Fiasco in Food

Waste and misdirection still balk American efforts to solve the world’s food crisis: our production of food is ill chosen; too much of our grain is fed to cattle; we eat far more than we should; we throw huge quantities of food away. DR. FREDRICK J. STAREis one of our foremost authorities on nutrition. He holds a Ph.D.from the University of Wisconsin and received his M.D.from the University of Chicago School of Medicine. Editor of Nutrition Reviews, he is Head of the Department of Nutrition at Harvaid University.


OUR mounting anxiety over food — the distribution, the cost, the quantity and quality of food — has led this country to attempt an appraisal of its food potential. Now we are readying ourselves to distribute food to others on the most generous scale in history. This is an emergency effort and one that must succeed. But have we taken hold of the problem in the most practical way?

The main purpose of food is nutrition. The shortage of food is primarily a shortage of calories. What has our government done to tell the individual — the farmer, the distributor, restaurant owner, housewife — how to achieve the maximum nutrition from the resources at our command?

Even in this unprecedented crisis, our production of food is wasteful and misdirected. Agitating for meatless and eggless days is impractical; they will save some food while larger wastes continue. Decreasing alcohol production from edible grains yields relatively small returns. Why ask the distilling industry to save eight or ten million bushels of grain while many times that amount is squandered on unnecessary fattening of animals? As recently as October, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees were hearing proposals from the Department of Agriculture for a national farm policy of “sustained abundance,” with the chief emphasis on increasing meat production.

What have food committees told the public about the two other main wastes of food: overeating as a national habit and our enormous destruction of food via the garbage can? What has it done to abolish politically inspired laws which limit human consumption of highly nutritive margarine and skimmed milk products? Can we afford to put business considerations ahead of calories? The fate not only of political parties but of government structure itself in many parts of the world hangs in the balance.

Man and animals compete for nature’s food. Basically, energy from food comes from the sun through the process of photosynthesis in plants. Hence the amount of food energy available depends on the amount of soil cultivated and its productivity. The following table of the amounts of fertile land required to produce one million calories from each of various foods shows the relative efficiency of production of human food calories: —

Food Source Acres of Land
Sugar 0.15
Potatoes 0.44
Corn — as corn meal 0.9
Wheat — as whole wheat flour 0.9
Wheat — as refined wheat flour 1.2
Hogs (pork and lard) 2.0
Whole milk 2.8
Eggs 7.0
Chickens 9.3
Steers 17.0

Copyright 1947, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.

It takes far more land to provide calories from eggs, chicken, and beef than from the other sources listed.

Sugar is highly efficient in terms of calories and land. Refined sugar is practically a pure chemical substance and as such does not contribute minerals, vitamins, and protein, as do most other foods. In a world short of calories it might be worth while to investigate the possibilities of fortifying sugar with some of the essential nutrients available from cheap sources.

Enriched basic foods like enriched flour and iodized salt, and fortified foods like milk with added vitamin D and margarine with added vitamin A, are intelligent advances in public health. But economically it is foolish to take most of the vitamins out of flour in refining it, so as to make it “white and pure,” and then to purchase synthetic vitamins and put them back in.

However lamentable may be the thinking that led us to this strange game, the replacement of the lost nutrients is essential from the viewpoint of improved public health and preventive medicine. Yet only twenty-odd states have laws requiring enrichment of white flour.

The cost of synthetic vitamins that can be used to enrich or fortify basic foods has decreased steadily in the last half-dozen years, whereas the cost of food has gone up and up. It is now cheaper to get most of the vitamins from synthetic sources than from food. The vitamin C in an orange costs much more than the equivalent amount, from vitamin C tablets. Low-cost, low-potency vitamin capsules, if intelligently used, can make a poor diet nutritionally adequate at minimum cost in these days of high prices for meat, milk, and eggs.

Animal foods are the best sources of many of the forty to fifty nutrients we need besides calories, but in a serious shortage of calories, the production of animal food products certainly must be curtailed. There is one exception: whole milk has unusually good nutritive value and every effort should be made to increase whole milk production. Whole milk contains its fat, as distinct from skimmed milk, from which the fat has been separated to be made into butter. This skimmed milk contains most of the nutrients of whole milk, yet less than half of it finds its way directly into human consumption. Most of it is used in animal feeding.

We must try to increase human consumption of skimmed milk. Powdered skimmed milk can be used in breads, soups, and ice cream. Further, a vegetable fat and a source of vitamin A can be added to it, making what is commonly called a “filled milk”— a procedure which is prohibited by law.

Many necessities of life depend on animal products — for example, shoes and insulin. So there are considerations other than calories. But excessive fattening of animals does not produce more hide or more insulin, only more meat.

Vast amounts of food would be saved if Americans were to eat less of the caloric foods and consume more fruit and vegetables instead. Most Americans eat too many calories for their own good, even in a world suffering from a shortage of calories; yet from a variety of sources, we know that per capita food consumption in the United States has increased about 17 per cent during the last seven years. This increase in food consumption is largely in animal food products, which because of the large number of grain calories required to produce them means that the total human and animal consumption of food calories has increased far above 17 per cent.

Most Americans overeat. Excess weight is the enemy of good health and can quickly reach obesity. Obesity increases susceptibility to diabetes, gall bladder disease, hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure, kidney disease, gout, chronic bronchitis, and makes people poorer surgical risks.

Life insurance records in the early 1920’s showed that individuals who conformed closely throughout adulthood to the average weight for any given height at age thirty had the lowest death rate. In later years the age level at which average weight is ideal has decreased somewhat and now is age twenty-five.

Variety in choice of foods is good practical nutrition because it helps us to get all of the forty to fifty nutrients we need. Here are a few specific suggestions: —

1. Eat a good breakfast. It is important. Generally the body has been without food for twelve hours before breakfast, and the morning is usually a time of activity, so start the day off with adequate nourishment.

2. If you have dinner in the evening, eat a light lunch at noon. If dinner comes at midday, eat a light supper. Don’t eat two dinners a day.

3. Eat more foods which contain a high proportion of water, such as fruits and vegetables.

It is probably fair to say that one fourth of all edible food purchased in the United States is wasted. This includes the food that goes back to the kitchen from restaurant tables; the fresh, useful scraps which fill the garbage can instead of the soup kettle or stewpot. To save this fourth would approximate, in terms of the 1946 retail monetary value of food purchases, 5.9 billion dollars’ worth of food. If we did no more than halve this figure, we would make an enormous contribution to the food needs of the world.

We need government controls to decrease grain used in animal feeding, except where the feeding aids production of whole milk, and we can expect little results in that direction on a voluntary basis.

We need an educational campaign to help us eat to our ideal weight, which for most of us means to consume fewer calories.

More than anything, we must embrace the concept that food is vital not because it is an element in our economy, but because it nourishes us.