In this astonishing expose, journalist Greg Critser looks beyond the sensational headlines to reveal why nearly 60 percent of Americans are now overweight. Critser's sharp-eyed reportage and sharp-tongued analysis make for a disarmingly funny and truly alarming book. Critser investigates the many factors of American life -- from supersize to Super Mario, from high-fructose corn syrup to the high cost of physical education in schools -- that have converged and conspired to make us some of the fattest people on the planet. He also explains why pediatricians are treating conditions rarely before noticed in children, why Type 2 diabetes is on the rise, and how agribusiness has unwittingly altered the American diet.
About the Author
GREG CRITSER is a longtime chronicler of the modern pharmaceutical industry and the politics of medicine. His columns and essays on the subject have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the L.A. Times, and elsewhere. Critser is the author of Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World (Houghton Mifflin), which the American Diabetes Association called “the definitive journalistic account of the modern obesity epidemic.” He lives in Pasadena, California, with his wife, Antoinette Mongelli.
Read an Excerpt
UP UP UP!
(Or, Where the Calories Came From)
Earl butz, nominated by Richard Nixon in 1971 to be the eighteenth secretary of agriculture, conjured the airs of a courtly midwestern grandfather, the kind who liked to show up at Sunday dinner, give the blessing, lecture the grandchildren about patriotism, free trade, the goodness of farm life, and the evils that threatened such a life — and then go out to the backyard and tell off-color jokes to the assembled adults.
In Washington, Butz was an optimist, chanting "Up up up!" whenever he got good news about farm prices. And he was telegenic, his hawknosed profile and slicked-back white hair a staple on the nightly news, where he would spin his own "up up up" version of America and its endless agricultural cornucopia. Indeed, if most Nixon appointees avoided the light and the heat, Butz bathed in it. There were his endless battles with Henry Kissinger, whom Butz liked to accuse of "putting your dirty fingers into my farm policy." There was his constant — and very public — denigration of welfare spending, of people who "sit on their duff waiting for a nice handout." And there was his persona in his office, where Butz would regale visitors with his grand visions for agriculture — better crops! tastier tomatoes! corn and wheat and rice to feed a hungry world! — and then, grinning like a Rockwellian Puck, jerk his thumb backward at the sculpture sitting behind his desk — one of two wooden elephants, copulating. "That's what it was like trying to multiply the farm vote for Nixon!" he'd say with an infectious belly laugh. It was hard not to conclude that Earl "Rusty" Butz was, among many other things, a true piece of work.
Like most presidents, Richard Nixon had nominated his new agriculture secretary for largely political reasons. By the early 1970s the once solid "farm vote" was wobbling. The problem was the economy; farm income had plummeted. The immediate causes were short term in nature. Cautious growers simply had not planted enough grain crops. At the same time, the costs of farming — from agrochemicals to labor to transportation — had soared, so much so that by 1972 poultry farmers were forced to kill a million baby chicks because they could not afford the price of feed. Urbanization drove the long-term forces behind the farm problem. Cropland was getting more and more expensive to hold on to. So was labor. Old-timers were seeing their grandchildren go off to college — and not return. Anyone with political antennae could see that the overall mood was one of gloom — not a particularly promising mood for what many believed would be a hotly contested election. When profits hit an all-time low in 1971, farm leaders began openly talking about defecting to the Democrats. Nixon, preoccupied with the Vietnam War and dogged by the press, despaired: A bunch of angry farmers was all he needed.
But the president did know one thing: To fix the farm, he needed someone from the farm. And in 1971, Butz — conservative, energetic, with an already lengthy vita ranging from his Ph.D. in agricultural economics to his service to the United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organization — was a perfect farm fixer.
Not long after Butz arrived in Washington, though, another crisis exploded, this one involving a character as truculent as Butz himself: the American consumer. Around the nation, homemakers were fuming at the soaring prices of such basic items as hamburger, cheese, sugar — even margarine. By early 1973, with food price inflation at an all-time high, the anger had turned into a full-blown middle-class protest. Across the country, consumer groups comprising self-described activist homemakers organized a widespread meat boycott, replete with big-city marches and signs that read HELP US HELP YOU! DON'T EAT MEAT! The movement even had its own graphics — a big T-bone steak with BOYCOTT MEAT emblazoned across it in giant red letters. In San Francisco, the Consumer Action Group called for a 15 percent price rollback for all meat. (Nixon responded with a poorly received "price ceiling.") In Houston, Housewives for Collective Action led their entire families on loud demonstrations at supermarkets. The July 16 issue of U.S. News & World Report summed up the national discontent perfectly: "Why a food scare in a land of plenty?"
The answer was meteorological and global. The weather in 1972 had been abnormally bad for farmers worldwide, resulting in smaller crops across the board. Worse, a basic source of protein feed meal for the world, the anchovy fisheries off the coast of Peru, failed to produce even minimal requirements. Add to this the impact of the devalued dollar, which made American food cheaper abroad just as supplies were dropping worldwide. The result was that there wasn't enough food — or at least not enough food to keep prices stable. Around the country, the situation provoked rampant malaise-speak, even among typically cool-headed observers. "Like it or not," declared the economist Lester R. Brown of the Overseas Development Council, "Americans are sharing food scarcity with Russia." Suddenly, there were signs of shortage fear everywhere. Stores selling horse meat opened in Portland and Chicago. In Minnesota, a black market in meat was reported.
To Nixon, the political face of food had warped. If farmers wanted more money for their products, consumers wanted products for less money. With notions of entitlement growing and memories of the Depression fading, the folks "wanted what they wanted when they wanted it," as Butz liked to put it. And Butz, disinclined to equivocation — "The only one thing in the middle of the road is a dead skunk!" — was inclined to please the farmers first.
To do so he launched an aggressive campaign to "liberate" growers from the clutch of government regulation. To enlarge the farmer's marketplace, he spiked USDA rules requiring government approval for large export sales. In late 1973 he went abroad to beat down trade barriers to American products, later striking the nation's largest grain sale ever to a foreign power, the Soviet Union. And to give the farmer more pricing flexibility, he ended the longtime program of mandated national grain siloing, instead letting farmers store and sell excess grain where and when they desired. His message caught on. Corn and soybean growers planted their fields exactly as the Sage of Purdue advised: "from fencerow to fencerow." By the mid-1970s corn production soared to an all-time high. So did farm income.
For makers of convenience foods, the corn surpluses would eventually become a boon to new product development and sales. For years, sugar prices had been tied to a worldwide price structure that, in essence, served as a form of foreign aid to developing nations. That had kept prices for U.S. consumers — manufacturers and families alike — unnaturally high. But in 1971 food scientists in Japan found a way to economically produce a cheaper sweetener. They called it high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS. It was six times sweeter than cane sugar and, as its name implied, it could be made from corn. That meant that the cost of producing any high-sugar product could be slashed. HFCS had other chemical attributes as well. Using it in frozen foods protected the product against freezer burn. Using it in long-shelf-life products — like those in vending machines — kept the product fresh-tasting. Using it in bakery products (even in rolls and biscuits that normally contained no sugar) made those products look "more natural"— as if they had just been browned in the oven. Although it would not be until the late 1970s that mass production techniques would make its use widespread, HFCS stood as a testimony to Butz's free-planting theology.
HFCS also had one attribute that posed a potentially troubling question to those in the food industry. Fructose, unlike sucrose or dextrose, took a decidedly different route into the human metabolism. Where the latter would go through a complex breakdown process before arriving in the human liver, the former, for some reason, bypassed that breakdown and arrived almost completely intact in the liver, whereupon the organ set upon it as it would anything else. This unique feature of fructose, which was intensified by the high concentrations of it in HFCS, would come to be called "metabolic shunting." In food science circles, it raised eyebrows but, as several scientists present at the time note, not warning flags. Stanley Segall, now a leading expert in the science of fat and sugar replacements at Drexel University in Philadelphia, recalls a committee he served on at the time that was looking at the fructose shunting issue. "I remember being told, as a sort of junior on the committee, 'Don't be silly — everyone knows that it's the same as sugar.' But no one really answered the question: whether, if you use fructose as your main source of sweetener, you do get more fructose in the metabolic process," he says today. "It was decided fructose was no different — that it was only a question of quantity. But no one really looked at it in depth."
Certainly not the USDA. There the concern was pure farm economics. To stimulate demand for his farmers' goods, Butz took to the stump to "re-educate" the caterwauling American consumer. Striding up onto a makeshift platform in a supermarket parking lot, Butz would pull a loaf of Wonder Bread from a paper bag and wave it about for all to see. "You all know what this is," he'd say, opening the bag and pulling out a single slice. "Well, guess how much is the farmer's share of this. You'd be right if you said this one darned slice!"
Consumers had the problem all wrong, Butz would go on. Why, it was the labor unions — particularly the transport, manufacturing, and retail sectors — that caused the greatest price increases. Their average wage increases had gone up while the farmer's typical wages had stayed flat. Labor leaders like George Meany were the problem. The supermarket barons were the problem. Even consumers bore some of the responsibility. Convenience foods and TV dinners (still costly then) were really nothing but a "built-in maid service." The meat boycott wasn't the answer. Everyone needed simply to buck up.
But the straight talk that had worked with farmers wasn't enough for American consumers. Many of them were union members themselves, struggling just to make ends meet. Others were members of a new kind of American family, one consisting of not one but two wage earners. To them TV dinners might be pricey, but they were also practical. And wanting meat every day was not a bad thing. A cartoon in the New York Times Magazine depicting a man and his wife sitting down to table with two bowls of dog food caught the mood. Holding back Rover with one hand and holding out a newspaper with the other, the man reads: "Secretary Butz says the price of steak is just right!"
Of course it wasn't. And the consumer message to Washington — a veritable generational temper tantrum — was clear: We want what we want when we want it. We don't care why food is expensive, we just want it to be less so. You're the government — fix it, or we'll turn you out in October. Richard Nixon, of course, was gone long before then.
Gerald Ford, the reluctant new president, was a quiet, deliberate man with the impossible task of reassuring "the folks" that a post-Nixon government of Republicans could be trusted. He was, like the nation, obsessed with inflation, and in his office and on the stump he liked to refer to the problem as "public enemy number one." To squash the enemy he turned to Butz. His only instructions were to get food prices down without resorting to the kind of price controls that Nixon had implemented in 1973.
One day, pondering this new charge, Butz got a phone call from a Texas congressman named William Poage. The assistant chair of the influential House Committee on Agriculture, Poage was often on the horn to Butz, usually complaining about this import subsidy or that export restriction — anything that might damage his powerful constituency of soybean growers. He certainly never called to praise the secretary, who had alone championed the opening of overseas markets for Poage's bean growers — markets that, almost overnight, had made them the single richest agricultural producers in the world.
"Mr. Secretary — it's rat oil," Poage said in his dry Texas drawl.
"It's rat oil, sir. This palm oil thing has gotten completely out of hand. We've got to do something. We can't just sit here and let the Malays take our markets away from ..."
Butz had been getting updates about a congressional debate over the issue of palm oil imports and its impact on soybean growers. As usual with Poage, the soybean growers faced "a national crisis." They were at "a dangerous turning point." The secretary, Poage complained, had told the nation's farmers to plant fencerow to fencerow. Now where were they going to sell all those soybeans if we were going to allow this "rat oil" — Poage was convinced, albeit without any evidence, that it was "infested" — to take away our own home markets?
The congressman went on and on, but to Butz his plaint — and the message from much of his own constituency — had grown predictable and confounding, especially in light of the president's new mandate. Poage wanted the administration to back new quotas and tariffs on Malaysian palm oil. Butz was chagrined. As he recalled in a recent interview, "It was back to square one with the education campaign. The hardest thing to sell — and get the American farmer to understand — was that to expand exports we had to expand imports. We had to get farmers to think differently. They had been used to being protected. Yet the president wanted the government out of the farming business.
"So what was I to do?" Butz continued. "I finally came to the conclusion that I would have to take some heat to get the point across — even if it was from our own constituency." The new official line, Butz explained, was "to stand up for free trade on both sides — it was the only way I was going to keep some legitimacy bringing down other barriers abroad. President Ford gave me a lot more freedom than President Nixon, so I was able to go ahead on something that should have been done a long time ago."
Freed from Kissinger's "dirty little fingers" in international matters, Butz moved his new agenda quickly. To delay any new tariff or import legislation, he deployed his closest political staff to testify in front of a House Agriculture Committee meeting, where Poage was in high boil. Butz instructed his staff to tell the representatives that he would have to prepare a special report before considering their demands, and that the report would not be ready until May. The stall thus lodged, Butz assembled a group of his most ardent free trade advisers and planned what they came to call "the round the world free trade mission." Palm oil would be one of its first subjects, and Malaysia, where the bulk of it was grown and processed, would be one of his mission's first stops.
Palm oil had been around as a commercial fat for many years. The British had introduced Elaeis guineensis as a plantation crop in the late nineteenth century. Later on, the Malaysian government had subsidized the palm's widespread planting as a way to resettle thousands of poor Malays onto the new nation's rugged frontier. But palm oil, which is more chemically similar to beef tallow than traditional vegetable oil, was difficult to process. Some of its original American importers referred to it as axle grease. Its competitors called it tree lard.
In the mid-1970s, however, new technologies transformed tree lard into a viable commercial fat, one fit for everything from frying french fries to making margarine to baking cookies and bread and pies and no end of convenience ("built-in maid service") foods. It was, in a sense, the fat world's compatriot to the sugar world's HFCS. Because it was a stable fat, products made with it lasted forever on supermarket shelves. True, a manufacturer might have to use more of it to achieve a good "mouthfeel," and that meant an increased caloric count in the resultant food product, but that, at least at the time, was a secondary issue. Price was key. And palm oil prices were unbelievably good — all the time. The trees produced heavily all year round. Palm oil was also tastier than many vegetable oils, mainly because of its molecular similarities to lard. There was one other thing: Palm oil was such a highly saturated fat that its proponents secretly touted it as "cow fat disguised as vegetable oil."
American health and medical experts already knew that saturated fats were bad for the cardiovascular system, plugging up arteries, sending blood pressure spiraling, and raising the chances that a consumer of such fats might die a premature death. In the Agriculture Committee's hearings on palm oil, Poage himself tried to marshal the health argument. "Palm oil is more highly saturated than hog lard," he testified. "I do not think that the American housewife should be put to the proposition of buying this palm oil without any notice whatever that it is not what she thinks it is. She thinks when she buys vegetable oil that that's all there is to it, and that she has got something good for her family. When she buys this type of vegetable oil, she ought to have a warning." Hence, in his bill, Poage proposed that all food containing palm oil come with a label stating that it "contains or was prepared or processed with palm oil, a highly saturated imported vegetable product."
Excerpted from "Fat Land"
Copyright © 2003 Greg Critser.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgments Introduction 1 1 Up Up Up! (Or, Where the Calories Came From) 7 2 Supersize Me (Who Got the Calories into our Bellies) 20 3 World Without Boundaries (Who Let the Calories In) 30 4 Why the Calories Stayed on Our Bodies 63 5 What Fat Is, What Fat Isn’t 109 6 What the Extra Calories Do to You 127 7 What Can Be Done 155 Appendix: Fat Land Facts 179 Notes 185 Index 223