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Fat? Blame a Hippy

Brad @ Burning Man
I think it was something like a week or so ago that somebody told me that they'd been flipping channels on the radio and heard Rush Limbaugh blame the obesity epidemic on liberals. They were expecting outrage, or at least an eye roll, but what I said was, "Well, there's a grain of truth in that." Then they explained to me what Rush meant by it and they got their eye roll. The opium addicted "man with talent on loan from god" is still the same moron who fell, hard, for the "Microsoft is buying the Catholic church" hoax, that is to say, still as dumb as a post. (I will never in a million years understand why he was the poster child for right-wing talk radio and not any of the huge number of people they had at the time who were of at least average intelligence, let alone much smarter.) The odds that he would get something actually right are infinitesimal. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, as they say, and this time his "blame liberals for everything" knee jerk reaction fell somewhat near the mark.

It really has more to do with hippies than with liberals per se. Most hippies were, by our standards, liberal; very few liberals, even at the time, were hippies. So few people even understand what the word means, really. "Hippie" is a term coined by journalists to describe those born between roughly 1942 and 1952 (the leading edge half of the Boomer generation) who adopted the symbols, slogans, clothing, and lifestyle (including the drugs) of the true spiritual revolutionaries of the period, who called themselves the Movement or the Counter-Culture. But what separates a hippie from someone who was actually in the Movement, was actually part of the counter-culture, was that without exception the hippies were as shallow (and temporary) as a puddle on a hot day. To them it was nothing but a style, a fashion. It was a way of pretending to yourself to be rebelling against your parents on evenings and weekends without doing anything to actually change the world. And honestly, as young as the hippies were (during most of the actual period of the Movement, most of them were too young to drive, let alone vote, let alone do anything serious with their lives), they had no more effect on the politics and economics of their time than, say, teenage "wigger" suburban white hip-hop rapper-wannabe kids do now. But they didn't stay young forever. By the 1970s, we were stuck with them, and they began to flex their newfound demographic power for some of the obsessions of their youth. None of the really good or important ones, but some of the others.

The one that's relevant to the obesity epidemic was that the hippies had inherited from their Movement elders and leaders an obsession with the word "natural," as in "all natural." And so they began exercising their consumer choices, and making threats of boycotts, to insist that the products they bought were "made with all-natural ingredients." That happens to be one of the dumbest phrases in the history of the English language. What, exactly, is an "un-natural ingredient"? Okay, they meant "not artificial" -- but unless you eat the raw ingredients, whatever you make from those ingredients is by definition "artificial." That's what "artificial" means: "made." And nowhere did they win a bigger cultural victory than in their war against "artificial preservatives."

I explained elsewhere why Americans are, economically, still completely and fanatically obsessed with making food cheap and ubiquitous. I discussed this in great length, and one of the other implications of this, last Thanksgiving time in "We Didn't Used to Have Farm Policy, Per Se," "Bad Seed," and "Slaves of the Green Revolution." The short form of it is that America is a culture that has had enough famines and economic collapses, especially since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, that it is impossible to persuade any significant number of us that food will ever be plentiful enough or (especially) cheap enough. So starting in the 1940s American industry set out on a nationwide crusade, an effort fueled as much power and money and determination and manpower and desperation as went into winning World War II, to maximize our food production, and even more importantly to maximize the reach and the efficiency of our food storage and delivery system. It's sometimes called "the canned goods revolution," and there's a reason why a generation just a little older than me have such intense memories of some early canned goods like Spam. But canning is only part of the solution, can only be part of it. Not everything ends up being palatable after being canned. Not everything tolerates being boiled to be disinfected; canning things that haven't already been disinfected doesn't do much to protect them from bacteria and mold. So American chemists put as much effort into finding and mass-producing new molecules that were food-safe anti-bacterials and fungicides, and if those chemicals could also be tailored to make food stay palatable longer while in a boxcar, in a truck, and on the shelf, all the better. Food that can be stored longer without refrigeration can be transported cheaper. And it's a heck of a lot more convenient for people who need to take food with them that can survive 4 hours in the blazing sun without rotting.

But, for reasons that hardly need to be explained, the Pure Food and Drug Act requires that food processing companies label their products with everything that went into them, that meant that the hippies grew up to face store shelves where everything had fine print with jaw-breaking chemical names that sounded like something out of a mad scientist's lab. And having inherited the symbols of Counter-Culture's interest in reversing some of the destructive trends of machine civilization without really understanding them, they didn't want any of those weird chemicals in their food. Not that they were going to pay more for their food. Most of them couldn't have; the triple fiasco that was the deficit financing of the Vietnam War, the economic sanctions that were imposed on the US by Egypt and Saudi Arabia for our military assistance to Israel, and the fact that American manufacturers had grown lazy and stupid during the first 20 years after World War II when they were the only factories left in the world un-bombed and now 25 years later they were facing intense competition again, had rendered a vast swath of the country either actually poor or at least clinging desperately to the edge of that abyss.

So food processing companies learned the hard way that food had to stay as cheap and ubiquitous as the GI Generation had made it, but if they didn't want to face an all-out moral panic with accompanying ruinous legislation, they needed to do so without putting all those "weird chemicals" in the food. So, unfortunately for all of us, they found a way to comply. It was one with a history in this country, too. The reason that there's molasses in so much New England cuisine is that 17th century agriculturalists and scientists discovered that in sufficiently intense concentrations, sugar has a paradoxical effect on bacteria and mold. Small amounts of it make a great culture medium for growing them, but intense enough concentrations make great "all natural" preservatives. And during the 17th century, when New England was first being built up, the Caribbean sugar industry was producing vast quantities of molasses, a sugary syrup, as a waste product. But 20th century food scientists had something even cheaper to work with: Karo Syrup. That is to say, "naturally high-fructose corn syrup." Modern strains of corn have a fair amount of sugar in them. The Green Revolution rendered corn so cheap it's practically free. And companies turning corn into processed food were accumulating much, much more sweet-corn syrup than could possibly be sold. So when they were looking for something to replace the preservatives in our food with that wouldn't have a name that scares hippies, they settled on corn syrup.

The results of that decision are writ large on my gut and the guts of 2/3 of the people around us. More went into our obsession with sugar than that, yes; ex-Pepsi CEO John Sculley in particular should bear a lot of the blame for his discovery that there was no upper limit to how much sugared soda families would consume in one sitting if they were persuaded to buy it in larger quantities at a time, and our increasingly post-industrial lifestyle is awfully sedentary. But a substantial amount of the blame should rest on the anti-scientific, irrational obsessive crusade against "artificial preservatives," and it's entirely fair to blame hippies for that.

Comments

( 39 comments — Leave a comment )
dalziel_86
Sep. 19th, 2006 11:05 am (UTC)
Or the corn syrup could have to do with the farm subsidies that make it so cheap to use...
velvetpage
Sep. 19th, 2006 12:02 pm (UTC)
That's part of the same vicious circle he's discussed above, IMO. The farm subsidies made it possible to grow a cheap, filling product, which they then discovered had a limited market, so they created a new market for it by requiring a certain percentage of sweetener in any product to be corn syrup. (As an aside, I won't eat American chocolate, and American coke just tastes wrong. There's no corn syrup in Canadian products, so they taste different.)
kinkyturtle
Sep. 19th, 2006 11:10 am (UTC)
I have a vague recollection of a TV ad from when I was a kid. I don't remember what it was for, only that it featured Will Lee (a.k.a. Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street) talking about how whatever the product was didn't contain all those nasty chemicals like "BHA and BHT".

Now I wonder what BHA and BHT are anyway, and are they really bad for you like saccharin, or were they just innocent victims of the Artificial Ingredient Purge you're talking about?
bradhicks
Sep. 19th, 2006 11:38 am (UTC)
BHA and BHT are anti-oxidants. As such, if they were invented now, you'd be getting them in your daily vitamin supplements. Are they safe? Compared to what, eating rotten food?

It's funny you should bring up saccharine. Nobody has been able to duplicate the results of the original deeply flawed studies; it's actually safer than "natural" sugar. You just illustrated my point.
amberite
Sep. 19th, 2006 12:50 pm (UTC)
Saccharine's quite safe. Aspartame and sucralose are not. Which ones are still in food?

Answer: the ones with the most powerful lobbies.
herbaliser
Sep. 19th, 2006 05:04 pm (UTC)
Answer: the ones that don't taste like sweet aspirin.
kinkyturtle
Sep. 19th, 2006 11:15 pm (UTC)
Now I don't feel bad about not switching to diet sodas. (Not that I did before...) :}
bradhicks
Sep. 20th, 2006 01:54 am (UTC)
I switched to saccharine-sweetened cold-brewed regular Lipton iced tea, myself. I go through at least half a gallon of it a day.
kimchalister
Sep. 20th, 2006 08:19 am (UTC)
Seems to me I remember at least one study that showed mice fed BHA and BHT actually lived LONGER. It's a "preservative" -- apparently preserves life too.
Aspartame is bad stuff. VERy very close to the molecule responsible for Alzheimer's. But soft drinks are bad for you anyway. Especially for your teeth.
but what is it with all you younger guys who hate hippies so much? It's, like, a trend....
nancylebov
Sep. 19th, 2006 12:14 pm (UTC)
Aside from additional theories about causes of obesity (I'm especially fond of the insufficient sleep connection because it runs counter to the stereotype of fatness=laziness), most of the corn sugar seems to be in foods that also have long lists of chemical additives.

I don't think your theory holds up.
nancylebov
Sep. 19th, 2006 12:17 pm (UTC)
So far as Rush Limbaugh is concerned, I have no idea why he's so popular and thinking about the question leads to a black pit of hating a lot of people, some of whom are mysteriously pleasant and intelligent enough in person.

Aside from any issues about Limbaugh's intelligence, accuracy, and malice, I've heard him puff up five minutes or less of material into twenty minutes or more. How can people stand that, let alone seek it out?
uniquecrash5
Sep. 19th, 2006 03:20 pm (UTC)
The only times I've listened to Rush, his patter seemed to have the same structure: list a couple of things that pretty much everyone agrees with and end with something comnpletely outragous, all the while claiming the progression of ideas is completely natural and obvious. He's charismatic enough to make it sound like it makes sense (truthiness in its purest form).
(Anonymous)
Sep. 19th, 2006 12:59 pm (UTC)
Errr, being fairly crunchy and green myself, I hardly consider corn syrup natural. Human physiology is not prepared to deal with such intense concentrations of fructose, or really any sugar! Most of the latter-day "hippies" I know avoid the stuff.

The "hippie trendy" foods now are either local and fresh or fresh-frozen, home-canned, home-pickled, or dehydrated. The grocery stores have increasing shelfspace for store-bought versions with no artificial ingredients, which includes corn syrup. They tend to be sweetened with fruit juice, agave nectar, honey, maple sugar, or evaporated cane juice (raw sugar). Corn syrup and even refined cane sugar are almost as big a bogeyman as aspartame!

Artificial preservatives I avoid because lately I've been having nasty reactions to them. It really isn't a prejudice against their being technological... the technology of the freezer, food dehydrator, and vacuum-sealed jar are very good friends!

Granted, they don't really do the job as thoroughly as jaw-popping chemicals. I'd be screwed in any bomb shelter pantry, because the stuff that really keeps botulism and mould at bay also make me choke, turn splotchy, and run for the nearest privy! It's not just me - everybody has a different threshold of sensitivity to various chemical compounds, and mine's just lower than normal.

I really like your point on folks who adopt a trend without ever really intending to actually change the aspects of the world they're "rebelling" against.
(Anonymous)
Sep. 19th, 2006 01:19 pm (UTC)
High Fructose Corn Syrup
This is Lisa, wife of Savrille. Sorry to post annon, but I just couldn't let this one pass me by.
I couldn't agree more. While I was not aware that we had hippies to blame for this, I have been astonished at the ubiquitous nature of corn syrup. A few years ago, at the urging of my newly diabetic father, I went on a sugar free diet. As a consequence, I gave up purchasing anything but raw ingredients: meat, cheese, raw vegetables. There's hfcs in virtually every canned, boxed, or frozen food item in your grocery store. (Salsa being the only notable exception.) We keep hearing that Type 2 Diabetes is reaching pandemic proportions due to obesity in the US. At what point are the diabetics going to band together and say "That's Enough! There's no food for us to buy in the grocery store!"
kenshi
Sep. 19th, 2006 03:20 pm (UTC)
v. interesting. hadn't thought of it that way before.

not that I needed another yet reason to dis the Baby Boomers... ;-)
bradhicks
Sep. 19th, 2006 04:53 pm (UTC)
Any more, having people say to me, "I never thought of it that way before," is practically my only justification for still existing.
kenshi
Sep. 19th, 2006 08:50 pm (UTC)
Well, no matter how much I may or may not disagree with what you write (and, believe it or not, I tend to agree with you more than not), I always find your perspective to be both novel and well-written.
kimchalister
Sep. 20th, 2006 07:11 pm (UTC)
Then you have lots and lots of justification for existing -- more than most people. Please, keep existing.
uniquecrash5
Sep. 19th, 2006 03:31 pm (UTC)
I dunno that I buy blaming the hippies for this, for reasons you yourself state:

1) So American chemists put as much effort into finding and mass-producing new molecules that were food-safe anti-bacterials and fungicides, and if those chemicals could also be tailored to make food stay palatable longer while in a boxcar, in a truck, and on the shelf, all the better.

2) And companies turning corn into processed food were accumulating much, much more sweet-corn syrup than could possibly be sold. So when they were looking for something to replace the preservatives in our food with that wouldn't have a name that scares hippies, they settled on corn syrup.

Sounds like simple economics to me. Manufacturing new preservatives is expensive. Corn syrup is incredibly cheap. That'd be true even without a moral panic over 'artificial' preservatives, right?
bradhicks
Sep. 19th, 2006 04:53 pm (UTC)
Ah, but while the initial research was somewhat expensive, the preservatives themselves are dirt cheap. Because unlike high fructose corn syrup, they do their job at ratios as low as a few parts per million.

I call your attention to the fact that when BHT and so forth were used to preserve food, it was always the last ingredient on the list in order of quantity, or very nearly so. Now that consumers won't let them use BHT and some countries are banning it, sugar syrup in one name or another is consistently in the first three ingredients on that list.

Not only does all that sugar add tons of empty calories, it's caused us to raise an entire generation who think that all food tastes sweet, should taste like cake and candy if it's at all fresh, and so unsurprisingly they rebel when someone tries to put them on a lower-sugar diet. Food that would have tasted just fine to you and me as kids, because it was perfectly natural food to which only a few molecules of chemical preservative had been added, now tastes bland, bitter, or otherwise yucky to anyone with Baby Boomer or later parents, because it doesn't have enough sugar in it.
(Deleted comment)
bradhicks
Sep. 20th, 2006 01:50 am (UTC)
Indeed. But consider that Brownberry brand bread will keep, shelf-stable and still fresh enough to eat, for weeks if necessary. It's the high fructose corn syrup that does that. The side effect is that it's sweeter than most cakes used to be, but it does make it possible to them to ship, stores to sell, and consumers to store bread for much longer than would be possible with no preservatives.
naath
Sep. 19th, 2006 09:54 pm (UTC)
it's caused us to raise an entire generation who think that all food tastes sweet

So you want to blame the hippies for making you eat revolting processed gunk instead of food? When I hear people advocating 'all natural' food they mean organic veg and free range meat that hasn't been fed antibiotics...

I'm not exactly what you would call thin - but I'm fat because I eat chocolates and cake not because of crap anyone (hippie or otherwise) has added to my food.
bradhicks
Sep. 20th, 2006 01:53 am (UTC)
Except that for your average consumer who was part of the anti-additives revolt, the alternative was not "pay more for organic produce, shop more often, and spend as many hours a day in the kitchen preparing it as our mothers did back during the days of one career families." Those alternatives are only available to people willing to live in great privation or those born (or lucked) into substantial comfort.

The economic needs that drove the canned goods revolution and the Green Revolution were still there. Additive-free food could not meet those economic needs. So instead we got food with "all natural" additives -- that was horribly bad for us.
naath
Sep. 20th, 2006 08:15 am (UTC)
How about - pay the same for organic veg (I pay 12 pounds, about 20 dollars, a week for a box full of veg), get it delivered to my front door once a week, spend 5 minutes chopping it and throwing it in a pan... I've never been a complicated cook (I'm no good and I have no time) but I can make *veg* without having to get it out of a can.
nancylebov
Sep. 19th, 2006 05:26 pm (UTC)
In addition to the corn subsidy problem, there was the government signing on to low-fat. Fat carries flavor, so a major way companies tried to make low fat food palatable is to crank up the sugar/corn syrup.

I was shocked to find that a not noticably sweet low-fat blue cheese dressing was loaded with sugar.
reikimaster
Sep. 19th, 2006 05:28 pm (UTC)
yay. good to know if I get fat again, it's not my fault. I'm pretty much happy to blame anybody else but me.
the_eleven
Sep. 19th, 2006 08:47 pm (UTC)
Shouldn't the blame really lie with the people who DRINK tremendous amounts of soda and don't get adequate exercise?

I also have a serious question; if the word "hippie" has the connotations you describe, then is there an appropriate shorthand word for the thoughtful people who were actually members of the spiritual/sociologically aware Movement you describe?
bradhicks
Sep. 20th, 2006 01:48 am (UTC)
There isn't a nominative form for a member of the counter-culture other than to say that someone is "in the counter-culture."

The soda salesman story is one I'll tell another time; suffice it to say that they took the steps they did, to maximize profit for their company, knowing beforehand how powerless most people would be and with reason to know and believe what the social health consequences would be. If you think that what casinos do to problem gamblers by designing their attractions specifically to hook in problem gamblers is okay, then you're probably okay with blaming people for falling for what I consider to be particularly evil manipulation by the soda industry.
the_eleven
Sep. 20th, 2006 08:00 am (UTC)
If you think that what casinos do to problem gamblers by designing their attractions specifically to hook in problem gamblers is okay, then you're probably okay with blaming people for falling for what I consider to be particularly evil manipulation by the soda industry.

I was about to say something along the lines of, "surely the majority of people who have gotten incredibly fat and lost teeth etc to soda cannot be that weak-willed," and then I tried to not cry. >.>

I do think there's a difference between the set of "problem gamblers" and the set of "people who drink soda" though. I don't believe that slot machines are morally acceptable, although I am libertarian enough that I can't advocate banning them. I actually happen to believe that the way almost all advertising is done in the modern era is morally unacceptable, which is why I recommend to my friends that they try and cut down their intake of media that's saturated with ads (TV, pop magazines, etc). That said, I think if someone doesn't think ahead enough to not watch ads, and then gets suckered into doing things that are bad for them because they watched those ads, they do have some culpability for their behavior, tho whether they are more culpable than the advertisers may vary case-to-case.
naath
Sep. 20th, 2006 08:19 am (UTC)
knowing beforehand how powerless most people would be

Soda - Just Say No. How *hard* can it be to not drink the revolting stuff? It was you (some sort of generic you) who bought it, you who put it in your mug, you who brought that mug to your mouth... the advertisers made you want it but it was you that gave in.
kimchalister
Sep. 20th, 2006 08:36 am (UTC)
Does that mean that you don't credit brain-washing with affecting behavior? How brain-washed do you have to be before you are not responsible for your actions?

There are many events where your choice of beverages is coffee or soft drinks, or perhaps alcohol or soft drinks. Where there simply isn't any other choice. I am glad that now there is usually bottled water as an alternative. I sure get strange looks when I order milk. Some restaurants don't even have milk anymore. and I love tea, but no one makes it properly, so I do it at home.
I rarely drink sodas so I am familiar with how difficult that can be to find an alternative. (I find carbonated drinks -except champaign- to be painful going down.)
naath
Sep. 20th, 2006 08:41 am (UTC)
I do not believe that advertising is sufficiently brain washing. I'm not sure 'sufficient' brain washing to leave you incapable of making decisions exists in real life allthough the government might have it hidden away somewhere. If advertising were that bad we would all be like Homer Simpson.

In restraunts I normally have water with my meal. Water out of the tap. All restraunts have taps (or at least I have yet to find one that doesn't). When I was in Egypt I had bottled water (because the tap water there makes you ill if you aren't used to it). Sometimes I will have some wine. Often I drink coffee or tea but when they are available then so is water.

I do drink soda sometimes - and if I do I'll have *a* glass or *a* can - and feel no need to go and guzzle an entire 2 litre bottle of the stuff.
kimchalister
Sep. 20th, 2006 07:19 pm (UTC)
Yes, restaurants all have taps, and i usually get water. It's often drinkable.
But events don't always have a water alternative. People so take it for granted that people drink soft drinks as the liquid of choice, that they offer little else. I, personally have no problem turning down sodas, but it appears that many other people seem to consider them legitimate beverages. The thing with brain-washing, is it's insidious, and no, it's not absolute -- it's a big gray area. Not that people CAN'T refuse them, but they are not inclined to because of how normal all the ads etc. have made them seem. That inclination is artificially produced -- partial brainwashing. I see the current younger people as having no objection to being brain-washed -- "Bring it on!" That may be the real problem.
ithildae
Sep. 19th, 2006 08:51 pm (UTC)
Give Rush his due, he got people talking about politics when doing so was considered gauche. People who would walk away from a political discussion were now interested. He was new and fresh and funny. Unfortunately, once opened, his sort have a very short shelf life, his "sell by" date went by many years ago.

Another good example: Michael Moore. (Or Gary Trudeau, if you like.)
kimchalister
Sep. 20th, 2006 08:29 am (UTC)
It's the making up "facts" out of thin air that's the problem.
(Anonymous)
Sep. 21st, 2006 05:48 pm (UTC)
Corn syrup
Two questions:

Sioce when is corn syrup a preservative?

What "all natural" products have HF corn syrup in them? For that matter what products have corn syrup and no artificial preservatives?

Corn syrup wasn't dreamed up as a 'natural preservative,' it was super cheap sugar made available through government intervention that made corn syrup imports almost free. This was financially motivated.

Whether or not companies may have tried to cash in on the concerns of natural foodies, it's unfair to blame them. I grew up with two of them for parents and you can bet your butt we were not allowed to eat sugar OR corn syrup- please give some of them credit for educating themselves, even if the public at large never caught on.
bradhicks
Sep. 21st, 2006 06:06 pm (UTC)
Re: Corn syrup
koogrr
Sep. 22nd, 2006 02:02 pm (UTC)
Ah, corn syrup. More useful details, thanks.
satyrblade
Sep. 23rd, 2006 01:31 pm (UTC)
Interesting point. Funny thing, though - you missed another area where the counter-culture could reasonably be taken to task for the obesity epidemic: the self-indulgent rebellion against consequences.

It became (and remains) an article of faith among many hardcore liberals(*) that restrictions are BAD. "Nothing is true, everything is permissible" became the battlecry of that era, especially among those who didn't truly understand what the saying meant. From that understandable revolt against draconian social constraints came a mentality - which remains with us to this day - that any form of consequence or responsibility is a tyrannical repression of one's True Self. This nonsense has spilled out of armchair philosophy to become the cornerstone of the consumer era: I want everything, I want it now, and you can't tell me that I shouldn't have it my way. We see the results of this idea all around us today, most notably in the waistlines of our fellow Americans.


--------------
* = I say this as a liberal... or, as I prefer to think of myself, as a progressive.

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