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  • Audrey Miller

American Junk: The Food System

While many countries have unique, vibrant cultural dishes to represent their people, America is synonymous with hot dogs, hamburgers, and soda. For years, Americans have had among the highest rates of obesity and much of it is props to the kinds and amounts of nourishment they seek. While this kind of behavior has been notoriously linked with American’s unseeingly unhealthy food choices, it may actually be less their fault than thought before.

There are about 10 big corporations that run the majority of the food industry because of their ability to sell products with addictive tastes at lower rates, however, the ingredients they put into these foods compared to other countries make you wonder if America even wants their people to be healthy. Take a look at these UK and US comparisons of the same food products:

Although all of these products would be considered unhealthy nonetheless, there are significantly less ingredients in the U.K’s products: American Heinz Ketchup has high fructose corn syrup whereas UK's has sugar; The American McDonald’s Fries have added ingredients that the UK didn’t need to replace with healthier alternatives because they were not needed to begin with. The UK’s simpler ingredients are one of many obvious examples of how America adds unnecessary and unhealthy ingredients to their food. Why is America doing this to themselves? Perhaps it is the desire to be monetarily efficient.

American vs. UK Pricing

Before I compared the prices of some of the products that we saw in the ingredient comparisons above, I made an hypothesis: UK pricing would be more expensive. Why, may you ask? Because the only likely reason the US hasn’t hopped on the train is because it does not support their capitalist motive.

First, I viewed a 32 oz. bottle of Heinz Ketchup on Amazon US and an equivalently sized 910 g Heinz Ketchup on Amazon UK. After comparing the prices, which, not surprisingly, were different prices, it was obvious that the UK’s pricing was over a dollar more. UK Heinz charged £3.20 (about $4.34) and US Heinz charged $2.82 (£2.08). After punching that into a calculator, we see the price difference is $1.52 (£1.12). This would be great, however, the UK includes their tax, called a VAT, in their pricing unlike the US where we add a sales tax during the purchase, so to be completely accurate, the price of UK Heinz Ketchup without the VAT is £2.67 ($3.62). Comparing the untaxed prices of UK and US Heinz Ketchup, we see that UK Ketchup is 80 cents more expensive, but also loads healthier.

Next, let’s look at Quaker Oats Oatmeal. The Strawberries and Cream Instant Oatmeal sold in the UK on Amazon is sold for £10.99 ($14.90) and the oatmeal sold in the US on Amazon is sold for $9.97 (£7.35). Just like with the ketchup, we have to subtract the VAT to be fair, so the price of the UK oatmeal with no tax is £9.16 ($12.42), so the oatmeal in the US is still $2.45 (£1.81) cheaper.

In short, my hypothesis was deemed correct. America does not partake in simpler ingredients because they cost more money. While this answers one ulterior motive to the unhealthiness of the country, there’s still one more valid question that has not been considered: if it’s supposedly cheaper the American way, then why is the UK still selling their products with more expensive ingredients? In the UK and many other countries, the ingredients that the US uses to make their products cheaper are actually… illegal. Red 40, GMO’s, Herbicides, Potassium Bromate, BVO, and Olestra… the list goes on.

The quality of life that Americans could be living is currently prevented by the government for not making the additives illegal to begin with. Instead, Americans eat atrociously compared to the rest of the world because they subsidize the foods that make people the most sick. An interesting observation I made while on the UK Amazon website was that they had a warning under any American food that didn’t have a UK healthier alternative. The Swedish Fish had a warning that said, “This product contains one or more food colors that may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” Americans don’t notice this, however, because it is all they’ve ever known.

America vs. The World: Food Systems

Countries', like France’s, approaches to food have often been deemed quizzical to the American eye. How do the French live on one of the most saturated-in-fat diets yet have among the lowest rates of cardiovascular disease in the world. According to a study done by Lynda H. Powell, “in the U.S. one can purchase 1,000 kcal of energy-dense snacks for around US$4.00, whereas 1,000 kcal of fresh produce may cost upwards of US$20.00.” Powell’s research continues, “Residing further from supermarkets or closer to convenience stores have been linked to lower fruit and vegetable consumption and higher body weight in urban multiethnic populations and adolescents.” Unhealthy foods are made more easily accessible with their prices, but healthier options, which are more nutritious and have equal amounts of energy, are made 5 times more difficult to purchase. Healthier options are also made harder to access by not even providing the proper stores to reach health-seeking consumers. It's as if someone doesn't want people to know that healthy food is an option. Take a look at the marketing statistic below, and then reflect a bit. Why do we try to make healthy food so much more difficult to access?

The reason for Powell’s research was to show a comparison between France and America’s food supply. French often shop locally and take time to prepare their food, while Americans tend to turn to pre-made, big-corp dinners. Powell also states that French spend twice as much time eating their food and incorporate far more physical activity into their day. This way of life that French present is seen similarly throughout various other cultures with very similar health statistics to that of France. If Americans were able to adapt some of these traditions, their health would present more hopeful results.

Americans have been fed many lies, one being that the issue of their health is a result of them being less conscious. In a Focus for Health article written by Jennifer Shore, she stated, “Perhaps one reason for Americans’ poor health is the quality of our food supply. Instead of focusing on eating fewer calories (typical “diet” strategy) or restricting certain types of foods (eliminating fats vs. carbs), maybe Americans need to look at the quality of our food supply and how it differs so much from other countries.” She presents an incredible point that many Americans have not been offered before. People constantly run after fad diets, reduce their calorie intakes, and try to eat cleaner, but all of these efforts should be unnecessary. The root is the food supply and with a refined and regulated food system, we would be healthier. Yes, consumers need to read the labels more and make more conscious decisions, but then again, America is also making the worst options the most available. America's state of health is beyond the actions of the individual person; it is the result of a lack of government intervention and the priority of quantity over quality.

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