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Eating Ourselves to Death


What dangers lurk in what we eat?


What dangers lurk in what we eat?

For one, high fructose corn syrup-which is in almost everything we ingest today.

The fructose in high fructose corn syrup alters the lipid metabolism in the liver and presents a calorie overload to which the body's metabolism is unable to adapt.

It may not be completely responsible for the nation's 6 million overweight children-but Dr. George Bray, who served as founding president of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity and organized the first International Congress on Obesity in 1973 says it's a big part of the problem.

Bray points out that between 1970 (when high fructose corn syrup was introduced) and 2000 (when its average yearly consumption hit 73.5 pounds per person in the U.S.), obesity more than doubled, from 15% to almost 33% of the adult population.

Additionally, obesity among children 12 to 19 increased from 4.2% in 1970 to 15.3% in 2000.

Why the massive movement from sugar to high fructose corn syrup in the first place?

Why do you think?

It's cheaper, due to the relative abundance of corn, farm subsidies, and sugar tariffs in the United States.

James Bovard of The Future of Freedom Foundation, a libertarian group whose mission is "to advance freedom by providing an uncompromising moral and economic case for individual liberty, free markets, private property, and limited government" makes the following points about sugar tariffs:

  • The U.S. imposed high tariffs on sugar in 1816 in order to placate the growers in the newly acquired Louisiana territory.
  • Since 1980, the sugar program has cost consumers and taxpayers the equivalent of more than $3 million for each American sugar grower.
  • Sugar sold for 21 cents a pound in the United States when the world sugar price was less than 3 cents a pound.
  • Each 1-cent increase in the price of sugar adds between $250 million and $300 million to consumers' food bills.
  • A Commerce Department study estimated that the sugar program was costing American consumers more than $3 billion a year.

Suddenly, in 1974, Congress abolished sugar quotas.

But, on May 5, 1982, President Reagan reimposed them.

Bovard's research tells us this:

  • Between May 1982 and November 1984, the U.S. government reduced the sugar import quotas six times as the USDA tried to balance foreign and domestic sugar supplies with domestic demand.

Then, something happened that no one saw coming.

On November 6, 1984, Coca Cola (KO) announced plans to stop using sugar in soft drinks, replacing it with high-fructose corn syrup. In an article in Fortune magazine, one beverage analyst estimated that by switching to high-fructose corn syrup, Coca-Cola gained a cost advantage over Pepsi (PEP) and its bottlers of $70 million a year. A year later, Pepsi followed suit, with wide-ranging implications.

  • High fructose corn syrup begat a spike in soft drink consumption.
  • From 1980 to 2000, per-person consumption of soda rose by 40%, to 440 12-ounce cans a year, according to the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service.
  • During roughly the same period, the inflation-adjusted price of soda declined by about one-third, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
  • At the same time, U.S. sugar consumption decreased by more than 500,000 tons a year-equal to the entire quotas of 25 of the 42 nations allowed to sell sugar to the United States.
  • Early in 1982, Reagan announced the Caribbean Basin Initiative to aid Caribbean nations by giving them expanded access to the U.S. market.
  • But between 1981 and 1988, USDA slashed the amount of sugar that Caribbean nations could ship to the United States by 74%.
  • Many farmers who previously grew sugar cane now began harvesting a much more profitable crop.
  • Marijuana.

Bovard writes that the Reagan administration responded to sugar-import cutbacks by creating a new foreign-aid program called the Quota Offset Program, which offered almost $200 mln of free food in 1986 to Caribbean nations hurt by the cutbacks. Richard Holwill, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, observed, "It makes us look like damn fools when we go down there and preach free enterprise."

The Commerce Department estimates that the high price of sugar has destroyed almost 9,000 U.S. jobs in food manufacturing since 1981.

On the flip side, here's what the American Sugar Alliance has to say on the issue:

  • Americans spend less than one-tenth of one percent of their income on a year's worth of sugar.
  • Candy companies in other developed countries pay, on average, 65% more for sugar than U.S. companies.
  • Add wholesale sugar prices from the world's poorest countries into the equation, and sugar prices in the U.S. are still nearly identical to world averages.

They go on to claim that "sugar policy opponents often attempt to confuse the issue by quoting a 'world sugar price.' What they fail to disclose is that there is no genuine world market for sugar. The price they refer to is from a highly-volatile market of subsidized surplus sugar and does not reflect refining, transportation, storage, and delivery costs like the U.S. price. This comparison is like comparing the price of an orange to the price of orange juice."

One analysis says it's too expensive. One analysis says it's actually quite cheap.

Whatever position one takes on the issue, there are some costs associated with high fructose corn syrup, sugar, soda, Twinkies, Ding Dongs, candy, etc. etc. etc. that are indisputable.

The costs of obesity.

Direct medical costs related to obesity in the United States weigh in (no pun intended, but unavoidable, I guess) at $93 billion, or 9%, of our national medical bill.

In an article in Forbes, reporter Matthew Herper says obese people miss more work, costing employers around $4 billion. Because people are fatter, airlines spend more on jet fuel, and the obese themselves spend more on gas. For some people, after the long-term affects are factored in, the price of a fast food meal may have been effectively doubled.

At one time, Burger King (BKC) was offering the "Double Stacker" (610 calories, 39 g fat, 1,100 mg sodium), the "Triple Stacker" (800 calories, 54 g fat, 1,450 mg sodium), and the gut-busting "Quad Stacker" which boasted 1,000 calories, 68 g fat, 1,800 mg sodium-four beef patties, four slices of American cheese, eight strips of bacon, and BK Stacker Sauce, on a sesame seed bun.

All for $4.49.

"The BK Stacker is simple and built with the very ingredients our restaurant guests love best-meat, cheese and bacon," noted Denny Marie Post, Burger King's senior vice president and chief concept officer, in a press release. "We're satisfying the serious meat lovers by leaving off the produce and letting them decide exactly how much meat and cheese they can handle."

Finally! Someone with the good sense to leave off that pesky produce that just gets in the way, anyhow.

Some might say that BK wimped out by cutting themselves off at four burgers on one bun. So, creative consumers went one further and devised the Octo Stacker-2000 calories, 136 grams of fat, and 3600 milligrams of sodium:

What About Where We Eat?

By now, everyone's more than familiar with the infamous rat infestation at a New York City KFC/Taco Bell (YUM) restaurant.

I took a look at the New York City Department of Health study done after it was revealed that, just one day before swarms of rats were filmed running rampant through the store, the Greenwich Village fast food outlet passed a spot inspection handily.

Here's an excerpt:

On February 22, 2007, the Health Department's food safety program inspected a Kentucky Fried Chicken/Taco Bell restaurant at 331 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village in response to a complaint involving rats. The restaurant passed the inspection.

On the morning of February 23rd, local news media began to broadcast images of rats running around the establishment. Senior managers of the food safety program learned of this report and assigned a supervising inspector to prevent the restaurant from opening and to perform a full inspection. The supervising inspector conducted a full inspection, which she finished that afternoon. Numerous violations were found, 106 points were assigned, and the restaurant was ordered to remain closed. (Due to a transcription error on the scoring sheet, 14 points were left off the total and the final initial inspection was scored with 92 points.) The 106 points included 28 for signs of rats and five points for conditions conducive to vermin.

Under intense scrutiny, the Department of Health managed to let a "transcription error" slip by.

Okay, maybe the transcriber had a late night and was feeling a little fuzzy the next day. But, further down in the report, they attempt to lessen the severity of the rat problem with this:

Rodents are not a significant cause of disease transmission in restaurants.

Oh? The National Center for Infectious Diseases begs to differ. They say rodents transmit Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome through urine, droppings, and saliva. The virus is mainly transmitted to people when they breathe in contaminated air, touch something that has been contaminated with rodent urine, droppings, or saliva, and then touch their nose or mouth, or eat food contaminated by urine, droppings, or saliva from an infected rodent.

But, as we all know, people don't eat food, breathe, or touch things in restaurants. And, since Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome causes the lungs to fill with fluid and there is no known treatment, cure, or vaccine to combat it, it must not be a big deal.

Must be why the NCID says this:

If infected individuals are recognized early and receive medical care in an intensive care unit, they may do better. In intensive care, patients are incubated and given oxygen therapy to help them through the period of severe respiratory distress.

Rodents also carry Leptospirosis, Toxoplasmosis, and the Plague.

Not something Yum! Brands, parent company of KFC and Taco Bell (along with Long John Silver's and a host of other chains), likely wants to think about.

Yum! Brands chart courtesy of MSN Money

The Bear Stearns (BSC) cafeteria also had a brush with New York City health inspectors recently, racking up 42 points in violations for things like "milk or milk product undated, improperly dated, or expired; food not protected from potential source of contamination during storage; personal cleanliness inadequate (clean garments and effective hair restraint not worn)."

I looked into this further, and could not find one instance of a foodservice worker not wearing a hairnet resulting in a human being coming down with Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome.

Bear Stearns chart courtesy of MSN Money

(If you'd like to download the Health Department's worksheet used for inspections, it's available here)

Wrapping it Up Into One Very Hard-To-Digest Piece of Information

Health, money, and rules recently combined to create a "perfect storm" of sorts for one unfortunate soul in upstate New York.

In December of 2006, Wayne Schenk of Syracuse was diagnosed with lung cancer and was told he had less than a year to live.

On January 12, he won $1 million playing a $5 scratch-off ticket in the New York State Lottery's High Stakes Blackjack. This particular prize pays out in $50,000 annual installments over 20 years.

Schenk tried to convince the state to pay him a lump sum so he could get treatment, but lottery officials said their rules and regulations precluded them from making an exception.

Wayne Schenk died on April 23, 2007, shortly after being presented with his first check for $34,000-his net after taxes.

Enough to make you sick, isn't it?

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