Yesterday, we were brought along on a thought experiment conducted by pediatric endocrinologist and professor, Robert H. Lustig, M.D. After reviewing the characteristics that define “processed food” and considering its nutritional properties, it’s time to see whether the study’s hypothesis rises or falls:
“Imagine the last 50 years was an experiment. The food industry posed the hypothesis: Processed food is better than real food.”
Considering that nearly 75% of food items in the typical American grocery store contain added sugar, “this makes sugar the marker for processed food,” Dr. Lustig declares in an online Viewpoint in JAMA Pediatrics last month. He assesses 4 outcome measures — food consumption, health and disease, environment, and cash flow (economy) — to test the hypothesis.
1. Food consumption. Americans spend less per capita in relation to income on food (7% of GDP) than people in most other countries, “allowing us, the most obese nation, to buy more. There’s no question that food consumption is way up — an increase of 187 kcal/d in men, 335 kcal/d in women, and 275 kcal/d in teens since 1985.” Dr. Lustig claims that Americans buy less meat today (21% of food dollars spent today vs. 31% spent 30 years ago) and more processed foods and sweets (22.9% today vs. 11.6% three decades ago).
2. Health and disease. First, Dr. Lustig states what is obvious: “There is no question both obesity and type 2 diabetes have increased astronomically.” In teenagers, metabolic syndrome — obesity, dyslipidemia (abnormalities in blood lipid levels), hypertension, and elevated blood sugar levels — is predicted by their sugar consumption and not their overall caloric intake or their body mass index (BMI). Ultimately, this outcome measure fails because “research shows that sugar is a proximate cause of type 2 diabetes, dyslipidemia, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.”
3. Environment. Monoculture crops like sugar cane are highly destructive to the soil in which they are grown, and adjacent resources like water supplies from aquifers and surface bodies of water become high-demand commodities which are easily and frequently contaminated during agricultural operations. Higher amounts of pesticides are needed to protect monoculture crops, which leads to herbicide resistance, resulting in the need for newer and stronger anti-pest chemicals — all of which eventually accumulate in our food and water supply and, ultimately, in our bodies. Because of the nutritional nature of manufactured foods, which we discussed here yesterday, and the heavy environmental burden processed foods impose, monoculture crops like sugar (and corn, soybean, palm oil, etc.) are clearly drivers of climate change (an important point Dr. Lustig could credibly make but doesn’t).
4. Cash Flow. Dr. Lustig suggests that although big food companies like McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and others have fared very well, even after the severe economic downturn in 2008, the economics of the Great American Diet is a losing proposition for the rest of us: “In the USA, the food industry grosses $1 trillion per year – $450 billion is gross profit. In the USA, health care costs total $2.7 trillion/year – 75 percent of which is chronic metabolic diseases and 75 percent of which is preventable. Thus, $1.4 trillion/year is wasted. We lose triple what the food industry makes…”
On all 4 outcome measures, Dr. Lustig’s thought experiment fails to support his hypothesis:
“In conclusion, the project has succeeded in getting the consumption of unhealthy food rising, and it has succeeded in cash flow for the companies, but it has failed dramatically when it comes to health. And there is only one answer: Real food…”