Ask the grumpies: subsidies and obesity

Linda asks:

I saw this story about rising obesity rates and thought there must be an angle here for an economist. http://www.chicagotribune.com/health/chi-report-obesity-rising-dramatically-in-illinois-nation-20120918,0,3401712.story Maybe I am biased, but I’m thinking that one reason the obesity rate is rising is because people are incentivized (is that the right word?) to buy processed food with a lot of fillers, sugar, hydrogenated oils, and many other bad substances because they are so cheap. Of course they are cheap because the products that are used to make them (mostly corn and soy) are highly subsidized. So, if the subsidies were diminished or removed and the costs of cheap food fillers, the product cost would go up, too, right? Then there would be a more level playing field for true costs of foods, whether they be the highly processed junk or the whole foods like vegetables, fruit, etc. If food prices rise, that would impact people’s budgets, too, but is this logical? Factual? Inquiring minds want to know! ;-)

Sorry, typing too fast…if the subsidies were diminished or removed and the cost of cheap fillers went up, the product costs would go up, too, right?

Ok, here we have some huge problems with food deserts, poverty, and, as you so rightly point out, subsidies and lobbies for stuff like HFCS.

#2 says:  There must be answers to this we can cite.

Have you seen King Corn?

#1 says:  Well, this is one where the science isn’t complete yet.  Many folks still believe that sugar is sugar, whether it comes from beets or cane or corn or apple juice or whether or not it has fancy chemical stuff done to it to make it “high fructose” instead of just regular.  However, there’s some compelling (in my mind) new research that suggests that our bodies don’t understand the calorie load of things like high fructose corn syrup, or (with a stronger research base) artificial sweeteners.  Therefore yes, it’s quite possible that these more processed things are making us fatter.  But that’s not mainstream yet and we don’t really know.

We also know that many processed foods are processed in a way to make them addictive– to get that perfect balance of sweet, salty, fatty, and crisp, so that no, you can’t eat just one.  Does that lead to over-eating?  I think it’s likely, but I don’t know that’s been proven.  (People could substitute with lower calorie intake later.)

We do know that you’re absolutely right about these cheap carbohydrates providing cheaper calorie loads.  They also are bad for folks with insulin problems because they’re digested quicker and lead to insulin spikes.  The insulin spikes then lead to weight gain and other health problems.  Are they bad for folks without insulin problems, I don’t know.  But, 10% of women have PCOS, so even with that alone, a lot of people are going to be affected by cheap simple carbohydrates.  We do know that being poor and getting your calories from simple carbs does lead to obesity.  That’s why there are a lot of obese poor people.

And absolutely, the subsidies are on grains that are not good for us.  They’re not on real veggies.  Without them corn and potatoes and bread would cost more, and healthier foods would be more likely to be grown (because there wouldn’t be a kick- back for planing the filler foods) and their costs would actually go down.  Overall food budgets would probably increase, though if we also got rid of tariffs and embargoes, it’s hard to say what the bottom line is.  Your economics logic is impeccable.

I’m sure someone has looked at the hard numbers recently, but it’s not summer so I’m not going to look them up.  I do know a guy who did his dissertation on getting rid of the sugar monopoly, so people do look at these questions and put numbers on them.  With the huge amount of funding going into obesity research, I’m sure there are plenty of numbers on what getting rid of the farm subsidies would do to obesity as well, though they’re really just guesstimates.  (Sorry for not looking them up… it has been a crazy busy semester, and sadly the only two ask the grumpies posts left require actually knowing stuff.  We have fallen down as omniscient bloggers.)

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13 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: subsidies and obesity”

  1. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Kelly Brownell has done a lot of work on this topoc, and is absolutely convinced that the overall food (and sedentary) environment we have created in Western industrialized societies is the major cause of obesity.

    • hush Says:

      In a similar vein, Gary Taubes’ “Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It” identifies the Western diet (of too many sugars and starchy carbs) as the likely culprit.

    • lessisenough Says:

      I would be interested to see how things change if the cost of junk food went up.

      I would argue that the reason people buy processed foods over whole foods is not because they are cheaper (they are in fact, not cheaper — legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils), grains (rice, oats), bananas, frozen vegetables, are all much cheaper on a per-serving basis than cookies, chips, ice cream) but because they are easier and they taste better. Whole foods need to be prepared, which takes time and knowledge, and when you are used to eating very salty, sugary food, they don’t taste very good.

      A second problem is the spoilage issue. Foods that can last indefinitely are going to be cheaper than foods that go bad quickly. Even if subsidies are removed, processed foods will have that advantage over fresh foods.

      So I think that subsidies might be an easy target, but I’m not sure how much of the problem actually hinges on them.

      I second the Marion Nestle recommendation. Her book “Food Politics” is fascinating. (I especially liked the section on nutritional supplements. Reading that will get you out of the health aisle right quick.)

      And I read “Good Calories, Bad Calories” by Gary Taubes and after that I would take his conclusions with a grain of salt (no pun intended). I think he has a selective use of evidence, picking and choosing which studies he wants to rely on to support his arguments.

  2. Cloud Says:

    I’ve seen some reasonably convincing studies that fructose is more problematic for us than glucose- but I haven’t seen anything convincing yet that it matters whether we get our fructose as one half of the sucrose molecule or as roughly 55% of high fructose corn syrup, which is the most common kind (there are kinds with higher levels of fructose, too). Personally, I don’t worry about whether the added sugar is sucrose or HFCS- I just try to eat things without a lot of added sugar. People who avoid HCFS in favor of trendy things like agave syrup, though, should beware- those often have higher levels of fructose than HCFS. If it is the amount of fructose that is the problem, switching to agave syrup or the like may actually make things worse.

    Marion Nestle writes a lot both about the science behind food and the politics involved in our food system. She has many books, and also blogs here: http://www.foodpolitics.com/

    She’s quite liberal in her viewpoint, which might annoy some people. I have never come across an example of her twisting the science, though.

    I did a mini summary of the research I could find on the topic back in 2009: http://www.wandering-scientist.com/2009/02/some-research-on-high-fructose-corn.html

    I haven’t updated it, though, and this is an area of active research. Also, a lot of people who are concerned by the fact that industry groups fund a lot of the research in this area. They worry that this leads to bias in the studies. This is certainly possible, but all of the studies I cite in that post are in peer-reviewed journals, so at least a few other scientists read it and found the research worthy of publication.

  3. chacha1 Says:

    I think there is one very simple way to test the hypothesis and that is to immediately cancel all agricultural subsidies.

    HAHAHAHA like that’ll happen.

  4. Debbie M Says:

    Wait, 10% of women have PCOS? Holy yikes, Batman! One more way I’m luckier than so many people.

    I weigh too much because I have so many hobbies that involve sitting and because there is infinite yummy food around and I can afford all of it. I do like loads of sugar of every kind! I do wish it were easier to get whole grains, like in mixes or restaurants, but I understand it’s a supply/demand problem. Apparently most people prefer stuff made with white flour and white rice, so the other stuff would just go bad. Also, stuff with the germ in it goes bad more quickly, so there are inventory/storage issues.

    I feel I should ask the grumpies some easy questions, to help you in your busy times. What’s easy for you that would be interesting to me? Hmm, maybe:
    * What’s your favorite recipe and why?
    * What’s good for potlucks?
    * What’s your favorite food to bring to parties? To see at parties?
    * Where are you keeping your emergency fund these days?
    * What one thing have you owned the longest? How have you maintained it?

  5. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Hooray for our readers! Comin’ through with the sources!!!

    And more questions, too. Love ‘em.

  6. Isabel Says:

    For health reasons I’ve been pretty much on a paleo diet for a few months, and also avoiding nightshades. Besides losing weight and feeling a million times better, I have two observations:

    1. Although to others it seems like I can’t eat anything (no dairy, sugar, wheat, corn, rice, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers etc-what is there left to eat??) I am actually spreading my caloric intake over the tree of life more than most Americans, eating more parts of the few animals available for consumption these days, and getting more nutrient density and nutrient variety than previously. Overall my meals are tastier and more colorful than before.

    2. My old way of eating seems weirder the further I get from it. The empty filler starchiness of things like bread and pasta really stands out now, and foods like huge frosting covered pastries seem downright bizarre. I have to prepare every single meal fresh now, so the boxed and packaged and standardized aspect of most available food “products” is striking also. Even my former cravings which have completely disappeared now seem very strange and obsessive to me.

    Consequently I think there is something to these criticisms of our modern diets, possibly something profound.

  7. First Gen American Says:

    Well when I think of Italian and French food (like the stuff in those countries, not the american version), they are fatty but whole and nutritious and yummy…does that lead to obesity too? I don’t think the yummy factor necessarily leads to obesity. I think that junk food doesn’t make you as “full” feeling as whole food. They call them empty calories for a reason. You feel a lot fuller after 500 calories of pasta or meat than 500 calories of potato chips or ring dings.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      No, it doesn’t (the French are known for eating small portions, the Mediterranean diet is one of the best for health). They’re also not manufactured to be addictive, just delicious.

    • chacha1 Says:

      I think it’s been established that worldwide, obesity rates go up as a culture adopts the stereotypically “American” diet of highly manufactured foods (packaged snack foods, cereals, and fast-food).

      It is impossible to manufacture shelf-stable, real, Brie and baguette. :-)

  8. Soliciting more Ask the grumpies questions! | Grumpy rumblings of the (formerly!) untenured Says:

    […] do have a few that Debbie M. offered up the other week when she was feeling sorry for us for only having tough questions left, but we’re counting […]


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