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How the whole foods movement hurts the poor

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"An enormous amount of media space has been dedicated to promoting the view that all processed food, and only processed food, is making us sickly and overweight," wrote David Freedman in an essay on the food industry for a recent edition of the Atlantic.

"In this narrative, the food-industrial complex — particularly the fast-food industry — has turned all the powers of food-processing science loose on engineering its offerings to addict us to fat, sugar, and salt, causing or at least heavily contributing to the obesity crisis."

Mark Bittman said in an April column for the New York Times that 2013 is the year of books about “How Big Food Is Trying to Kill You.”

A book titled "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us" by New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss details how corporate scientists are "deliberate and calculating" when it comes to manipulating the "nutritional profile" of food products. "One of the industry's most devious moves: lowering one bad-boy ingredient like fat while quietly adding more sugar to keep people hooked," wrote Moss. He said that "some of the largest companies are now using brain scans to study how we react neurologically to certain foods, especially to sugar. They've discovered that the brain lights up for sugar the same way it does for cocaine."

"Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal," by journalist Melanie Warner, addresses the same issues Moss looks at. Many foods we feel good about eating masquerade as healthy. In reality, Warner says, these products are full of ingredients no one can pronounce, ingredients that could kill us.

But in his article for the Atlantic, Freedman turned conventional wisdom about processed foods and obesity on its head, exposing some of the ways the "food revolution as preached by Michael Pollen and his followers may harm those most at risk for suffering the negative effects of consuming too much McDonald's: the poor and minorities."

In her research on this issue for the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Elizabeth Baker found that in mixed-race or white high-poverty areas and all African-American areas (regardless of income) there is less access to foods that enable individuals to make healthy choices. "Without access to healthy food choices, individuals cannot make positive changes to their diets. If certain eating behaviors are required to reduce chronic disease and promote health, then some communities will continue to have disparities in critical health outcomes unless we increase access to healthy food."

But Freedman said that when it comes to getting healthier food to the people who need it most, the dominant approach (eat more vegetables) may not resonate with those with the most risk.

"If the most-influential voices in our food culture today get their way, we will achieve a genuine food revolution. Too bad it would be one tailored to the dubious health fantasies of a small, elite minority. And too bad it would largely exclude the obese masses, who would continue to sicken and die early," wrote Freedman.

"Despite the best efforts of a small army of wholesome-food heroes, there is no reasonable scenario under which these [healthy] foods could become cheap and plentiful enough to serve as the core diet for most of the obese population — even in the unlikely case that your typical junk-food eater would be willing and able to break lifelong habits to embrace kale and yellow beets."

Freedman goes on to argue that considering the distribution of those suffering from obesity related illness, McDonald's might be the best way to get healthier food to the people who need it most. "Popular food producers, fast-food chains among them, are already applying various tricks and technologies to create less caloric and more satiating versions of their junky fare that nonetheless retain much of the appeal of the originals, and could be induced to go much further," writes Freedman. "In fact, these roundly demonized companies could do far more for the public’s health in five years than the wholesome-food movement is likely to accomplish in the next 50. But will the wholesome-food advocates let them?"