The Conversation

Responses and reverberations


In the July/August cover story, “How Junk Food Can End Obesity,” David H. Freedman criticized what he called the “wholesome-food movement” and two of its main proponents, Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, for demonizing processed foods. Could embracing McDonald’s, he wondered, make us all healthier?

As a veteran of PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay unit, I completely agree with David Freedman’s core assertion. Only companies such as McDonald’s, PepsiCo, and Procter & Gamble have the scale, science, and marketing resources to have a significant positive effect on the average American’s diet. However, I would argue that these companies have not yet realized the huge financial stake in doing so. As Freedman points out, the typical modern diet shortens life spans and will cost Americans alive today a collective 1 billion years of life. I would ask the CFOs: How many Diet Pepsis, Charbroiled Atlantic Cod Fish Sandwiches, or Egg White Delight McMuffins could be consumed over all those years? The concept of winning customers for life might take on a whole new meaning.

Mark Nassutti
Vashon, Wash.

Working at the crossroads of public health, medicine, and nutrition, with a focus on dietary approaches to combatting chronic disease, I took great interest in this article. From the macro- and microeconomic perspectives, prodding “Big Food to intensify and speed up its efforts to cut fat and problem carbs in its offerings” appears to make good sense. That said, I think it is essential, and possible, for the approach espoused by Freedman to work in tandem with the approach of the Pollanites and Bittmanites.

Implicit in Freedman’s thesis is the fact that corner stores in poor urban areas will still have only a few apples and bananas behind the plexiglass shield at the cashier’s counter, while Corporate America addresses the needs of the urban poor, who will get a healthier tranche of food (or foodlike substances) when they step up to the fast-food counter. The leaders of Big Food are making dietary adjustments because (as Freedman notes) they see the metaphorical dollar signs written on the wall. Although their motives revolve around survival and profit, they could benefit the great majority of the populace that does not shop at high-end grocery stores.

Should Corporate America incrementally improve the health of a large segment of the population while the Pollanites and Bittmanites impact an additional, but far smaller, segment? Yes. The current obesity epidemic is too massive a threat to our nation to fight over which solution is better.

Jed William Fahey, Sc.D.
Baltimore, Md.

Freedman ignores altogether The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the book that originally fomented Michael Pollan’s attitudes about food and set in motion the eventual adoption of these attitudes by large masses of the public. Whereas The Omnivore’s Dilemma highlighted the perspective that production is a key variable in the problem of food, Freedman devotes only one paragraph of his article to this variable, dismissing as a lost cause the environmental and health problems associated with industrial farming. To posit that “there is no hard evidence to back any health-risk claims about processed food,” while ignoring the health risks of pesticide and antibiotic use that result from the industrial production of food, is disingenuous at best.

Will Keats-Osborn
Vancouver, British Columbia

I found David Freedman’s various explanations for the obesity epidemic to be appalling and specious. Does he really think that poor people are obese because they’re too dumb to eat well and can’t afford to anyway?

When I was living below the poverty line for three-plus years, I shopped at the local supermarket and bought plain vegetables, dry beans, whole grains, and a little bit of meat. I could eat extremely well on less than $10 a day for all three meals—cheaper than McDonald’s! Despite Mr. Freedman’s rhetoric, real healthy food is cheaper than processed food, especially if you buy the bare ingredients and cook it yourself. Anyone can do this.

The fact is, Americans are fat because nobody wants to hold them accountable for the real issue: personal responsibility. It takes discipline to exercise, cook healthy food, and avoid the temptations that lead to obesity. A low-fat Big Mac isn’t the solution. Saying no to processed food is—no matter how healthy it purports to be.

Ben Garland
Santa Rosa, Calif.

Freedman operates under the mistaken premise that our food system’s only major consequence is a rise in obesity, ignoring other pesky health issues like our population’s growing resistance to medication, early-onset puberty, and cancer; the serious environmental impacts of an industrialized food system (and its direct effect on our health); as well as the basic moral failings of factory farming (to put it lightly). He also uses a series of misinterpretations, false comparisons, “rough calculations,” approximations, and at least one “not exactly scientific study” to peddle the best PR Big Food has gotten since it had the Big Mac–scarfing Bill Clinton in the White House …

What Pollan advocates is not more access to Whole Foods, but more access to whole foods, in the form of farmers’ markets, [community-supported agriculture], and artisanal food products. Are these foods more expensive? Often they are, but not always … Freedman also ignores our country’s system of providing subsidies for commodity crops like corn, which keeps the prices of processed foods (almost always corn-based) artificially low, making kale and other healthy foods look expensive only by comparison.

Deena Shanker
Excerpt from a Salon article

Does Freedman not know the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats? He compares the amount of fat in a Big Mac beef patty with the amount in a vegan salad. One contains saturated fats, which raise LDL (bad) cholesterol; the other has polyunsaturated fats beneficial to heart health. Similarly, Freedman shows no awareness that carbohydrates in combination with fiber are digested differently from refined carbohydrates. He suggests that an apple is less healthy than a fruit parfait because the total sugar content is higher in the apple. But, while the apple may have more sugar, it also has fiber, which the parfait lacks. Sugars and refined carbohydrates can prompt an insulin rush, leading to fat storage and damaged arteries. Fiber slows the absorption of sugars and contributes to a satiated feeling, thus decreasing the likelihood of overeating.

Pamela E. Stewart
Jasper, Ark.

Freedman’s skepticism can be pick-and-choosy. He doesn’t think that buying food at Trader Joe’s will make us thinner, or that a farmers’ market can transform behavior in a whole community, or that cutting subsidies for corn will reverse America’s long-standing gut inflation. These arguments he discards for lack of evidence—but when it comes to slimming down the masses with junk-food engineering, Freedman’s fine to cross his fingers and hope it all works out …

Freedman can’t provide a speck of evidence that reflexive shaming from the Pollanites has slowed the pace of junk-food innovation. Indeed, there’s every reason to believe they’re among its leading inspirations. When PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi announced in 2010 that her company would cut the average amount of added sugar per serving of its products by one-quarter in the next few years, she was responding to a shifting landscape of consumption and a philosophy of eating that was filtering down from foodies to everyone else.

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