How the twisted U.S. food system feeds a national epidemic


Editor’s note: This post is part of a weekly, year-long series called the Nourishing Effect. It explores how hunger affects health through the lens of the 2016 Hunger Report. The report is an annual publication of Bread for the World Institute.

By Bread for the World Institute staff

The FDA announced last month new food labeling regulations that will help Americans more easily decipher the true nutritional quality of food products. Most promising changes include bolder labeling of calorie content, adjusting unrealistic portion sizes to better reflect actual consumption habits, and displaying the grams and percent daily value of added sugars. Lobby groups for food and beverage industries—especially the sugar lobby—fought viciously to deny consumers this basic information. Our twisted food system is feeding a national obesity epidemic, but the healthcare sector can be a powerful force in shifting priorities away from profits and toward health. The 2016 Hunger Report explains:

What is behind Americans’ poor diets? One major factor is the way the U.S. food system is set up. Our farmers are very productive: between the early 1980s and 2000, the number of calories available per person per day increased from about 3,300 to 3,900. The problem is that the additional calories came predominantly from added fats and sugars. Since the first Dietary Guidelines for Americans were issued in 1980, per capita consumption of fruits and vegetables has barely changed. Meanwhile, between 1980 and 2000, obesity rates doubled among adults and tripled among children. These increases coincided with the changes in the food supply.

In 2012, the average American consumed more than 20 teaspoons of sugar per day. That is almost double the USDA recommended allowance, and more than double and triple the American Heart Association’s recommended amounts for men and women respectively. A 2014 report by the Environmental Working Group analyzed 80,000 food products sold in supermarkets around the nation and found that 58 percent had added sugar. This included at least 75 percent of deli meats, just one class of products consumers might be surprised to learn have been sweetened.

Beverages are the biggest source of added sugar in the U.S. diet, and the linkage between obesity and overconsumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is scientifically proven. The 10 largest food and beverage companies spend billions of dollars each year to convince Americans to consume more sugar, with soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages leading the way. Research shows that children are innately more receptive to sweet tastes than adults. The food industry spends more than $1 billion annually on youth-directed advertising. Soft drinks, cereals, candy, and sugary snacks account for the largest share. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has criticized marketing practices directed at children and youth. A 2006 report concluded that “food and beverage marketing practices geared to children and youth are out of balance with healthful diets, and contribute to an environment that puts their health at risk.”

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