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Wealth + Wellness

News & Features | March 4, 2013

The United States has gotten so fat that the world has redefined its definition of malnutrition. The term has grown from “chronic hunger” to include “micronutrient deficient” and “overweight and obese.” Today, two-thirds of US adults and one-third of their children are members of the last category, due in part to nutrition fads in the early eighties. At that time, development groups were more concerned with getting calories to undernourished nations as opposed to nutritionally balanced meals. The project leaders indeed set good examples: Americans took in many more calories than they expended, becoming overweight; they didn’t complement these calories with important vitamins, becoming micronutrient deficient. These actions have taken their toll: almost 10% of all medical spending is related to obesity in the US, costing $147 billion a year. IQs and labor productivity are both known to decrease without properly nutritious diets, to boot. But this is America, you may yell. We have a chain of stores named the Vitamin Shoppe, you may protest. Unfortunately, this does not matter. Consumer trends directly affect America’s current micronutrient deficiency and these trends are further influenced by our finances, our culture, and the invisibility of nutritional benefits in food staples.

Some of you who frequent Trader Joe’s may ask how this has happened, how America could end up in this condition. Take Mississippi, for example, the state with both the highest poverty and obesity rates. Today, fresh, healthy food is practically unavailable in the Mississippi Delta due to industrial farms that grow commodity crops. The wealth differential and low-paying local jobs have caused food deserts, phenomena in which affordable fresh food is inaccessible: You may have to drive over two hours to the nearest grocery store or grow the food yourself. The primary options for calories, then, are fast food restaurants or corner stores. Humankind has been trained to eat the high-fat, high-calorie diet—the one that fast food offers—for thousands of years in order to survive. And sugar has been proven to be eight times more addictive than cocaine. In other words: the Delta diet is understandable, but that does not make it healthy or fair.

Food deserts are not uncommon to the US. Visit New Orleans, Harlem, or even Chicago to see for yourself. These occurrences are products of food insecurity, which is an inability to access certain types of food, knowledge, supplements, and programs in a geographic region or social class. This is most often caused by wealth disparities and structural violence, or institutionalized and marginalizing harm against specific populations.

This can be directly contrasted with sporadic US health and wellness trends. They traditionally get consumed by two different groups, one of which is known as the early adopters, typically composed of wealthy shoppers who frequent “natural” food stores. These consumers tend to be more flexible than their counterparts and have the financial luxury to purchase, test, and integrate herbal and alternative remedies for health and wellness into their diets. They can be convinced to try a product if a respectable organic boutique touts it regardless of scientific research because they don’t have to compromise their standard caloric intake by purchasing it, as they can afford to experiment.

General consumers, on the other hand, have different food priorities as they do not possess the same financial luxury. They are primarily responsible for pushing the tight profit margins of the grocery and produce industries. They have very high expectations for very low food prices, which means that it is generally unprofitable for investors, researchers, and manufacturers to develop and incorporate new, healthy technologies for this consumption group. It simply doesn’t pay off.

Take omega-3 fatty acids, for example, which are proven to increase wellness primarily by reducing many of the consequences of obesity, including cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood clots. Incorporating these fatty acids into a staple like bread is a hard sell, though, because it raises the cost of a loaf by a dollar. General consumers are not willing to foot that bill. It comes down to an issue of priorities versus visibility. They do not have the financial freedom to buy more expensive bread to invest in health benefits that are not appreciated until much later. Early adopters, on the other hand, will shell out the extra money a day for the long-term benefits of omega-3 in the form of supplements because they can afford to buy the staple and the supplements instead of supplementing one for the other.

Early adopter willingness to buy omega-3 supplements instead of omega-3 bread has to do with American cultural constructions of food. Our palettes are primed for bread to taste like bread; we don’t want bread to have the fishy taste that comes along with deriving omega-3 by fermenting marine algae and purifying fish oil. Purifying omega-3 past the fishy taste, however, is too expensive to be worthwhile even to early adopters. Changing the taste of bread crosses the line in terms of changing a consumption staple. Fishy bread is not bread at all.

This idea of taste and cultural choice is not new in any way and is not limited to America. Africans, for example, prefer their own cassava over the nutrient-enriched cassava found in South America that has been made available to them by humanitarian organizations. A major problem with the genetically modified Golden Rice, a different nutritional effort developed to fight vitamin A deficiency, is that many of its target areas want plain white rice instead.

Americans have very strict understandings of food, much like other cultures, meaning there is little consumer allowance for tampering or modifying it. Thus, the  “natural” and “organic” movements. The probiotic market is a great example of this: Dannon’s Activia made over $100 million in its first year of sales—primarily because yogurt is considered “live”, a category comprised of essentially everything vegans can’t eat. Consumers are more willing to buy eggs enriched with omega-3 fatty acid incorporated via chicken feed, than bread with omega-3 acids added transgenically. Similarly, consumers are willing to purchase yogurt with an extra strain of bacteria added to it because it is “natural” for yogurt to carry bacteria in the first place.

But people who have access to food knowledge do indeed want healthy options. Whole Foods, for example, has been testing more affordable grocery prices and has been finding considerable positive reactions and purchases. In addition, Pom Wonderful’s antioxidant-rich pomegranate juice recently revitalized sales by introducing an inexpensive, smaller 8-ounce bottle. Bigger versions, however, pushed the envelope in terms of general consumption spending limits. These did not justify the health effects that Pom suggested would occur within two years of daily consumption. Originally, Pom’s “cheat death” campaign was vibrant enough to secure new buyers, but only for a few purchases. Only the early adopters have the financial priorities to be as secure as possible; the long-term investment is too risky for the rest of consumers.

This is further complicated by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which essentially allows manufacturers to elucidate the health benefits of their products without FDA clearance, provided they don’t exaggerate the effects to the public. Thus, companies producing vitamin supplements don’t have to explain the decreased absorption rates of their products due to a lack of necessary co-factors, such as bioflavonoids in citrus necessary for Vitamin C absorption or fat-soluble compounds for Vitamin A. They don’t have to clarify micronutrient competition that occurs with packing so many vitamins and minerals in a single pill. Instead, vitamin supplements can be painted as exactly what they are named: a supplement for a healthy, nutritious diet that evades the public’s anxiety about invisible, long-range health benefits by being easily integrated into a lifestyle, relatively palatable, and portable.

While some are willing to compromise with vitamin supplements, many general consumers view genetic modification as unnatural. Thus, scientific successes like the engineered sugar beet, which would make natural healthy sugar alternatives more  accessible and affordable, are shot down by investors. Similarly, a transgenic strain of yeast was developed over 15 years ago that cuts down the lagering process of beer by 332 hours, but the brewers who financed its development didn’t want to use it for fear of being blacklisted by using genetically modified yeast. Yet, as the old adage goes, what you don’t know can’t hurt you: the vast majority of US soybean and corn crops are genetically modified to be resistant to pesticides and herbicides, yet as produce they are presented before consumers as entirely “natural.”

Consumer fear of industrially grown and modified foods may be well founded, but to a point. Modern agriculture, after all, in true Henry Ford fashion, is geared towards specialization and has thus lost the ecological and biological diversity that is essential for regenerating nutrients. Yield-focused mentalities have caused lapses in soil management which have lead to further nutritional degradation. Also, the refining process of food slashes many of its vitamins and minerals. People are cooking differently too, frying away important nutrients in the process. In other words, food is not as nutritious as it used to be, and won’t be as nutritious “naturally” any time soon.

Ecologically speaking, certain food groupings are often more productive when grown together. These foods are clustered by a combination of environment and culture. Holistic management, for example, is a farming practice that incorporates livestock and produce into an agricultural system that eventually produces equivalent yields with higher nutrient enrichment and less environmental degradation. In the same vein, the Meso-American three sisters of maize, beans, and squash are comprised of a grass, a nitrogen-fixing legume, and a low-lying creeper—together they protect each other, conserve resources, and yield better outputs than three specialized monocultures one would find in traditional industrial US agriculture. Spicy food in tropical regions, too, is both culturally integral and geographically prevalent because the spice helps to preserve foodstuffs by killing off bacteria. There is something about taste palettes and cultural meal pairings and biological output that just naturally go together, as if they were perfected over hundreds of thousands of years.

America, of course, is an abomination of all this scientific correlation between cultural food groupings and natural and nutritional efficacy. Poor soil management has caused our fields to be less nutritious than ever before and the degrading will only continue with specialized, yield-focused agriculture. Moreover, America as a beautiful, diverse melting pot (and I’m refraining from using the more culturally appropriate term “salad bowl” because there is nothing nutritious about it) suggests that Americans are privileged with the opportunity to consume all different types of foods from all different traditions without the natural dietary structures and limitations within the specific cultures themselves. In the case of the US, this access creates excess in terms of calories and a dearth in terms of proper diet.

As Coca Cola is being poured into baby bottles in Chiapas, Mexico, we must remind ourselves that this micronutrient disaster is only getting worse. Feeding the world’s hungry with empty calories will cause a slew of developmental stunting and set us up for more food crises as the global population grows. The United States needs to set a precedent for nutritional deficiencies by fixing the food security issue that is at stake:  many are not buying into health and wellness developments because they cannot afford them—but these should be a priority. Many do not have the luxury to incorporate alternative nutritional methods into their diets because it would mean sacrificing their source of calories. America needs to revitalize its health by reconstructing cultural consumer understandings of food: that food, just like malnutrition, is temporal, and that it must change as we and our environment change. We need to encourage investments geared toward consumer nutrition that utilize the myriad scientific advancements in the field. We need to put our money where our mouth is.