Who Controls your Food?
Understanding the influence of the industrial food system
Independence and self-determination are highly valued qualities of American life. In our food choices, however, there are some important barriers to true independence. The way America eats is heavily influenced by the large corporations that produce most of what we eat. Rather than independently choosing the food that is the tastiest and the most nutritious, we are collectively quite dependent on the way the industrial food system chooses to produce, market, and sell its goods.
Our industrial food system is largely made up of a handful of huge companies, each bringing in tens of billions of dollars in sales every year. Most every food brand that you know can be linked back to one of these large parent companies. Like any other company, these food producers are interested in creating profits. Unlike other companies however, they face a specific dilemma that limits their growth: people can only eat so much food. Therefore, in order to grow profitability beyond the rate of population growth, these companies employ two broad strategies: reduce input costs and market their products to get people to eat more.
The magic of the food processing industry is to transform a cheap commodity into a profitable product. Vast amounts of corn, soy, wheat, and other commodity products are processed, packaged, and distributed to groceries, convenience stores and gas stations around the country in the form of your favorite cereals, chips, snack bars, and more. These products play a very significant role in how we eat: according to a recent study, processed or ultra-processed foods constitute 67.4% of our caloric intake.
The ubiquity of these products in our food system and the efforts of these companies to reduce their input costs are also evident in the way money is distributed in our overall food spending. According to the USDA, only about 15% of the money we spend on food actually goes to the farmers that produce the agricultural inputs. The remaining 85% goes to what is dubbed the “marketing share,” or the costs of processing, packaging, distributing, and selling the products.
One part of that marketing share is money used for direct marketing to consumers, making up about 3% of all money spent on food in the US. These billions of dollars are spent injecting processed food brands throughout our lives that raise awareness and sell products. Even if you think yourself largely immune to the powers of this massive direct marketing campaign, there is a marked imbalance between the processed food industry and its alternatives.
In 2009, nearly 1.8 billion dollars were spent to market specifically to youth between the ages of 2 and 17. While about two thirds of that was spent towards advertising fast food, carbonated beverages, and snacks, less than half a percent of spending went towards advertising fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, this makes a lot of sense: unlike processed foods, there are no massive companies making huge profits off of fruit and vegetables, and therefore there’s only very limited amounts of money to promote these sorts of food. The message is clear: processed foods are marketed as tastier, more convenient, and more fun than their less processed alternatives.
These marketing efforts have very real effects on the eating habits and health of our children. It becomes more and more difficult for parents to reveal the benefits and great taste of broccoli or apples when children see 3-4 fast food ads every single day. More broadly, it’s clear that education efforts around healthy eating are significantly shortchanged – the entire federal budget for nutrition education is one fifth the size of the marketing budget for Altoids.
These combined efforts of the industrial food system have a pernicious effect on our ability to independently choose how and what we eat. But that needn’t be the case, as expertly explained by Mark Bittman:
“This marketing blitz, which pushes the notion that food preparation is onerous or inconvenient, in effect creates a false dependency. The message isn’t even subliminal: You need help getting dinner on the table; it’s beyond your capacity or desire. Therefore you willingly relinquish control in exchange for so-called convenience… In reality, being able to feed yourself (and your near and dear) is a simple and satisfying act at the core of our humanity. Spending time in the kitchen demonstrates our independence, self-reliance and self-determination as a species”
The structure of our food system will not change overnight. But small actions such as cooking more at home are simple steps towards taking back some control over how we eat. Cooking for yourself and your family is a profound statement of independence. When you cook, you reclaim the ability to choose the tastiest and most nutritious ingredients rather than cheap and highly processed; you discover the immense variety of cuisines available at your fingertips instead of the choice between the frozen and the fried; and you take control over your health rather than entrusting it to a multinational corporation.
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