When it comes to a healthful, nutrient-dense meal, it’s hard to beat broiled fish with a favorite steamed vegetable on the side…and perhaps some berries for dessert.
Although it is official health policy to coax us to eat fruit and vegetables, U.S. farm policy does the reverse. It makes nutrient-rich foods less available and more expensive than they might be. And the competition, processed foods built on ultra-refined grains and subsidized oils, is everywhere.
Billions of American tax dollars subsidize corn and soybeans, which we feed to conventionally raised animals, export, burn as ethanol and eat in processed food. In 2012, more than 87 million acres of U.S. farmland had been planted with feed corn for conventionally raised cattle and pig feeding operations, and another 76 million with soybeans.
By contrast, the land dedicated to orchard crops was tiny, just 5.2 million acres. Vegetables filled only 4.5 million acres (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2014).
As Barry Popkin, a nutritionist and economist at of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, puts it, “We didn't really create the same infrastructure for fruits and vegetables” that was created for feedlot-based animal foods, vegetable oils, and sugars (National Public Radio, 2013).
Last year, farmers got huge special payouts so they wouldn’t suffer from the trade war with China, almost all of them growing corn and soybeans.
Meanwhile, we end up importing more than 30 percent of the fresh fruits and vegetables we consume, largely from Mexico and Canada (Merrill and Leatherby, 2018). The vegetables we do grow won’t surprise you: potatoes, 30 percent; tomatoes, 22 percent; and lettuce, 7 percent (Bentley, 2015). You’ll recognize those as the french fries and lettuce-and-tomato salad or garnish on a burger.
But price and availability aren’t the main problems
It’s clear that vegetables could be much cheaper if we made a point of encouraging farmers to grow them. It’s also evident that some rural areas and poorer urban neighborhoods, affecting more than five percent of the population, are “food deserts,” far from a supermarket with affordable produce (Reinvestment Fund, 2018).
But food deserts can’t fully explain obesity or bad diets, which affect far more people. Consumers have reasons beyond price for skipping healthful foods (Dube, 2019). According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study, in 2016 it was possible to satisfy the fruit and vegetable dietary guidelines, which call for two cups of fruit and two to three cups of vegetables a day, for $2.10 to $2.60 daily (Stewart and Hyman, 2019).
Though that’s within reach for most Americans financially, only one in 10 American adults actually eats that much (CDC Media Relations, 2017). Averaged out, we fall short by about a half or a third (Stewart and Hyman, 2019, Bentley, 2017).
Fruits and vegetables compete with hyperpalatable processed foods
So what are we eating instead? To any parent or dieter, it’s obvious why we don’t eat more fruits and vegetables: a stalk of broccoli isn’t as sweet as a candy bar and celery is less addictive than pretzels. Since 1970, our daily consumption of sweets has grown, though we’ve substituted corn syrup for cane sugar (Bentley, 2017).
“Hyperpalatable” is a food-scientist term for the food we gobble (Fazzino et al., 2019) because a combination of key ingredients makes them tastier than any one ingredient. By that definition, every cook is aiming for a hyperpalatable dish. Commercial foods are predictable, falling into three kinds: those that combine fat and sugar (ice cream), carbs and salt (pretzels, chips), or fat and salt (pizza).
When researchers in Kansas came up with technical definitions of these categories and analyzed a database of common U.S. food items, it turned out that nearly two-thirds met their definitions.
It also turns out that the foods people consider addictive, meaning foods that regularly overcome their self-control, are hyperpalatable. In a study of people who met the criteria for food addiction, a team at the University of Michigan analyzed the foods they said were their biggest problems. High ranking foods included (in order, with the most problematic listed first) chocolate (presumably not the healthful, low-sugar dark variety), ice cream, French Fries, pizza, cookies, chips, cake, buttered popcorn, cheeseburgers, muffins, breakfast cereal, gummy candy and fried chicken (Schulte et al, 2015).
Fruits and vegetables don’t naturally fall into these hyperpalatable categories.
But what does this have to do with farm policy?
The commercial food industry produces hyperpalatable food more cheaply because of cheap oils extracted from seeds. Last year, Americans consumed far more soybean oil than any other kind, more than 30 times as much as olive oil, one of the healthful oils recommended in these pages by nutrition researcher Cate Shanahan, M.D. (Shahbandeh, 2019). You’ll recall we grow lots of soybeans. Soybean oil is exceptionally high in omega-6 fatty acids. As Vital Choice readers know, the American diet suffers from an imbalance between omega-3s, plentiful in fish, and omega-6s, plentiful in well, soybeans, which are everywhere, not least because of our farm policy.
The next time you choose a cracker instead of a carrot stick, check the label: it will contain soybean oil, often misleadingly termed “vegetable oil.”
The effort to change this unfortunate situation should be made at every possible level, from ending federal subsidies that make the worst, most addictive foods the cheapest, to individual consumers taking charge of their health and refusing to buy the stuff. Healthful fruits and vegetables (along with omega-3-rich fish, of course) could quickly resume their rightful places on American plates.
Bentley J. Potatoes and Tomatoes Account for Over Half of U.S. Vegetable Availability. USDA ERS - Potatoes and Tomatoes Account for Over Half of U.S. Vegetable Availability. https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2015/september/potatoes-and-tomatoes-account-for-over-half-of-us-vegetable-availability/. Published September 8, 2015. Accessed July 27, 2020.
Bentley J. U.S. Diets Still Out of Balance With Dietary Recommendations. USDA ERS - U.S. Diets Still Out of Balance With Dietary Recommendations. https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2017/july/us-diets-still-out-of-balance-with-dietary-recommendations/. Published July 3, 2017. Accessed July 27, 2020.
Dube J-P. The hole in the food-desert hypothesis. Chicago Booth Review. https://review.chicagobooth.edu/marketing/2019/video/hole-food-desert-hypothesis. Published February 21, 2019. Accessed July 27, 2020.
Farms and Farmland Numbers, Acreage, Ownership, and Use. 2012 Census of Agriculture Highlights. https://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/Highlights/2014/Highlights_Farms_and_Farmland.pdf. Published September 2014.
Fazzino TL, Rohde K, Sullivan DK. Hyper‐Palatable Foods: Development of a Quantitative Definition and Application to the US Food System Database. Wiley Online Library. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/oby.22639. Published November 5, 2019.
Infographic: Plant the Plate. Union of Concerned Scientists. https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/plant-plate. Published May 1, 2012.
Merrill D, Leatherby L. Here's How America Uses Its Land. Bloomberg.com. https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2018-us-land-use/. Published July 31, 2018.
Only 1 in 10 Adults Get Enough Fruits or Vegetables. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2017/p1116-fruit-vegetable-consumption.html. Published November 16, 2017.
Reinvestment Fund. 17.6 Million Americans Have No Easy Access to Healthy Food in Their Communities. PR Newswire: news distribution, targeting and monitoring. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/17-6-million-americans-have-no-easy-access-to-healthy-food-in-their-communities-300700391.html. Published August 21, 2018.
Schulte EM, Avena NM, Gearhardt AN. Which foods may be addictive? The roles of processing, fat content, and glycemic load. PLoS One. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25692302/ Published Feb 18, 2015.
Shahbandeh M. U.S. consumption of edible oils by type, 2019. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/301044/edible-oils-consumption-united-states-by-type/. Published January 30, 2020.
Stewart H, Hyman J. Americans Still Can Meet Fruit and Vegetable Dietary Guidelines for $2.10-$2.60 per Day. USDA ERS - Americans Still Can Meet Fruit and Vegetable Dietary Guidelines for $2.10-$2.60 per Day. https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2019/june/americans-still-can-meet-fruit-and-vegetable-dietary-guidelines-for-210-260-per-day/. Published June 2, 2019.
Why Processed Food Is Cheaper Than Healthier Options. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2013/03/01/173217143/why-process-food-is-cheaper-than-healthier-options. Published March 1, 2013.