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How Our Food Has Become a Dangerous Addiction

In a new book, "Industrial Diet" Anthony Winson writes about the evolving story of the degradation of our food and the rise of "pseudo foods."

The following is excerpt from The Industrial Diet: The Degradation of Food and the Struggle for Healthy Eating by Anthony Winson (NYU Press).

In many of the food environments we encounter on a day-to-day basis, it is becoming difficult to find whole foods in anything like their natural form. Healthy nuts are rendered unhealthy by prodigious amounts of added salt and sweet "honey" glazes. Yoghurt is laced with copious amounts of sugar or high-fructose corn syrup sweetener, typically the equivalent of seven teaspoons of sugar in a small serving size. Even plain oatmeal, a basic food that nourished generations of Scots and Irish in the hard times of centuries past, is now often packaged with surprising amounts of sugar and salt. What is happening, and how do we account for it?

The evolving story of the degradation of our food environments in industrial dietary regimes would be incomplete without examining one other "master process." In addition to the simplification of food environments and the speed-up in the complex mechanisms for producing food, we must add a further process that has become the sine qua non of the manufactured edible products that constitute the industrial diet. I refer to this as the process of macro-adulteration and examine how this process is different from the age-old practices of adulteration. 

As with the processes of speed-up and simplification, macro-adulteration is one that very much reflects the fundamental pressures of a market-driven, rather than nutrition-driven, food economy. The edible products made possible by macro-adulterants have benefits to retailers, processors, and consumers. But they also have very significant costs, costs that are principally borne by the consuming public. The cost is chiefly to health. Three key macro-adulterants underlie the American diet: sweeteners, fats (primarily trans fats), and salt. ...

Adulteration Today: Contemporary Ways to Degrade Diets

The issue of adulteration of whole foods was a serious issue in earlier times. Present governments regularly proclaim that our food system produces safe and healthy foods, but is that truly the case? Is adulteration a thing of our unregulated past? Much of the old-style adulteration has been dealt with by regulatory measures, including penalties to those who transgress, brought in by governments over the last one hundred years. 

Old-style adulteration still exists, of course. It may take the relatively innocuous form of the retailer selling water-logged ground beef, or chicken meat injected with a saline solution, in order to gain extra profits from a commodity sold by the pound. With the globalization of markets in the neo-liberal era we now live in, however, it may take on more sinister forms. 

A notable example came to light by 2008 and involved the widespread adulteration practices by Chinese food processors who were lacing dairy products and pet foods with the chemical melamine. In the case of dairy products, this was done to boost the apparent protein content of watered-down milk products. The adulteration of infant formula in this way led to the hospitalization of some fifty thousand infants in China and several deaths, while the melamine in pet foods led to an epidemic of illness and deaths of dogs and cats in the United States. Because of the globalization of our food system, this adulteration had effects far beyond China, contaminating food environments in Southeast Asia, the United States, and elsewhere. 

There is another form of adulteration, however, that I believe is of more concern to the majority of people, particularly in the more economically developed countries. Manufacturers do carry out a form of adulteration of foods and beverages, although rarely with acutely toxic poisons as they once did. It is done at a massive scale and affects very large sectors of the population, to the point that few of us are unaffected. This adulteration has serious and widespread health consequences and deserves much more attention than it receives. 

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