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Cheap, Crappy Calories

Cosmic Variance
By Sean Carroll
Apr 27, 2007 2:33 AMNov 5, 2019 8:12 AM


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You know what's a really big problem? The Farm Bill. The quintennial piece of legislation that steers billions of dollars into subsidies for farmers who mass-produce the raw materials of which junk food is made. Yeah, I know, not exactly a hot topic, nor our normal fare. But Michael Pollan in the Times lays out a devastating indictment of the current system, which encourages our economy to overproduce food that is incredibly bad for us, while busting the federal budget, ruining the environment, and hurting small farmers and developing countries to boot. (Via Marginal Revolution.) Here is the basic econo-physics of the situation:

As a rule, processed foods are more "energy dense" than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them "junk." Drewnowski concluded that the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly -- and get fat. This perverse state of affairs is not, as you might think, the inevitable result of the free market. Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots? For the answer, you need look no farther than the farm bill. This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation, which comes around roughly every five years and is about to do so again, sets the rules for the American food system -- indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world's food system. Among other things, it determines which crops will be subsidized and which will not, and in the case of the carrot and the Twinkie, the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support to the cake than to the root. Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat -- three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.) For the last several decades -- indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning -- U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy.

I remember the moment it first dawned on me that Coke was significantly less expensive than orange juice. But making soda is a complicated chemical process, while oranges literally grow on trees! Of course, once you master that process, mass-producing the chemicals is fairly straightforward, while growing oranges requires a certain amount of patience. At the time I didn't really appreciate the other aspect of the puzzle: we pay people to grow corn, which is turned into high-fructose corn syrup, which sweetens all of the processed food we find on our supermarket shelves. Now, there does seem to be an obvious point missing in the article: the popularity of Twinkies over carrots cannot be put down solely to the greater density of calories per dollar. A lot of people like how Twinkies taste, deep-fried or not. But that doesn't mean we should be actively subsidizing their production. Pollan strikes an optimistic note at the end of his piece, suggesting that the importance of the Farm Bill may finally be percolating up to the national consciousness. (At least until the next time that a celebrity with fake boobs dies of a drug overdose.) It's long been considered political suicide to even suggest messing with farm subsidies, especially with the Iowa caucuses playing such a large role in Presidential primaries. We'll see if next year is any different.

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