliantly written article, made possible by his decade of research on sugar as a journalist. He invokes the memory of John Yudkin who in the '70s warned of sugar's toxicity with his book, "Sweet and Dangerous" (the U.S. version of "Pure White and Deadly," published in England). Yudkin was ridiculed at the time, especially in the U.S., but he was prophetic (original copies of both books are now collector items).

Taubes also praised Dr. John Lustig's video, "Sugar: The Bitter Truth" which I invite all to see on YouTube.

Sugar is a serious health problem all over the world, but especially in the U.S. Three Healthy Changes have gone after the excessive sugar in our diet (reduce sugary drinks to 1/week or less; more fiber than sugar in breakfast cereal, bread, etc; no bags of candy in the house.). But Taubes raises, or lowers, the bar by wondering if we should eat ANY sugar, when he closes his article: "Officially, I'm not supposed to worry because the evidence [for the toxicity of sugar] isn't conclusive, but I do."

We'll return to the subject of sugar in future posts.

April 14, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

You mention pasture-fed beef in one of your comments and I'm just curious as to your take on the "corn for the ox" portion of the Word of Wisdom.

Look forward to future posts!

April 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

Thinking of my food dollars as "votes" really revolutionized the way I eat and shop. I think sometimes it can be very easy to explain away what we are doing at the moment and tell ourselves that "One trip to McDonalds doesn't make a difference". It does, though, collectively. Just like one vote in the political system might not elect a person, a large number of votes will. I want to be on the side of the people who are voting for goodness.

And I'm interested to see your response to Amanda's point about "corn for the ox". Cows are different from oxen though, I haven't really researched it but I believe oxen were used as work animals, not food.

April 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenna

This is a very doable challenge, one that I need to follow more often! Thanks for the continued encouragement.

April 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTara

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