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By Héctor Béjar
Greg Crister tells the story in his book Fatland. How americans became the fattest people in the world (New York, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2003).
First moment. In 1971, Earl Butz was Secretary of Agriculture of the United States, in the government of Richard Nixon. He was the man who changed the American food system. In the middle of the Vietnam War, production costs were high and sales prices were not enough. Farmers slaughtered a million baby pigs to maintain prices while housewives protested the high prices. While farmers wanted more money for their products, consumers wanted more products for their money.
For years, sugar prices were kept in a world structure supervised through a system of quotas and prices. But in 1971, Japanese scientists found a cheaper way to produce sugar: high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), made from corn.
Fructose, unlike sucrose, takes a different route in human metabolism. It goes directly, almost intact, without internal transformations, to be assimilated by the body. Biologists found that if fructose is used as the main sweetener, more fructose is made in the metabolic process. These observations from the University of Pennsylvania were ignored by the Department of Agriculture and, to lower prices, fructose entered the manufacture of beverages, candy, and industrial foods. Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola used 100 percent highly saturated fructose saving 20 percent of their costs.
Second moment. The British introduced Elaeisguineensis (African Palm) to Malaysia in the late 19th century. The Malaysian government subsidized it to support poor planters. In the mid-1970s, new technologies transformed it into a stable commercial fat, suitable for frying potatoes and making sweets industrially. The resulting calories were less of a problem. The important thing was the incredibly good price. One issue was neglected: palm oil was a highly saturated fat, lousy for the cardiovascular system, that could block arteries and lead to premature death. But eighty percent of Malaysia's budget came from palm oil, and the United States needed Malaysia as an ally in Southeast Asia. And palm oil was welcomed even against the interests of North American soybean producers.
As a result of these measures, prices fell. Calorie-dense products invaded supermarkets. In the years that followed, flours became cheaper and cheaper and food and drink portions larger and larger. MacDonalds began frying their potatoes in palm oil and built large processing plants in Malaysia. It was time to eat… and eat.
Third moment. By the 1970s, David Wallerstein, director of the Mac Donalds Corporation, realized that larger and larger bags of salty popcorn, fried with palm oil, could be sold in theaters, raising only slightly the producer price. Sales rose staggeringly and led to ever larger servings of Coca Cola. This is how jumbo size was arrived at, the large portion that people put in their stomach while watching a movie.
By the 2000s, research from Pennsylvania State University showed that human hunger can be expanded by offering larger and larger portions. The large dimension is addictive because it gives a psychological sense of power.
To make a profit for them, the industrialists and franchise sellers created a global food system that generates diabetes and obesity. They are turning us all into the planet of the fat and diabetic. The question is whether we will continue to allow it.
Third World Network