Diabetes, the Food Industry and UsJanuary 22, 2014 at 12:45 pm | Posted in Food | 4 Comments
Tags: diabetes, genetically modified organisms, high fructose corn syrup, obesity epidemic, Type 2 diabetes
Last August, as some of you know, I got a surprise. After my annual checkup, my doctor emailed to say that I had a pre-diabetic glucose level.
I won’t go into my ignorance about Type 2 diabetes; I honestly thought you had to be fat in order to get it, and I wasn’t, so I ate whatever I felt like. What really amazed me, though, is the number of people I subsequently encountered who said they were also pre-diabetic. And then there were the two close friends who shared with me that they have full-blown Type 2 diabetes. Truth is, my friends and I are part of, or risk becoming part of, an epidemic of Type 2 diabetes in the U.S. and many other countries around the world.
To begin with, let’s get clear about the extent of the epidemic. Ninety to 95% of all U.S. diabetes cases are Type 2. (Type 1 diabetes, which often begins in childhood, is linked to genetics and/or viruses. Type 2 diabetes is linked to diet, weight, and exercise.) In 2013, according to the American Diabetes Association, 25.8 million Americans, 8.3% of the population, have diabetes, though 7 million of these cases are undiagnosed. And though only 1% of this number, or about 215,000, are under the age of eighteen, until fairly recently, Type 2 diabetes in children was almost unheard of. And childhood Type 2 diabetes is projected to balloon in the future.
Also, 79 million Americans have pre-diabetes. This means, according to the Centers for Disease Control, they “have blood sugar levels that are higher than normal, but not high enough for a diagnosis of diabetes. They are at higher risk for developing Type 2 diabetes and … without lifestyle changes to improve their health, 15% to 30% of people with pre-diabetes will develop Type 2 diabetes within 5 years.” Twenty-five per cent of seniors have diabetes, and as many as 1 in 3 American adults will have diabetes by 2050 if present trends continue. Furthermore, diabetes is a major cause of heart disease, blindness, kidney disease, nerve damage, hearing loss, and limb amputation; it contributes to over 404,000 deaths annually. Finally, 85% of diabetes patients are overweight or obese.
There’s no use pretending that those of us suffering from Type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes don’t share some responsibility for our condition. But the food industry, and the politicians they lobby, are more responsible than we are, because the obesity epidemic that is one of the major causes of the diabetes epidemic parallels almost exactly certain major changes in U.S. agriculture that began in the 1970s. That’s when the federal government stopped paying farmers to limit their production, a practice that had stabilized the price of farm products. Instead, they began to pay farmers according to how much they produced, resulting in a huge increase in agricultural output.
But to do this, farmers had to make major changes in what and how they farmed. In particular, the new farm policy led farmers to grow more and more corn, and to use more and more chemical fertilizers and pesticides on that corn. This enabled corn plants to grow much more closely together, resulting in greater output from fewer acres. Greater output lowered corn prices, so beef farmers could afford to feed their cattle corn instead of grass. This lowered the price of beef. The use of antibiotics also increased the amount of fat in beef. Fast food hamburgers are now one of the single greatest causes of obesity in the country.
In addition, corn plants were genetically modified to increase the amount of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that could be made from their kernels. Putting aside the health problems caused by consuming genetically modified food, the massive increase in the production of this corn led in the 1980s to a parallel massive reduction in the price of HFCS. Today, HFCS is the primary sweetener in fast and processed foods, in particular, sweetened beverages, consumption of which is another major cause of the obesity epidemic. As these changes in U.S. agriculture were taking place, fast foods became cheaper and cheaper.
Of course, none of this would be possible without government support. U.S. tariffs make imported real sugar two or three times more expensive than U.S. genetically modified sweeteners. And farmers couldn’t survive on the low prices agribusiness pays for the corn they grow without government subsidies. In effect, our taxes are funding the obesity and diabetes epidemics—as well as the food industry itself.
One thing we can do to stop these epidemics is to stop eating foods made with high fructose corn syrup and other genetically modified corn products—like the corn oil that fast food French fries are cooked in. But doing so is, for the most part, an option only for educated people who read labels, research food ingredients, etc. and have choices. Unfortunately, the people most harmed by the obesity and diabetes epidemics are poor people and people of color. Compared to non-Hispanic whites, Hispanics are 1.7 times as likely to have diagnosed diabetes and non-Hispanic blacks 1.8 times as likely. Cheap food is all some people can afford.
Education could help to change this situation, of course. But the real solution is to take our government back from the food industry and its lobbyists. We need to tell our federal and ￼￼￼￼￼￼state representatives that funding the destruction of our people’s health is totally unacceptable. We have to tell them this over and over and get our families and friends to tell them too, until this insane situation is rectified.
(A version of this article appeared in the January 2014 edition of Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the USA.)