This week I’m going to continue more or less on the topic of our government’s food policy, and how directly connected it is to our biggest nation health problems.  There is no real scientific debate about what is making Americans — and people all over the world who are adopting “our” diet — sick.  Medical research clearly connects diabetes, heart disease and obesity to overconsumption of processed foods containing too much sugar and not enough fiber.   If you want to read more details, google Gary Taubs, Michael Pollan, etc.  Robert Lustig has a new book out about it and spoke on NPR last Friday.

Conversely, the solution to our most expensive health problems is widely agreed upon and not even remotely controversial:  Eat more fruit and vegetables and minimally processed whole grains (not flour).  Whole foods take up more space in your stomach and intestines and are digested more slowly than processed ones, so that the nutrients you eat are not absorbed as quickly in your body.  Less gets turned into fat and you stay full longer.

The more highly processed food is, the worse it is for you:  A fruit and vegetable smoothy with oat bran is a better breakfast than a jelly donut or Frosted Flakes.  But it is still highly processed compared to (non-instant) oatmeal topped with fresh or frozen fruit, or even low-sugar granola with raisins in it.  Unfortunately, processed foods are both more convenient to eat and more profitable to make and sell.

The fat content of foods adds to the confusion.  Reasonably healthy whole foods like plain yogurt can be high in dietary fat. “Low fat” yogurt, on the other hand, is usually sweetened with fructose (corn syrup), which your body digests quickly and sends to your liver, which converts much of it to (human) fat.

As I mentioned above, the nutritional science here is well established.  So why does our federal government, through the Food and Drug Adminstration, continue to allow corporations to market highly processed foods that cause heart disease, diabetes, and obesity as “Low Fat” or “Heart Healthy” when they clearly are the opposite?   And why do they look the other way at soft drink and fast food advertising targeting children yet expect vegetable growers to eradicate naturally occurring microbes from their fields?

The healthcare system is also part of the problem.  Diet-related illness continues to fuel a giant expansion of an immensely profitable industry.  People want doctors to cure them, not tell them what to eat.  And expensive drugs and medical procedures like stomach stapling are reimbursed by health insurance plans while vegetable purchases are not.  But how is it possible that policymakers are not addressing the crisis:  that more and more of our nation’s resources are being swallowed up by the costs of treating almost completely preventable diseases? Maybe it’s because a large chunk of our economy is comprised of selling “consumers” unhealthy food and then treating the illnesses that result.  No one seems to want the government telling them what to eat, but many don’t seem to mind being told to eat fast food and soda by a constant barrage of ads.

In the parlance of federal farm policy, fruit and vegetable farmers are “specialty growers”, a tiny minority with little cash for campaign contributions, lobbyists and lawyers. So while commodity farmers receive billions in subsidies to ensure that big food processors can get cheap raw materials, produce growers get nothing.  And despite the fact that the products we grow are the solution to our nation’s health problems, for more and more people the crops that we grow –not the corn syrup — become a luxury they think they can’t afford.