Why are Americans Growing Obese? Blame Richard Nixon and Earl Butz
Sunday, June 17, 2012
Americans are overweight and getting fatter, probably because they are sugar addicts. From 1971 to 2000, obesity rates in the United States more than doubled, from 14.5% to 30.9%, and today about 68% of U.S. adults are overweight and 33.8% are obese. Although people are eating more calories than before, this alone cannot account for our growing girth, nor can changes in exercise and physical activity. The issue is a pressing one, because obesity shortens lives and costs Americans about $150 billion in health care expenses each year.
Researchers increasingly believe that changes in the nutritional content of the food we eat may be the most important pathological factor in explaining the obesity epidemic, and those changes can be traced to changes in U.S. Agricultural policy initiated during President Richard Nixon’s administration. Earl Butz, who was Nixon’s Agriculture secretary starting in January 1971, used his department’s subsidies programs to push American farmers to increase their production of corn, and helped increase its export around the world, When corn prices fell and a surplus developed, Butz championed the spread of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is made from corn and is cheaper than conventional sugar.
HFCS use has skyrocketed in the ensuing decades, so that today it can be found in processed foods as varied as pizza, meat, bread, coleslaw and soft drinks. Some Americans prefer to buy Coca-Cola manufactured in Mexico because it is made with sugar, whereas U.S.-made Coca-Cola uses HFCS.
Perhaps most insidious is the fact that Big Food adds HFCS to make its low-fat food products palatable, yet modern research suggests that intake of sugars, including HFCS, may be worse for human health than the fats they replace.
Experts like former FDA commissioner Dr. David Kessler argue that Americans have become a nation of sugar addicts, and that food manufacturers create products by manipulating ingredients, especially sugar and fat, to stimulate our appetites and set in motion a cycle of desire and consumption that results in obesity. Given that corn subsidies put billions of dollars into the pockets of farmers and agribusiness, their lobbies have been particularly vocal and effective in maintaining them.
To Learn More:
Why our Food is Making us Fat (by Jacques Peretti, The Guardian)
What's in a Name? FDA, on High Fructose Corn Syrup, says Lots (by Rosie Mestel, Los Angeles Times)
Corn Subsidies: How Congress is Shortchanging our Health (by Bill Chameides, Grist)
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