We’re Poisoning Ourselves
Kraft Heinz advertisement
I once weighed 485 pounds. I now weigh a bit over half that. My addiction to sugar and refined carbohydrates was killing me. When I understood that, I safely lost 244 pounds over the course of two years by simply abstaining from refined carbs. I also lost the craving to binge-eat and quit eating when I was full.
I grew up in rural Vermont at the dawn of the processed food industry. Patch’s Market in Morrisville still sold locally-grown, seasonal fruit and vegetables. In the cooler hung beef, lamb, and pork carcasses and a few locally-shot deer in the fall. Mr. Patch custom-cut meat for his waiting customers on a large butcher block behind the counter. Two wheels of cheddar cheese sat under a cloche to protect them from flies, and Mr. Patch cut whatever size slice you wanted and wrapped it in butcher paper. The only plastic in the store was his black Bakelite telephone.
The industrial food blitz was just beginning. On the shelves were a few Campbell soup cans, Miracle Whip, Skippy peanut butter, Cheez Whiz, Heinz catchup and French’s mustard and a few packets of Jello, Junket and Kool-Aid. Bunny Bread had yet to replace locally baked breads.
Today, 60 years later, we poison ourselves and our children with industrial food, much of it sourced from mono-cropped industrial farms where the push for higher yields requires the addition of chemicals such as Monsanto’s Roundup which contains, among other chemicals, glyphosate. Then there are the neonicotinoids, chlorpyrifos, ammonium sulfate, urea and many other toxins.
“Progressive” Vermont has yet to ban the application of many toxic additives that are applied to our soils as it tries to sustain a dying dairy industry, one that produces more milk than the market can sell, dumps excess milk and whey, and relies on federal price controls to stay afloat….so much for “free market economics” and safeguarding public health.
In 1947, the year I came to Vermont, there were 11,200 small Vermont farms feeding their communities. Today there are around 500, a diminishing mix of mega-dairy farms and an encouraging number of organic and regenerative farming start-ups that focus on soil, water, and animal health while producing healthy food for local markets.
California, which grows the lion’s share of domestic fruits and vegetables, has at least set out a 27-year timeframe for banning the worst of the chemicals used in pest management, while Europe is actively reviewing and outlawing many of our most commonly used soil additives.
But here at home, money talks. Industrial ag interests spent $166M and chemical companies spent $66M in 2022 lobbying congress and legislatures to curtail any efforts to safeguard our air, waterways, and soils, and thus the American people.
In spite of headlines like these, “An Epidemic of Chronic Illness is Killing Us Too Soon” from the Washington Post, the industrial food system and the ag chemical industries forge ahead given the inadequate regulatory oversight, significantly reducing life expectancy in the U.S., and making us an outlier in the developed world.
To make matters worse, according to Politico, far-right Republicans championing the interests of the wealth that funds them have put forward their plan to defang the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by reducing its already slender budget by 39%.
Meanwhile, some 80% of breast-feeding mothers have PFAS in their breast milk, passing the chemical on to their infants. PFAS is thought to be contaminating drinking water for more than 200 million Americans. Multiple studies have found rain to contain high PFAS levels, and many of our take-away paper coffee cups are lined with PFAS that leaches into the coffee we drink.
Why does it matter? Recent soil cores taken in New Hampshire showed 100% PFAS saturation. PFAS are a class of about 15,000 chemicals used to make thousands of products resistant to water, stains and heat. Foodwrap and takeaway containers are two. Scientific studies tell us that these compounds are linked, even at low levels of exposure, to cancer, thyroid disease, kidney dysfunction, birth defects, autoimmune disease and other serious health problems. They’re called “forever chemicals” because of their longevity in the environment. Yet they are still legal in this country. Some states, including Vermont, have made some efforts to control their use and to regulate the presence of PFAS in drinking water but to little effect.
There are available resources showing how to avoid many of these applied poisons in our food supply such as the Environmental Working Group. Meanwhile, articles regularly appear with evidence of how we poison our air, water and soil. Many explain how industrial food interests sidestep or block efforts to make our food supply safe. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has taken the FDA to task after it declared red dye 3 (Erythrosine) a known carcinogen as far back as the early ‘80s, yet made no effort to ban it. Candy company Brach’s alone sells more than 100 different candies with the dye. Red 3 is used in some varieties of Betty Crocker’s Fruit by the Foot, Dubble Bubble chewing gum, Entenmann’s Little Bites, and Hostess’ Ding Dongs. Happy Halloween!
But still, many of us remain willing victims of this abuse. A good example is how we poison ourselves with sugar.
Andrea Grayson Ed.D of UVM Larner College of Medicine recently published Sweet Tooth Dilemma, an illuminating work on the impact of sugar on our physiology and its heavily-marketed prevalence in our society and institutions. Her carefully researched work goes beyond the simple vilification of sugar and explains how it became so prevalent in our society and what health benefits accrue when people taper off their addiction.
A new enemy of healthy eating looms in our schools and is focused on our children. School lunch programs that used to rely on commodity-food handouts from the U.S. Dept of Agriculture (USDA) are buying into the food industry’s pre-packaged (in plastic) Lunchables campaign. (Note the tower of Oreos).
Vending machines selling sugar-sweetened snacks and junk food line school corridors. School administrators say they rely on the shared income with vending machine operators as part of their budgets.
The average American consumes 60 pounds of sugar a year. Imagine sitting down to eat a one-pound bag of sugar every week, then eat more. For most of human history, consumption of refined sugar was virtually zero. This slowly began to change about 2,000 years ago with the discovery of sugar cane. But only in the last couple of hundred years have we escalated our consumption to what it is today. In the 1960s, anxious to protect its lucrative market, the sugar industry hired scientists to downplay the dangers of sugar consumption and shift the blame to fats, a natural part of humankind’s diet.
Among the latest industrial food efforts to addict our youngest to sugar is the marketing of “Toddler Milk.” It is distinct from regulated “infant formula,” which can be safely used when breast-feeding is not possible ̶ although scientists agree that breast-feeding is considerably more beneficial to newborns as, among other benefits, it transmits the mother’s antibodies to her child. Abbott, Mead Johnson, Perrigo, and Nestle are all licensed to make “infant formula,” but now they’ve entered the unregulated “toddler milk” after-market to extend their franchise. The pediatric community has widely condemned this product as deleterious to children’s health.
The new frontier for marketing edible toxins to young people is “influencer” dieticians. American Beverage, an industry trade group representing Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and other beverage manufacturers in the multibillion dollar beverage industry, has been paying dieticians to promote chemically-sweetened food and beverages now deemed dangerous by scientific research. Furthermore, it is now known that beverages and water packaged in plastic often contain chemicals (BPA and phthalates) from the plastic that have leached into the beverage. An analysis by the Washington Post shows that companies and industry groups paid dietitians for content that encouraged viewers to eat candy and ice cream, downplayed the health risks of highly processed foods and pushed unproven supplements ̶ messages that run counter to decades of scientific evidence about healthy eating. The review found that among the 68 dietitians with 10,000 or more social media followers on TikTok or Instagram, about half had promoted unhealthy food, beverages or supplements to their combined eleven million followers within the last year.
Another fascinating book is Brain Energy by Christopher Palmer M.D.. It connects the rising tsunami of mental illness at all age levels with the environmental degradation from our dependence on chemicals in what we grow and eat. Their damage to human and animal metabolism and mitochondrial anatomy, he posits, is a common thread in all mental as well as physical illness. His work paves the way for what is being called nutritional psychiatry.
Sadly, the human instinct is to look for panaceas ̶ take a pill. The latest are Ozempic and Wegovy, both financial gamechangers for the pharmaceutical industry. In the last three months, healthcare providers have written nine million prescriptions for them. But healthy solutions require more than a pill as I learned. What we eat matters as much as how much we eat of it.
To sum up: We face an existential choice. If we continue to prioritize profits over people, we can only expect life-expectancy, sperm count, maternal death, and physiological and mental health statistics to worsen. The earth will survive the disappearance of our species. We’re one of many species. The earth will endure long after we’ve diminished human life here by poisoning ourselves. Look at the post-nuclear Chernobyl meltdown, which has become an unexpected haven for life now devoid of humans.
Will we be the wealthiest and most powerful people in Gaia’s Cemetery of Extinct Species or will we commit to being a beneficial contributor to the wellbeing of the planet and all its inhabitants. It’s up to us to decide.