Why It's Virtually Impossible for Most of America to Eat Healthy

junk food
Drew Swantak/Thrillist
Drew Swantak/Thrillist

When it comes to making nutritious food choices, the cards are already stacked against you: junk food is cheaper than fresh, healthy produce, processed convenience foods are designed to get you addicted, and it seems like all of America's classic foods fall into one of two groups: "fried" or "piles of meat."

It's a problem our leaders recognize, too. The first lady herself vowed to take on Big Food and the childhood obesity epidemic with her Let's Move! campaign, which focuses on upping fresh produce intake, making healthy food choices, and, well, moving your butt off the couch. Despite the program's launch in 2010, Americans are still sicker and fatter than ever

It gets worse. Revelations that the sugar industry bribed scientists to make sugar seem healthier than it is, creating generations of fat and sick people in the process, made it clear Big Food has a big influence. 

Michael Pollan, the writer who made healthy eating easy and mainstream with his now-famous dictum to "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants," explores just how much of a control the food industry has over what you eat in a recent New York Times piece. It's a monster feature that you should go read in its entirety, but here are just a few of the main reasons it's so hard for much of the country to eat healthy -- even if you want to.  

You're up against a $1.5 trillion industry

Not only is the American food industry massive, it's massively profitable. "Simply put, [Big Food] is the $1.5 trillion industry that grows, rears, slaughters, processes, imports, packages and retails most of the food Americans eat," Pollan writes. This includes four big guns: Big Ag (mostly corn and soybeans), Big Meat, supermarket retailers, and fast-food franchises. So yeah, it's a Goliath.

Much of the industry is controlled by just a few companies

Big Food wields a lot of power as a whole, but the companies within the sectors are even more influential. 

"According to one traditional yardstick, an industry is deemed excessively concentrated when the top four companies in it control more than 40 percent of the market. In the case of food and agriculture, that percentage is exceeded in beef slaughter (82 percent of steers and heifers), chicken processing (53 percent), corn and soy processing (roughly 85 percent), pesticides (62 percent) and seeds (58 percent)."

With great power come great lobbyists

Because there are such powerful companies at the helm of each sector of the food industry, it's no surprise they have strong lobbyists advocating on their behalf.

"Each industry sector is represented in Washington by one or more powerful lobbying organizations. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (G.M.A.) represents the household brand names... The North American Meat Institute represents Big Meat, working alongside each animal's dedicated trade association (the National Pork Producers Council, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the National Chicken Council). The American Farm Bureau Federation ostensibly speaks for the growers of the commodity crops. The National Restaurant Association is the voice of the fast-food chains. The euphemistically named CropLife America speaks for the pesticide industry."

As Pollan explains throughout the article, these lobbying forces have been able to squash regulations that would negatively impact the bottom line of Big Food, such as controls on junk-food marketing, fair farming practices, and the pollution of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs, also known as factory farms). 

Even the first lady's vegetable garden was opposed by these groups

To emphasize her efforts for the Let's Move! campaign, Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden on the White House lawn in the spring of 2009. That's nice, who could object to that?

If you guessed "Big Food," you win an ear of pesticide-covered corn! Although the first lady rarely referred to it as an organic garden, it basically was, using compost and insects instead of chemical fertilizer and pesticides. The lobbyists who care about these kinds of things asked Michelle to throw some pesticides on that garden -- what kind of message did she want to send the children [about the glory of conventional, mass-produced produce]?!

"A spokesman for the American Council on Science and Health, a chemical-industry front group, called the Obamas 'organic limousine liberals,' warning that organic farming would lead to famine and calling on the first lady to use pesticides in her garden -- evidently whether she needed them or not. The Mid-America CropLife Association wrote a letter to the president suggesting that, by planting an organic garden, his wife had unfairly impugned conventional agriculture."

Yep, a grown person seriously claimed that a vegetable garden made things unfair for conventional farms. 

The farmers who raise your meat are basically required to work with trade groups

It's not easy for the little farmer. The Obama administration held public hearings to listen to the testimony from ranchers and farmers on just how badly meat corporations were treating them.  

"Companies like Tyson and Perdue make farmers sign contracts under which the companies supply the chicks and feed and then decide how much to pay for the finished chickens based on secret formulas; farmers who object or who refuse any processor demands (to upgrade facilities, for example) no longer receive chicks, effectively putting them out of business."

"Secret formula" is exactly the phrase you're looking for when buying fresh chickens, right? The biggest problem is that many of these practices could have been regulated under the antitrust unit called Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA), but it was mostly ignored during the aughts. "Gipsa was effectively shuttered during the George W. Bush administration; dozens of farmer complaints against the meatpackers were found stuffed in a drawer, according to an article in Washington Monthly by Lina Khan," Pollan writes. It's a Kafka-esque nightmare come to life for small farmers, who were filing their complaints to no one at all. 

Your meat is still full of antibiotics

Even though commercial meat is riddled with antibiotics, which can lead to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (a real global issue), the meat industry really doesn't care. 

"Big Meat also prevailed when challenged on the misuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture -- a problem that Margaret Hamburg, the F.D.A. chief, likened to having your 'hair on fire,' since it is leading to antibiotic resistance and compromising the drugs we depend on. But when the F.D.A. finally acted in 2013, it came forth not with regulations but with a voluntary program, one that has so far failed to reduce the use of antibiotics in the meat industry."

But maybe there's hope!

Although the state of our food industry is grim, Pollan insists there's a chance to turn things around. There's a small food movement happening, spearheaded by customers who want transparency, fairness, and easy access to healthy, nutritional food. It may not be much at the moment, but it's growing.

"The power of the food movement is the force of its ideas and the appeal of its aspirations -- to build community, to reconnect us with nature and to nourish both our health and the health of the land. By comparison, what ideas does Big Food have? One, basically: 'If you leave us alone and pay no attention to how we do it, we can produce vast amounts of acceptable food incredibly cheaply.'"

Unfortunately, that fast and cheap food is making everyone fatter and sicker, and it takes a concentrated effort -- not to mention extra money -- to choose healthy, nutritious options. There's not a great reason the United States can't use its abundant farmland to grow a variety of healthy food, but the people who control that land are trying their darndest to ensure it's only used to make them as much money as possible. 

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Christina Stiehl is a Health and fitness staff writer for Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ChristinaStiehl.