Why the Food Police May Be Wrong

A new book argues that:

  • Organic food is not necessarily healthier or tastier (and is certainly more expensive).
  • Genetically modified foods haven’t sickened a single person but they have made farmers more profitable and they do hold the promise of feeding impoverished Africans.
  • Farm policies aren’t making us fat.
  • Voguish locavorism is not greener or better for the economy.
  • Fat taxes won’t slim our waists and “fixing” school lunch programs won’t make our kids any smarter.

Comments (16)

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  1. Timmy says:

    I always tell my roomate that he is wasting his money every time he comes home with a $5 dollar gallon of milk from Whole Foods.

  2. Frugal Gourmet says:

    @ Timmy,

    I love shopping at Whole Foods… right up until I get to the cash register. The Wall Street Journal had a video the other day explaining how Whole Foods is lowering its prices slightly hoping to attract more mainstream customers unwilling to pay super-premium prices. The move is reducing Whole Foods profitability – it’s discovering that regular people still aren’t willing to pay the slightly lower prices that are much higher than the competing stores.
    The premium food segment is really heating up. This has undoubtedly helped WF, but it’s also resulting in more competition with other premium stores. I’ve read that WF makes about 10 times the gross profit per dollar of sales that Walmart earns on each dollar of grocery sales. Not sure if that’s accurate but WFs margin is undoubtedly high. I’m longing for the day when the premium grocery segment becomes so competitive that high end stores become willing to survive on a 5% gross margin.

  3. Jack says:

    Mayor Bloomberg is rallying opposing forces as we speak.

  4. Harley says:

    GM foods have TONS of consequences which we don’t fully understand. That’s cool though. Proponents of caution just get shouted down with pictures of starving African children.

    I agree with the rest of it though :)

  5. Ryan Staut says:

    Some of the stuff said here is not very responsible. GM foods aren’t fully understood, therefore we can’t be saying they DON’T have negative consequences to our health. Second, organic foods have become a business, but if you educate yourself on the real organic vs the “so-called” organic, you’ll know what to buy and is actually better for you. I’ve said it time and time again that you are the one to judge what foods make you feel better.

  6. Anthony Sombers says:

    This book makes a lot of assertions with little to no scientific evidence. It’s easy to write these kind of books. The fact is that there is a major issue with food, culture and what kinds of foods are made most accessible. I invite you to eat processed foods and then eat free-range or plant-based foods and see what kind of effect it has on your body.

  7. Buster says:

    I haven’t read the book but it looks interesting. There’s been so much hype about food. Some elements in the book are debatable. For instance, the claim farm policy does not make us fat. Granted, nobody forces people to eat. But there are numerous food subsidies in the U.S. that are administered through part of the Department of Agriculture.

  8. Chris says:

    GM foods have no consequences we don’t understand. Luddites like to paint it like an unknown boogeyman, when it is anything but. I really, honestly, think most of the opposition to it has to do more with political and economic policy than science. Socialists tend to favor population control and seem to relish scarcity as it gives the Snowballs among them the need to dictate who gets what. A world in which we cannot grow our own food is ripe for their political stylings and so they favor it. They hate genetic engineering because it has such promise to combat global scarcity. True environmentalists favor it for its ability to produce crops that can be grown with less (water/land/fertilizer/etc). But otherwise, in many environmental causes, there is a sick incestuous circle of socialists pushing most of the agenda not out of a scientific motivation, but a political one.

    Genetic engineering is really rather boring. You grow thousands and thousands of seeds, analyze each for certain traits, identify the plants you’re interested in, try to locate the gene for the trait that is being expressed, and put it back into your target plant. It can be all within one species. Humans have been doing it for thousands of years, just more slowly, with selective breeding. The end result is the same now, we just get their quicker than Mendel did.

    As for organic food. It depends. On fruits and vegetables it is mostly an environmental statement. You’re saying “I do not want to pay for synthetic chemicals (vs organic chemicals) to be used in the growing of my food.” The food itself is not healthier, necessarily. How healthy a food is does depend on growing conditions, but not an organic certification. For instance, in soils that are rich with micronutrients the vegetables grown also end up having more micronutrients in them. Organic farmers may be more likely to have such soil, but it isn’t an exclusive trait.

    Meat and dairy is a different matter though. The nutrition profile of animal products is dependent largely on the animal’s diet. If an animal is treated with medications, and the medications are metabolized out of the system, or otherwise not present in the animal product we’re eating, their use is irrelevant from a health perspective and again the purchaser is just making a political statement.

    However, if the animal is fed a more natural pasture or grass diet, their fat profile changes. Their milk and meat get more healthy omega 3s, less omega 6s. Is grass fed the same thing as organic? No. Most organic meat is fed the same way as nonorganic meat, on corn and soy. They might eat organic corn and soy (which is irrelevant to the cow in the end) but they eat corn and soy. Likewise, grass fed meat is not necessarily organic, the animals can still be given medications and whatnot. From a health perspective your grass fed animal product will be far more healthy than a corn/soy fed organic product, even if the grass fed product is not organic.

    Unfortunately grass fed products are not widely available, especially dairy. I wish they were, but consumers seem to focus on labels and the scientific novices who don’t understand the underlying issues just label shop for things they think they need. Like people buying gluten free foods who don’t have celiac disease, they think it is the thing to do so they do it.

    Fish is healthy for much the same reason. Wild salmon that ate a diet of kelp is healthy to eat. Farmed salmon fed a diet of whatever (corn and soy probably, fish byproduct, etc) isn’t. There are objectively quantifiable differences in the makeup of their meat.

    So, if you’re shopping for an animal product, be less concerned about what meat you eat, and more concerned about what your meat eats.

  9. Timmy says:

    @Anthony Sombers

    I’m interested to know how you’ve come to the oppinion to say that the “book makes a lot of assertions with little to no scientific evidence”? First, the book has not yet been released and unless you have received an advance copy, it would be difficult to make a claim that the book does not use scientific evidence to support its claims. Secondly, the “in the past ten years, Lusk (the author) has published more than one hundred articles in peer-reviewed journals on topics related to consumer behavior and food marketing and policy. By many accounts, he is the most cited and most prolific food economist of his generation.”

    So I ask you Mr. Sombers, how do you support your claim?

  10. Pam says:

    The organic food market is a racket. I was at the store the other day and could buy a pint of regular strawberries for $2.50 or a pint of organic strawberries for $5.00. Are you kidding me? Years ago, it was said that prices on organics would fall as more were produced, but I have not found that to be the case. They still require more land resources and have higher failure rates.

  11. Patel says:

    This is a fascinating post, these insights really go against some of the main stream messages about going all organic. I never bought into those, but seeing this further confirms my position.

  12. Edward Swetsen says:

    I was always under the impression that organic food was better in terms of quality. However, I never thought it was tasty…at all! Eek.

  13. Kyle says:

    “GM foods have no consequences we don’t understand. Luddites like to paint it like an unknown boogeyman, when it is anything but.”

    Sorry man I have to disagree with this one. That statement actually runs against basic scientific theory. Your failing to establish the counterfactual because we haven’t been using truly GM crops for very long. Yes they have fantastic short term outcomes — but claiming to anticipate or arguing that there won’t be any natural or evolutionary responses to true GM is scary.

    Sure people have been cross-breeding, forever, whatever — but claiming to understand ecological consequences just because there haven’t been any salient catastrophic effects is fallacious.

    System integration is so complex that all I’m saying is that there should be more caution when considering cost/benefit.

    Now I’ll mention DDT just so people’s brain explodes.

  14. Pam says:

    I am confused as to why there is so much controversy over genetically modified foods. Meanwhile, we eat things such as broccoli. Broccoli is technically a genetically modified food that was actually “invented” by the Albert Broccoli family ancestors (the James Bond movie producer). But nobodey seems to have an issue with that.

    And the whole “precautionary principle” with regards to DDT has cost millions of lives.

  15. Gabriel Odom says:

    There is nothing wrong with genetically modified foods. Humankind has been modifying our crops throughout the time since the Agricultural Revolution. We only replant the most productive seeds.

    I look forward to the day when Science dictates discussion, rather than blatant demagoguery. Speaking of science, this is research from the National Academy of Sciences: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=10977#toc
    “In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”
    The World Health Organization:
    http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/biotech/20questions/en/

    Next time, let’s try actual science.

  16. Philip says:

    Foods were starting to be modified by the Native Americans with corn and sweet potatoes among others. They were already using selection and pollination to improve their crops. Booker T Washington was a pioneer in the field back in the 1880’s. We kept it up and have developed numerous foods that you now enjoy and actually your parents and grandparents did. Organic has been tested in many studies and found to have no improvements over regular food and actually has more problems with contamination due to using natural fertilizer. Add in the cost and most people can’t afford it. Actually at the rate people are going and prices are rising due to stupid regulations regular food is getting priced out of range.
    Don’t get me wrong. I think feeding bone meal and hormones to animals was and is stupid. That is an area that really needs to be studied very closely. All the additives to animal feed and directly to the animals is way ahead of the testing for issues. We need to slow down. I wish I could afford some grass or grain fed beef vice all the other stuff. That is my personal opinion and I do not know about the science. Actually you would be hard pressed to get me to believe any science on that other than it does affect us.
    Meanwhile this is written by one of the leading authorities on the subject so trying to discredit his book is really difficult unless you have some new startling discovery made in the last few months. You may have a personal opinion as many people do about organic but you do not have the science to support it. So please don’t try to trash the work with unsupported claims of some non-existent study or report you heard about saying organic was so good for you. Either link to it or just say in your opinion. Think of all the scares that have been caused by false claims of science. You destroyed an apple crop and the lives and businesses of a whole lot of farmers based on a computer model of eating bushels of apples every day for years. A diet additive was thrown out and now obesity is the cause of the month. What next?