Why Eating Well Is ‘Elitist’

Thanks for all the great posts from readers — you’ve given me a lot to chew on, and there are many questions and comments I plan to address in future posts. But for today, I want to look briefly at the “elitism” issue raised by several of you. As you will see it also ties into the good question raised by Paul Stamler about whether consumer action — voting with your forks — is adequate to the task of changing the American way of eating.

It is a fact that to eat healthily in this country — by which I mean consuming food that contributes both to the eater’s health as well as to the health of the environment — costs more than it does to eat poorly. Indeed, the rules of the game by which we eat create a situation in which it is actually rational to eat poorly.

Let’s say you live on fixed income, and struggle to keep your family fed. When you go to the supermarket, you are, in effect, foraging for energy — calories — to keep your family alive. So what are you going to buy with your precious food dollar? Fresh produce? Or junk food?

A 2004 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Adam Drewnowski and S.E. Specter offers some devastating answers. One dollar spent in the processed food section of the supermarket — the aisles in the middle of the store — will buy you 1200 calories of cookies and snacks. That same dollar spent in the produce section on the perimeter will buy you only 250 calories of carrots. Similarly, a dollar spent in the processed food aisles will buy you 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of fruit juice. So if you’re in the desperate position of shopping simply for calories to keep your family going, the rational strategy is to buy the junk.

Mr. Drewnowski explains that we are driven by our evolutionary inheritance to expend as little energy as possible seeking out as much food energy as possible. So we naturally gravitate to “energy-dense foods” — high-calorie sugars and fats, which in nature are rare and hard to find. Sugars in nature come mostly in the form of ripe fruit and, if you’re really lucky, honey; fats come in the form of meat, the getting of which requires a great expense of energy, making them fairly rare in the diet as well. Well, the modern supermarket reverses the whole caloric calculus: the most energy-dense foods are the easiest — that is, cheapest — ones to acquire. If you want a concise explanation of obesity, and in particular why the most reliable predictor of obesity is one’s income level, there it is.

The question is, how did energy-dense foods become so much cheaper in the supermarket than they are in the state of nature? This is not a function of the free market. It is very simply a function of government policy: our farm policies subsidize the most energy-dense and least healthy calories in the supermarket. We write checks to farmers for every bushel of corn and soy they can grow, and partly as a result they grow vast quantities of the stuff, driving down the cost of the processed foods we make from those commodities. In effect, we’re subsidizing high-fructose corn syrup. And we’re not subsidizing the growing of carrots and broccoli. Put another way, our tax dollars are the reason that the cheapest calories in the market are the least healthy ones.

That situation is a public problem and can be addressed only through public action — by rewriting the rules of the game by which we eat. We need farm policies that will somehow right this imbalance, so that healthy calories can compete with unhealthy ones — so that it becomes rational for someone with little to spend on food to buy the carrots instead of the cookies, the orange juice instead of the Sprite. Until that happens, eating well will remain “elitist.”