Nutritional Density

April 26, 2015

This week’s blog has nothing to do with the ratio of calories to vitamins, minerals and the other weenie bits in our food that make it healthy (or not, as the case may be). Today I’m wrapping up an unusually long trajectory of musings on the connection between explaining the uptick in obesity and taking some ethical responsibility for doing something about it. We set this up with some desultory blogs on the broader moral significance of eating—hospitality, marking time, comfort food—that sort of thing. But then we dug in on dieting and weakness of the will. That was probably obvious to everyone except the philosophers. The trajectory really took off on March 29 when I brought up the idea that a fat person has only himself (or herself) to blame. Moral responsibility for obesity resides in the bad decisions that are made by individuals.

We’ve spent the entire month of April defending some alternatives to this. The most popular substitutes blame the food industry. Not only have these evil geniuses figured out how to use our propensity for eating more and more to get us to buy their stuff, they’ve crammed their stuff with increasingly less and less healthy ingredients. (Maybe the blog does have something to do with nutrient density, after all!) Along the way we made note of a third hypothesis: the medical model. We’ve gotten fat because of the interaction between these new concoctions of the food industry and our basic biology. We didn’t emphasize how the medical model warps the ethics, however. If it’s our basic biology that’s to blame, the moral responsibility for doing something about obesity resides with doctors. Let them figure it out.

Last week we noted that the food industry can’t really be blamed for what they have done because they are, after all, acting just like the profit-seeking, soulless corporations-existing-in-the-social-milieu-of-ruthless-capital-accumulation that they are. Again, we didn’t really emphasize how this left-leaning diagnosis warps the ethics of diet, but wasn’t it obvious? If we can’t blame the food industry for doing what any red-blooded American self-interested maximizer would do in a heartbeat, we have to blame the government. The problem has to be addressed through changes in public policy. Maybe deep changes in the structure of our social institutions. Moral responsibility becomes social and the primary agent to effect change is going to be whatever political regime happens to be running the show at the moment.

There are some other candidates we haven’t considered. To wit: let’s blame technology. It’s all those afternoons spent staring at screens and playing with robots instead of going outside to walk the dog, play a game of catch or plant pansies in the flower garden. If we would just jiggle our bods around some, we might not get so fat in the first place. And here again, the moral of the story changes: It’s not our social milieu that’s the problem, it’s our technological milieu. So instead of blaming the food industry, we blame Apple, Microsoft and Sony. I hope you are getting the picture that I could go on like this indefinitely, but when next week rolls around, it will be May already and I really need to think about something else for my own sanity, if not yours.

But I want to close with this thought: It seems pretty obvious that all these possible explanations are partial and mutually compatible. It’s not either or. It’s individual decision making and the actions of the food industry and some facts about our biology and our public policy and declining physical activity together that are causing the dangerous increase in obesity and the rise in heart disease, diabetes and other bad nasties. So why is it that when we shift the conversation toward ethics, toward who or what should be taking some responsibility for this situation, we suddenly become blame shifters? We assume that if individuals are even partly to blame, the food industry (or the video game industry) is totally off the hook? We think that if there is some kind of policy change needed, it’s a purely governmental responsibility and no one else in the whole mess has any reason to do anything at all?

Now that’s what I call nutritional density.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


But Can We Blame Them?

April 19 2015

We’ve been exploring how the Evil Empire (e.g. the food industry) can be held responsible for the increase in obesity and the decline of public health for the last two weeks. This week we pause to remind ourselves that the food industry has done all these things because they are trying to make a buck. However much we might despise a real living and breathing human being who allows greed to overcome his or her moral sensibility, we pause to remind ourselves that “the food industry” isn’t a real living and breathing human being. Sure, there are real living and breathing human beings who work in the food industry, but their jobs involve figuring out how to make a buck for the firms they work for. And they are very good at their jobs, as the blogs of the last two weeks attest.

I come back to this in the context of food ethics because my lefty friends are deeply troubled by it. The rightwingers in my social circle hardly think about it at all, and that’s their problem. But this week we are ministering to the outrage and blistering vituperation that only a properly exercised leftwing radical can generate. Sure, they’re usually focused on social justice—the fact that poor people go hungry or the way that workers in the food industry are exploited and underpaid. But just mention that food industry firms have been working hard to figure how to make us eat more and more of stuff that we should be eating in high moderation (to the extent that we should be eating it all) and you will be met with a sputtering, exasperated desultory philippic about the venality and irresponsibility of profit seeking firms. It’s like the smell of napalm in the morning (God! How I love it!).

Of maybe they won’t, and that’s what I wanted to blog about today. No one is actually better at telling the story of why we shouldn’t expect anything other than pure profit seeking behavior from the commercial sector than a committed lefty. Or perhaps I should say that no one is better unless it would be a radical lefty. Any sociology major you happen to meet on the street can give you a very convincing explanation of why the capitalist system rewards—and because of that perpetuates—organizations that devise new ways to increase the ROI. This includes for profit firms, to be sure, but it’s not limited to them. The beauty of capitalism is the way that other organizations—schools, churches, government agencies—can be situated so that they, too, ensure that no opportunity to increase the return to financial or fixed capital can be upped a little bit, even when it means taking food out of the mouths of babies (or what amounts to the same thing, depriving future generations of the quality soil that they will need to grow their food). When you’ve got this kind of system in place, you expect food industry firms to find ways to make you eat more, like concealing the amount you are actually consuming in a big fat juicy beefsteak. You expect them to find ways to make a bigger dollar by substituting whatever cheap crap they can for higher quality ingredients, and to use both advertising and chemical additives to make sure you don’t notice it. If the system is what is making them do that, how can we blame them?

So the moral of this story is that if you are a leftwing radical who was about to write your own blog about how Thompson is just an apologist for the Evil Empire when he says in the Thornapple Blog that “Well, duh! Food industry firms aren’t such a candidate for being held morally responsible for obesity after all,” remember this: I got it all from you in the first place.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University



April 12, 2015

Oops! Unless you are one of the two readers who frequent this locus on bi-weekly to monthly basis, it seems that a random web-search may have landed you right in the midst of a long stream of consciousness rant on ethical dietetics. It began with some thoughts on being hospitable, but turned quickly to the overriding concern that we (and by “we” I mean humans) have with the effect of what we eat on ourselves. We are, it seems, predominantly self-interested when it comes to what we are and are not putting into our mouths. And then we veered over to emphasize the impact of dietary choices on our personal health. Moving right through the obvious thought that what we eat is primarily up to us (and hence it’s oneself you should blame when things go badly), last week we looked at the equally obvious thought that the food industry’s constant exhortations and inducements for eating more, more, more provide an alternative hypothesis for assigning blame.

We said then (and by “then” I mean last week) there was not one but two ways that the food industry could be held accountable for the bad dietary decisions that people have been making of late. And the other one, the alternative to making us eat more, more, more, has to do with what it is that we are eating. I think (and by “think” I mean suspect) that this hypothesis is a bit less obvious than the “more, more, more” hypothesis, but in the wake of dietary exposes by Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), Marion Nestle (Food Politics), Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma & In Defense of Food) and David Kessler (The End of Overeating) mentioning it in the Thornapple blog may be yet another instance of futile redundancy. Everyone already knows.

Neither of my regular readers will be surprised to find me saying that this turns out to be a more complex hypothesis than might at first appear. First, it overlaps with “more, more, more” quite a bit in that the shift in what people eat coincides with the food industry’s promotion of a “cheap, cheap, cheap” dietetics. They had allies here, not the least of whom would have been Calvinists who believed that spending money on something so base as food was just a form of showing off. Piety is to be found in penny-pinching and in avoiding the display of wealth or good fortune. But that’s a story for a different blog. For now we are maintaining that laser-beam focus on the food industry. In that context, “cheap, cheap, cheap” meant potatoes, potatoes, potatoes, as well as cooking absolutely everything you can in the deep fat fryer.

The more interesting ways in which the food industry changed what we eat have a basis in science. To wit, a good half century or more of research in flavor chemistry, augmented by studies of bizarre things like “mouth-feel”. I’ll bet you can take an entire course on mouth-feel at my university, but I’m too lazy to sort through the catalog looking for it. All the authors listed above talk about this, but Kessler is particularly good on the way that food science searched for that perfect combination of the sweet-salty-crunchy-fatty goodie that would be absolutely impossible for a creature with the evolutionary history of homo sapiens to resist. I blogged about this a few years back in connection with a donut special I happened to pass during one of my too-frequent visits to a large metropolitan airport.

The take-home point here is simply that the food industry has deployed the tools of chemistry, medicine and behavioral science to figure out recipes that are going to pull our chains. It would have been comparatively rare for humans to encounter these combinations of tasty and appealing foodstuffs during the caveman days, or even in 1952, for that matter. It might have even made sense to put on a bit of fat when the chance is right in front of you when human societies were encountering food shortages once or twice in every decade. How can we possibly be expected to do anything but consume these products today?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

The Fires of Mordor

April 5, 2015

We’re right in the middle of a multi-week theme here at the Thornapple Blog, so if you are just dropping in you might find it helpful to go all the way back to February if you want to get the full treatment. But the synopsis is that we’re taking a dive into moral dietetics: the ethics of what you choose to eat, and we’re focusing especially on the way that what you choose to eat affects you, rather than someone else. This points us directly to overeating (though we should probably come back and do undereating sooner or later). I’ve been trying to resist the idea that overweight people have no one to blame but themselves.

So let me just make things easy this week by pointing to the most popular alternative. If obesity is not just a problem of poor decision making by individuals, we need to find some other way to explain why people are getting fat in unusually large numbers. If we find that the increasing rate of obesity has been caused by something other than a lot of spectacularly bad behavior by people acting one by one on their own initiative, then we can replace the individualistic theory of ethical responsibility for unhealthy eating habits with some better account.

And the most popular alternative is: THE FOOD INDUSTRY! This would be a theme we’ve touched upon many times in the Thronapple Blog. People are getting fat because the conglomeration of industrial farming, industrial scale milling, slaughtering, processing and distribution companies, the food manufacturers and finally the retailers (in the form of grocery and restaurant chains) are doing things that cause people to eat badly.

I think there is absolutely no doubt that this is true, but the tricky part comes because there are many rather different ways in which it is true. And here’s a warning: it’s going to take me a couple of more weeks to tire of this theme, and even then I won’t really have exhausted things.

So for this week—again with the idea of keeping things simple—let’s just start out that there are two big lines of thought to follow through when we probe how the food industry is the cause of people eating badly. The first is that people are eating the wrong food, the second is that whatever they are eating, they are eating too much. My sense is that food activists have sort of picked up primarily on the first line of thought. We’ll come back and revisit that in another blog down the road, so for now let’s just close off this week’s entry by noticing some dead obvious things about eating too much.

First, eating has become incredibly convenient of late. A few weeks back we noticed that the auto industry had to accommodate their product line to the convenience of food by adding cupholders to their vehicles. Even the French and Germans have done this, at least on the models that they sell in the United States. If it were not so incredibly easy to pull in and scarf a taco, some fries or shake, it’s entirely reasonable to think that people might not do it with such insane frequency.

Second, the food industry itself is maniacally proud of how inexpensive food has become. Back in 1965, a McDonald’s hamburger cost 15¢. It was 240 ready calories for nothing but pocket change, and certainly marked a step in the direction of eating more for less. If we just take inflation into account, the McDonald’s hamburger should cost $1.13 in today’s money. It’s actually more than that now, but you do have some choices at the Golden Arches. In 2015 the McDonald’s “Dollar Menu” boasts four hot food items. The McDouble with 340 calories, the double cheeseburger with 380 calories, the McChicken sandwich with 370 calories and an order of chicken McNuggets with an astonishing 940 calories. The healthiest thing on the Dollar Menu would be the soft baked oatmeal raisin cookie at only 150 calories.

In 2015, you’ll have to spend more to eat less. I know, I know. It’s obvious, but our love of obscurity notwithstanding here at the Thornapple blog, it doesn’t hurt to state the obvious now and again.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University