Cheap, Crappy Calories

By Sean Carroll | April 26, 2007 5:33 pm

You know what’s a really big problem? The Farm Bill. The quintennial piece of legislation that steers billions of dollars into subsidies for farmers who mass-produce the raw materials of which junk food is made. Yeah, I know, not exactly a hot topic, nor our normal fare. But Michael Pollan in the Times lays out a devastating indictment of the current system, which encourages our economy to overproduce food that is incredibly bad for us, while busting the federal budget, ruining the environment, and hurting small farmers and developing countries to boot. (Via Marginal Revolution.)

Here is the basic econo-physics of the situation:

As a rule, processed foods are more “energy dense” than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them “junk.” Drewnowski concluded that the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly — and get fat.

This perverse state of affairs is not, as you might think, the inevitable result of the free market. Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?

For the answer, you need look no farther than the farm bill. This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation, which comes around roughly every five years and is about to do so again, sets the rules for the American food system — indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world’s food system. Among other things, it determines which crops will be subsidized and which will not, and in the case of the carrot and the Twinkie, the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support to the cake than to the root. Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.) For the last several decades — indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning — U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy.

I remember the moment it first dawned on me that Coke was significantly less expensive than orange juice. But making soda is a complicated chemical process, while oranges literally grow on trees! Of course, once you master that process, mass-producing the chemicals is fairly straightforward, while growing oranges requires a certain amount of patience. At the time I didn’t really appreciate the other aspect of the puzzle: we pay people to grow corn, which is turned into high-fructose corn syrup, which sweetens all of the processed food we find on our supermarket shelves.

Now, there does seem to be an obvious point missing in the article: the popularity of Twinkies over carrots cannot be put down solely to the greater density of calories per dollar. A lot of people like how Twinkies taste, deep-fried or not. But that doesn’t mean we should be actively subsidizing their production.

Pollan strikes an optimistic note at the end of his piece, suggesting that the importance of the Farm Bill may finally be percolating up to the national consciousness. (At least until the next time that a celebrity with fake boobs dies of a drug overdose.) It’s long been considered political suicide to even suggest messing with farm subsidies, especially with the Iowa caucuses playing such a large role in Presidential primaries. We’ll see if next year is any different.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Food and Drink, Health
  • Scott

    I agree with the “econo-physics” and the ideology, but the Coke/OJ point seems off-base. Coke is cheap because it’s made from reasonably local water. OJ is expensive because it’s Florida rain that has been trucked to you. Frozen OJ concentrate – the oranges without the water – is cheaper than Coke.

    Indeed, this feeds into another food-policy problem, the high energy cost of non-local food. Twinkies come from one factory (near Quahog, RI, as I recall) while salad can come from nearby. Getting the Twinkie to you takes a bigger truck running on longer roads.

  • RayCeeYa

    The thing that sting me most about the current way we deal with food production in this country is how all these subsidies are going to monolithic mega corporations like ConAgra, IBP, and Monsanto. I grew up on a farm. More specifically a cattle ranch that had been in my family for five generations. We lost our ranch in the 80s because we couldn’t compete any more. I’m all for a little help going the farmers way but corporate farms simply don’t deserve or need that kind of money. Unfortunately those same corporations have the Department of Agriculture in their hip pocket.

    It gets even worse when we start considering the impact of our overproduction of food. Here in the US we throw away more food than most countries actually consume. We’re overproducing food to the extent where we have to find viable outlets for our excess. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is the most blatant example of this reuse of excess food. Notice I’m careful to call it excess food and not wasted food, because the food is perfectly edible we’re just choosing to re manufacture it into a value added product. HFCS provides a use for all the excess corn produced in the US. In reality it’s actually more expensive than real sugar to produce. However, because the government subsidizes corn producers, the food processing companies can buy corn for pennies. You can read more about this in Mr. Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

    I’ve said again and again that it would be good for this country if we started paying the real cost for our food. If strawberries started costing about $10 a pound and beef ran up to around $20 per, maybe we’d start to exploit that most eternal of staples that we seem to have forgotten about, bread.

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  • mandeep gill

    Hey Sean- this is i think my first feedback post to CV, and it’s kind of amusing that i’m writing to this topic (being that i’m a physicist/cosmologist !) but — this was *highly* informative little post. i’ve wondered some of these same things, and i think this gets right to the root (ha) of the issue.

    thx for the non-mainline post!

  • Michael

    high energy cost of non-local food.

    If I remember correctly, the vast majority of the energy used to transport food is used in driving to the supermarket to buy it. The other legs, between warehouses and across the country, are actually pretty cheap. Big trucks packed full, vs. cars with a few bags. Growing food localy also often means growing it in a greenhouse, possibly with light and heating (for cut flowers, certainly).

  • Eugene

    Actually, Coke is cheaper than water in my supermarket :(.

  • Sean

    Most avocados you can buy in Hawaii supermarkets are grown in California, despite the fact that locally-grown avocados taste much better. I’m certainly not familiar with the details, but as a general rule transportation costs are relatively cheap.

  • Sourav

    I hate pork and subsidies every much as the next guy, but I don’t think you can blame them for people being too stupid to understand (or worse, willfully ignoring) that Twinkies are less healthy for you than carrots.

    Maybe supply-side economics works after all 😛

  • thm

    Indeed, this feeds into another food-policy problem, the high energy cost of non-local food. Twinkies come from one factory (near Quahog, RI, as I recall) while salad can come from nearby. Getting the Twinkie to you takes a bigger truck running on longer roads.

    The perverse thing, which Pollan describes in Omnivore’s Dilemma (an absolutely fantastic book, btw) is that most salad actually travels as far as the Twinkies. All the pre-packaged salad greens, whether labeled organic or not, are grown on a couple of huge organic-but-highly-industrialized farms in California. A precision harvesting machine cuts the greens in raised beds and moves them to a large refrigerated warehouse to be cleaned and packed in nitrogen. The bags of produce are then loaded onto refrigerated trucks and sent across the country to refrigerated display cases in grocery stores.

    And then if you do a sensible calculation, like the ratio of energy spent moving the greens across the country to the energy content of the greens themselves, you just want to throw up your hands in despair.

  • Cynthia

    Keep in mind though, the half-life for a twinkie might very well be greater than the one for a proton.;-)

  • Moshe

    Very informative post. This is a subject close to my heart since becoming a parent. Sure before that I was vaguely aware of the interests behind the sugar/oil/dairy industries, and was mainly amused by all the oddities involved, but what came as a surprise to me was the amount of propaganda I have to fight, on a daily basis, just to keep my child healthy. Joe Camel is nothing compared to all those characters pushing processed food, it is good to see some of the forces behind this machine.

  • alienmist

    Why do we keep on blaming food for our health problems. The science is pretty simple your body needs calories to survive, supply it with the needed calories , do not overdo it. With kids parents exert your control.

    Stop blaming fast foods, teach self control and moderation instead.

  • David Bennett

    Given the emphasis on planetary protection in astronomy these days and the NASA administrator’s argument that we need to colonize the Solar System to protect against extinction events on Earth, I wonder why no one seems interested in converting the farm subsidy program into something that is really useful to those of us who are not farmers. The idea would be to create a large stockpile of food that could feed the country for a year or more.

    In the historical past, there have been a number of volcanic eruptions that have altered the climate enough to basically wipe out one or more growing seasons. The most recent such event was the Tambora eruption in 1815, which caused the “year without a summer” in 1816. It is likely that there was an even more severe event in year 535. If such an event happened today, the US would probably face only food shortages and not mass starvation if only a single growing season was lost. But it seems quite likely that hundreds of millions in the developing world would face starvation.

    There is no reason why such events must be limited to disruption of a single growing season. In the prehistoric past, the eruption at Yellowstone about 700,000 years ago could easily have wiped out food production for a decade, and similar effects could be caused by impacts of asteroids or comets.

    While the government is not taking action, there is apparently an effort by individual citizens to create their own personal food stockpiles by overloading on twinkies. As commendable as this effort is, there are well known health problems associated with such personal food stockpiles, so it might be better if the government could step and create a national food stockpile instead.

  • spyder

    As this is one of the areas i have been working on over the last few years (notwithstanding efforts in the 1970’s to craft better Federal agricultural legislation), i have some caveats to throw out. The subsidization of agriculture in the US is only nominally beneficial to the farmers (even to the corporate farms under which more than 84% of US agriculture is practiced); the mass of those funds end up directly into the pockets and accounts of financial institutions and the petro-chemical giants. They pay for the lobbyists to put the language in place. A second layer of subsidy covers the manufacturers of processed foods, through limiting the cost of the raw materials. Wheat for example, given adjustments for inflation and real dollars, hasn’t changed much in wholesale price since 1956 due to subsidies. This keeps the cost of producing grain products very low, relative to the profits generated by the products on the shelves. Large grocery chains (and especially their wholesale providers) use these high profit items to offset (artificially lower) the retail prices of produce and dairy.

    The other legs, between warehouses and across the country, are actually pretty cheap. Big trucks packed full, vs. cars with a few bags.

    Unfortunately this is not the case at all. The last batch of figures i worked with, direct from the vice president of one of the three largest transporters of produce in the US, are staggering to the imagination. In 2000, a typical reefer truck moved produce at a cost of $1.79 per mile; by 2004 that was up to $2.45 and during the fuel increases of 2006 it went over $3.00 per mile. Imported produce (nearly 25% of the market share) arrives at only three locations in the US (and believe me everyone thinks this is insane). All West Coast import and export of produce must first move through San Francisco, whether it arrives by plane or fast freight. It then must truck across America, because trains are not reliable at all. No wholesale provider accepts rail as a trusted source for transportation. But again, the reason we think that warehouse to market movement is cheaper is because these product retail prices can be offset by the large profits made on staples and grains.

    We have a huge problem, and one that is only getting much worse. No amount of tweaking of the farm bill–and all of that will seemingly only benefit the corporate systems–will surplant the absolute need to start growing locally those crops and commodities that are sustainable and geographically appropriate.

  • Anonymous Snowboarder

    Re: Coke, remember there was a time when it was made with real sugar and in fact the Passover Coke is much sought after as it uses the real stuff.

    As to farm subsidies, just like everything else the politicos are bought and paid for. There are a few however who are not, such as Ron Paul (R-TX) who has managed to be re-elected quite a few times in what was (at one time) a rural farming district eventhough he votes NO on all spending bills. He simply asked the farmers – are you better off today with these massive subsidies or not? Once they understood it was just going to ADM they were much less upset with his stand.

  • Stay-at-Home Mom

    I am someone who has chosen to raise my special-needs child instead of going into the workforce. This decision has brought great joy and financial hardship to our family. Because I am the person who does 99% of the shopping in our household, I consider myself very knowledgable when it comes to comparing food prices between different stores, farmers markets, etc. While I do not have a degree in economics, so hence, cannot be considered a “professional” or “a qualified expert,” I still believe that common sense is a valuable method of learning and most people who have chosen to raise their families instead of finding a job in the workforce must have ample amounts of it in order for their families to survive.

    Like the author of the blog, I have also found a disturbing difference in the pricing of convenience foods and healthy, or what I like to call, “whole foods.” For example, I find it incredible that at most supermarkets, white rice, even though it is a highly processed product, is much cheaper than brown rice. Natural peanut butter, without all the sugar and hydrogenated fats the other companies have, is oftentimes $2 to $3 more expensive per jar. Vegetables have greatly increased as well. Potatoes, which used to be $2.49 for a 10 lb. bag a year-and-a-half ago are now $3.49 – $3.99 per bag, depending on which store you go to. 100% fruit juices, milk products, eggs, beef…these staples in our household have all gone up in the last couple of years. Add the increase in the price of gas to the mix and what we have is a household budget literally on the razor’s edge.

    Paying a couple of bucks extra for something may not be a problem for most of you, but I feel that I must represent the growing group of Americans who are struggling every day to survive, whether it be on one spouse’s income, social security, a disability check every month, welfare, whatever it may be. We are all being forced to make do with less because of many factors going on in our country today. Many of the people I have known work very hard for the little money they earn, but cannot afford to purchase a pot roast once in a while for a family meal. One friend would take her grandchild to McDonald’s for dollar hamburgers because she could not otherwise afford any meat. I have lived in dangerous neighborhoods where I have had to take a twenty-minute taxi ride to even get to the nearest grocery store for decent food because the only stores in our area were fast food restaurants and convenience stores. Renting an apartment meant we couldn’t have a garden and the community gardening programs had waiting lists as long as 3 to 5 years for a plot. Now how does one expect a parent to feed their child fresh produce if a.) they can’t afford it, b.) their area stores do not offer it for sale, and c.) they have few if any chances to grow their own produce due to lack of resources within their community? I am very angry with the way our leaders have chosen to ignore the problem of food in America and how they have chosen to take the easy road in blaming the victims of this terribly managed system, much as “alienmist” did in a comment that I find ignorant and insulting:

    “Why do we keep on blaming food for our health problems. The science is pretty simple your body needs calories to survive, supply it with the needed calories , do not overdo it. With kids parents exert your control.

    Stop blaming fast foods, teach self control and moderation instead.”

    Most if not all the parents I know would prefer to buy their children apples instead of candy bars, a salad instead of Top Ramen, lean meat instead of a fast food hamburger. But when the wolf is at your door in the form of electricity bills, medical bills (especially if one is uninsured), rent, etc. and your paycheck(s) barely cover the cost of those, then the question becomes not what is more nutritious, but what is the cheapest and most filling for my family. It is tragic that these choices must be made, so I ask those who can afford to, please get involved! Garden some of your own produce, volunteer at your local food bank, support government programs like Women Infants and Children (WIC), Meals on Wheels, and others which provide nutritious food and nutritional education. I know that this is just a start, but if our communities begin to take notice and come together to solve these problems, we can accomplish great things.

  • janet

    Why do we keep on blaming food for our health problems. The science is pretty simple your body needs calories to survive, supply it with the needed calories , do not overdo it. With kids parents exert your control.

    Stop blaming fast foods, teach self control and moderation instead.

    It’s quite a bit more complicated than that. If calories in/calories out were all that mattered, it would be fine to get your daily allotment of calories from Coke and Twinkies, as long as you didn’t exceed 1800 calories, or whatever your daily allotment is.

    Of course, the point of Pollan’s article and Sean’s post is not to “blame food.” It’s to point out the wrong-headedness of a food policy that makes calories cheap and nutrition expensive. Sure, self control is important, but government policy has a significant impact on how difficult it is to exercise control over yourself and your kids.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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