The Effects of Capitalism on American Health

By: Maggie Witham.

Written as part of the First-Year Seminar “The Raw, the Cooked, the Processed”


The average American has been coerced into an extremely unhealthy diet by the dominating companies in the food industry. Bombarded with advertisements for fried, sugary, and processed foods, people tend to gravitate to these unnatural products and ignore the healthy, whole foods that should be consumed. Processed food is being sold at low costs and is easily accessible, making these products a staple of the Standard American Diet. Companies that sell these products contribute to America’s capitalistic economy. Capitalism is when a country’s industry is run by private companies for profit, rather than being controlled by the state. Big-name brands are not making products to satisfy people’s nutritional needs; they are doing it entirely for the money they are earning. The distribution of these food products is controlled by the small group of people representing each company. They decide what is being put into food, how it is being made, and the prices for all of the products. This lowers the quality of products and they become extremely over processed. The food being made by large companies has little to no nutritional value and is increasing the amount of unnecessary sugars and fats into the American diet. I believe that capitalism, specifically the dominance of companies in the food industry, is the main contributor to the rising rates of health problems such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes in America. Capitalism causes the growth of diet-related complications because of its advertising ploys, cheap prices, and easy accessibility of products.

Initially, capitalism is the culprit of causing these health-related problems because of its sly advertising and marketing ploys. Businesses spend billions on marketing their products to the public. America is overwhelmed with TV commercials, computer ads, the high population of fast food chains, etc. Marion Nestle, a professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, claims that food companies compete fiercely for our food dollars and do everything they can to induce us to eat their products and to eat more food, regardless of the effects on waistlines and health (Specter, 2015). They make advertisements exciting and interesting, truly trying to engage their audience and persuade them into buying their product, as any good advertisement should do. However, these ads are deceiving; they mask the deadliness of their merchandise. Pictures of happy, thin and presumably healthy people enjoying highly processed cereals and snacks in advertisements are not the reality in this country. But, they are seen by the average person many times through multiple outlets during a typical day. “On TV alone, the average child sees about 5,500 food commercials a year (or about 15 per day) that advertise high-sugar breakfast cereals, fast food, soft drinks, candy, and snacks, according to the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Compare that to the fewer than 100 TV ads per year kids see for healthy foods like fruits, veggies, and bottled water” (Voiland, et al. 2012). This fact is especially alarming because children are rarely exposed to healthy food to eat; all they will ever know is what they see on the screen. If they are exposed to a highly processed diet early on, it will most likely carry throughout the rest of their lives. Changing what is advertised to children can change the health of Americans in the future. This type of diet is normalized because it is so commonly seen in our everyday lives, but it does not have to be.

Adding on to the effects of advertising, labels on the products themselves can be illusory as well. A company may market that their product is “100% whole wheat” to distract from the added sugars and fats hidden on the nutrition label. The large fonts on the front of packages imply that the food is healthy, but it is meant to divert the public away from the actual harms in the product. These labels narrow the view of customers and convince them that the food is healthy because of that one factor, when in reality they are still highly processed and contain excessive sugars, fats, sodium, etc. A nutrition label does contain the amount of sugar per serving, but there is no label for added sugars. The FDA wanted to pass a law that all companies must start acknowledging added sugars on their nutrition labels, but were faced with harsh feedback and criticism. Brands worried that their products would not sell as well if the public was informed on what was actually inside them. Many companies go as far as to hire or sponsor people to fight off their critics. “[The Center for Consumer Freedom] has lobbied aggressively against obesity-related public health campaigns – such as the one directed at removing junk food from schools – and is funded, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, primarily through donations from big food companies such as Coca-Cola, Cargill, Tyson Foods and Wendy’s” (Voiland, et al. 2012). Again, major food companies try to mask the unhealthiness of their foods or drinks through multiple ways. Taking advantage of their wealth and power to diminish the claims of critics results in the public not being fully aware of the health risks that stem from consuming their products.

Furthermore, the cheap prices of processed food make it more desirable to the average American. This especially relates to fast food stores, where a few dollars can immediately satisfy a meal. This results in both the gratification of companies and consumers. Because processed food costs less for a company to make, they can sell it at a lower price. The most money comes from turning government-subsidized commodity crops of mainly corn, wheat, and soybeans into fast foods, snack foods and beverages (Voiland, et al. 2012). It happens that these crops that are turned into processed foods are low in nutritional value. For example, soybean oil has become the most commonly consumed vegetable oil in the United States. It is found in processed foods because it is cheap to manufacture. Soybean oil greatly impacts blood pressure and cholesterol levels, ultimately having a direct effect on obesity. Consumers see a price tag over a nutrition label. Products that are low cost are generally bought more often than products that cost more but are healthier.

As a matter of fact, processed foods are found to be physically addicting. The more fast food and junk food that someone eats, the more that they crave it. “Foods that are dense in fat and sugar prompt the striatum to make endorphins, ‘feel good’ chemicals, that can trigger binge eating” (Kenny 2015). Processed food is more calorie dense than it is nutrient dense. Overeating this food will result in an increase of calories but provide little to no nutrients for the body. They contain mostly added sugars and fats. If these foods are constantly eaten, a person will begin to crave them more and it creates a vicious cycle that leads to many possible health problems like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Americans are eating more processed foods than ever before. In the 1950s, people were eating the majority of their food at home, around 75%. In 2009, only about 50% of food was eaten at home, and that still includes many processed foods (Dr. Stephan Guyenet). More and more people are falling susceptible to the obsession of processed foods. By even selling their products, companies are contributing to the food-related diseases in America. They are the starting point of an addiction to fast and processed foods.

Additionally, the companies’ products are easily available, making them even more tempting to consumers. They are packaged and found in all types of food stores, gas stations, fast food restaurants, etc. Poorer areas may not have great access to an education about healthy living, so they turn to what they see all the time: the processed foods. The fact that these products are affordable and immediate makes them even more appealing as well. It is more tempting to eat something that is already made in front of you rather than making the food yourself. Also, many of the processed foods are not able to be replicated at home. One can grow their own vegetables or spices, but cannot easily make their own cereals, chips or Cheetos. Processed foods cannot truly be recreated as they are advertised, so the only option for consumers is to buy them how they are.

Overall, capitalism and the power of companies in the food industry are the main contributors to the growing health problems in the American people. Companies are ultimately after profit; they will provide whatever is cheapest to the public in order to earn money. Processed foods are high in fat and added sugar which can become addictive if eaten excessively, as many Americans do. The Standard American Diet has evolved greatly over time. According to “Eating Made Simple,” obesity rates in the United States (of people aged 20-74) have risen from 15% in 1980 to 35.3% in 2012 (Nestle, 2007). These changes in the average health of the American public over the past few decades are alarming. Heart disease is now the leading cause of death for both men and women. Both health problems are related to and can be reversed by altering food choices to be healthier and more well-balanced. The epidemics related to diet choices are most likely caused by capitalism and the supremacy of large companies in the food industry by exerting control through advertising, cheap prices, and easy accessibility of their products.

 

References

Kenny, P. J. (2015, June). The Food Addiction. The Scientific American, 46-51.

Nestle, M. (2007, September). Eating Made Simple. The Scientific American, 39-45.

Specter, M. (2015, November 2). Freedom from Fries. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/02/freedom-from-fries

Voiland, A., Haupt, A. (2012, March 30). 10 Things the Food Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know.Retrieved from https://health.usnews.com/health-news/articles/2012/03/30/things-the-food-industry-doesnt-want-you-to-know

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