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07 May 2007 @ 12:28 am
You Are What You Grow  
Greg and I just received via email a very interesting article by Michael Pollan on how the Farm Bill has affected the price and quality of food available to North American consumers. Here's the first paragraph:

"A few years ago, an obesity researcher at the University of Washington named Adam Drewnowski ventured into the supermarket to solve a mystery. He wanted to figure out why it is that the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person's wealth. For most of history, after all, the poor have typically suffered from a shortage of calories, not a surfeit. So how is it that today the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?"

Fascinating and infuriating. Read on.
Current Location: still in the kitchen
Current Mood: discontentdiscontent
kragen on May 8th, 2007 09:02 am (UTC)
I'm a little puzzled about the mentions of cookies or potato chips --- sure, you can buy 1200 calories of potato chips for a dollar, but isn't it cheaper just to buy pure vegetable oil? I think you can get a quart for $1.50 or so, which is maybe 700g, or 6300 calories --- maybe 4000 calories per dollar. Or you can buy three pounds of white rice, which is about 1.4kg, or about 7000 calories per dollar. These both put the potato chips and cookies to shame, although they reinforce Pollan's broader point that empty calories are cheaper than quality nutrition.

With regard to Twinkies vs. carrots, his point would be correct with regard to many other foods, but carrots have about 0.4-0.5 calories per gram and cost about 40 cents a pound, for about 450 calories per dollar, while each Twinkie has about 148 calories and costs, as I recall, about US$0.80, so the carrots are actually more calories per dollar than the Twinkies. You'd have to get three Twinkies for a dollar to match the carrots for junkiness.

However, I don't think his overall line of reasoning linking the Farm Bill to obesity holds up. It's true that foods whose nutritional value consists almost entirely of calories (in the form of macronutrients like fats, carbohydrates, and proteins) cost less per calorie than foods that also contain vitamins, fiber, and water. But this should not be surprising; those foods cost so little per calorie because they have been ruthlessly optimized for yield, measured mostly in terms of calorie per dollar, and any kind of ruthless optimization tends to squeeze out the virtues you're not optimizing for. That's not a problem specifically related to the Farm Bill.

So I think Pollan's reasoning is mistaken, and consequently I think his call for making "the most healthful calories in the supermarket competitive with the least healthful ones" is perhaps futile and surely harmful. Are we really going to find a way to make vegetable oil cost as much per calorie as vitamin supplements (they usually have a calorie or two) or Red Bull? We'll all starve!

All in all, while Pollan is bringing attention to an issue that needs it, I think the quality of the information and analysis in his piece leaves something to be desired, which surprises me; I'm used to thinking of him as a pretty reliable guy.
kragen on May 13th, 2007 04:16 am (UTC)
Safeway.com has a 10-pound bag of carrots for $3.99, my friend tells me, which is very slightly under the 40 cents per pound I cited above. Haven't verified the other prices.