Fat City: Now let us declare our independence from corn and cars

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Rich Broderick, July 7, 2008 • Of late I’ve been trying to run errands on my bike whenever possible. It’s not virtue. It’s financial. With gas hovering around $4 a gallon, I’m trying to save money.

At the same time, though, one of the virtues of traveling by bike is that you tend to notice things you might otherwise miss. Like the sign in front of the local Walgreen’s this holiday weekend advertising four 12-packs of Pepsi for $11.

Maybe it was because I was feeling thirsty, but I began thinking about that offer and about evidence linking this country’s obesity epidemic to soft drinks sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup.

Obesity is a leading cause of chronic illness and risk for early death. Obesity is linked to the meteoric rise in Type-2 diabetes – itself a major precursor of cardiovascular disease – as well as hypertension, certain forms of cancer, joint deterioration, spinal compression and more. Obesity is thus a major driver behind escalating health care costs, not to mention lost productivity owing to illness and disability

One big way the mainstream news media collude with the corporate/political class that runs the country is by drumming home messages congenial to this leadership elite. Among those messages, particularly when it comes to health, is that it’s all your fault. You, the individual. Come down with cancer? Well, that’s certainly not because of environmental exposures resulting from lack of adequate regulation or enforcement of the regulations already on the books, it’s your bad attitude, even the choice you made about what family to be born into. Looking a little chubby these days? Well, that, too, is all a matter of personal choice. Put down that cupcake, pick up that wheat grass smoothie. Stop watching TV (well, actually, don’t do that – it would piss off the advertisers) and get your butt to the local for-profit fitness center.

Once I got home from Walgreen’s I did a little arithmetic. A 12-ounce can of Pepsi delivers 150 calories, all it in the form of simple carbohydrates – sugar. Four 12 packs contain 7200 calories. 7200 calories divided by $11 comes to just over 15-hundredths of a cent per calorie.

Now, you’d be hard put to find a cheaper source of caloric intake than that. Even if you ate a pound of butter, you’d still end up with fewer calories – 1120 – at a higher cost per calorie: to consume those same 7200 calories in butter rather than Pepsi would cost close to $20 depending on where you shop and would require you to eat a little more than six pounds of butter.

The human body is a great egalitarian. It does not discriminate between a calorie that comes from butter from one that comes from a carbonated soft drink. All calories represent the same quantum of energy, the stuff that keeps us moving.

But it would be a rare – and freakish – person who consumed six pounds of butter in a week. It is not at all a rare or freakish American who might consume 48 cans of Pepsi in that same amount of time.

Meanwhile, those 7200 calories represent the total recommended caloric intake for a woman for three-and-half days (7200 divided by 2000) and just under three days for a man (7200 divided by 2500).

Say a customer who took advantage of Walgreen’s offer consumes those 48 cans of pop during the course of a week while at the same time ingesting other forms of food that amounts to 2000 calories a day if she is a woman or 2500 if the consumer is a male. Over the course of that week, the female customer will consume 10.5 days worth of calories in only seven days time, while the male customer takes in just under 10 days worth in that same period. A pound of human fat represents about 3500 unburned calories. Roughly speaking, that translates into a potential addition of two pounds of fat for the person drinking that four-pack unless that individual significantly cuts down his or her intake from other sources – which, this being America, is highly unlikely. In fact, the opposite is likely true, since studies show that high fructose corn syrup and carbonated beverages both tend to fool the body’s metabolic feedback system that tells us when we are full.

Is it any wonder, then, that we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic?

So, why are soft drink calories so cheap? The answer is simple. Taxpayer subsidies. Each year, the federal government underwrites production of cheap corn – 20 billion metric tons of it a year. Not surprisingly the chief beneficiaries of this public largesse are not farmers, but giant food processing companies – Cargill, ADM, General Mills and, of course, Pepsi and Coca-Cola. Overproduction of corn keeps commodity prices unnaturally low. That enables food companies to snarf up corn for next to nothing, then transform it into the high-fructose corn syrup that finds its way into a wide array of processed foods.

The answer, then, to the obesity epidemic is two-, rather than single-fold. One, exercise personal responsibility by cutting down on eating and increasing your level of physical activity. Two, stop subsidizing corn production.

That second step would instantly improve the health of America – and put a dent in health care costs – without costing us a dime. In fact, we’d save money. And then we could take that money and invest in another public policy that would also militate in favor of reducing obesity: comprehensive, multi-modal mass transit that is both affordable and convenient – enough to get us out of our automobiles (the number one culprit when it comes to our sedentary lifestyle) and onto buses, trains, bikes, and walking paths.

Such an investment is long overdue. For the fact is that, even if there were no problem with gasoline prices or the prospect of catastrophic climate change, we should still want to rid ourselves of the car culture.

In addition to pollution, social isolation, alienation, and thousands of traumatic deaths each year, the car culture has inflicted an all-but-mortal wound to the American landscape. We have almost forgotten that there was a time when we could construct beautiful cities and towns, that the innate human appreciation of line, form and color could render built environments as pleasing to the mind and the soul as the unbuilt environment of America’s dwindling rural and wilderness areas. Go to any small town in the Midwest and you’ll find the remnants of a lovely central square and main street business district, places where residents gathered and got to know each other as a community. And around it, you’ll likely find the inevitable pug-ugly ring of strip malls, parking lots, ticky-tacky subdivisions and all the other accretions of the post-War boom of car ownership.

As with corn subsidies, the private automobile’s domination of our society is the result of deliberate public policy carried out for decades at every level of the government to benefit not us, the citizens, but the corporations and companies that wanted to sell us new cars, gas, tires, and all those “dream homes” in far-flung suburbs that now cost a fortune to reach by car.

Two hundred thirty-two years ago the Founders declared their Independence from the British Empire, the richest and mightiest force on earth at that time. Surely we can find it in ourselves to declare our independence from the twin bane of corn and cars?

After all, we have nothing to lose but our chains – that, and several inches from the national waistline.