Why is our food system filled with unhealthy options?

Food plays a paramount role in the development, health, and well-being of individuals in all stages of life; from toddlers to the elderly. Good nutrition makes up the foundation for human development. Knowing that, our food system remains extremely flawed - why is that? We live in an odd world where, in many cosmopolitan areas, an apple costs more than a donut. In Singapore, getting a plate of greens with your chicken rice can sometimes cost more than the main dish itself.

One of the biggest reasons why the public leans towards unhealthy options is quite simple - cost and convenience. 

Fresh fruits and vegetables are more expensive than processed foods due to their high production and logistic costs. For example, grapes in processed jams can be efficiently harvested by machines, but fresh grapes for organic consumption have to be hand-picked through human labour to avoid bruising. Fresh produce, as well as lean meats and fish are also highly perishable, which means there will be a higher cost to deliver them intact to markets. 

On governmental subsidies 

Although many governments globally subsidize farming communities to help cut down costs, they often prioritize the production of wheat, soy, and corn (all central ingredients in junk food), over leafy greens. The disconnection between our nations' agricultural policies and nutritional recommendation is simply egregious. We are told that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but when the cost of that apple continues to grow, how are we supposed to keep up? 

Many governments preach the importance of nutrition but continue to subsidize corn, wheat, and soybeans, which indirectly promotes the consumption of unhealthy processed foods like high fructose corn syrup or sweetened drinks. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Emory University sent out a survey to analyse the daily diets of 10,308 U.S. adults by asking participants to recall what they ate in the past 24-hours. They found out that there was a higher probability of unhealthy blood glucose levels and obesity in those who consumed the most calories from subsidized foods after estimating the consumption of subsidized food commodities as a percentage of the total calories consumed.  

Even though consumption of these foods has been associated with cardiometabolic risk factors and many studies suggest that subsidies can increase the production and consumption of products made from subsidized crops, we cannot confidently call out governmental agricultural subsidies the sole contributor to unhealthy food systems. "Commodity subsidies are a small part of a bigger problem," Raj Patel, a research professor at the University of Texas. He insinuates that many factors shape our food choices, ranging from our biological attraction to sugar to our love for the convenience of cheap, packaged goods to imposing fast food advertisements. 

Accessibility and cultural craze

Take Beyonce's $50 million Pepsi endorsement deal or Pitbull's Dr. Pepper ads, for example. Dr. Pepper's ads with Pitbull were so successful, they got 4.6 million advertising impressions, and sales of the sugary soft drink went up 1.7 percent (among Latinos). Not only are kids more vulnerable to these persuasive junk food ads, but studies have also shown that children's preference for sweet-tasting foods and beverages is hardwired since birth and only lessens in late adolescence. 

The convenience of fast, unhealthy foods is prioritized over nutritional value for many, especially Singaporeans, a workaholic bunch. Hawker centres are where most 8-to-5 office workers get their daily sustenance. That is if you could call it "sustenance." From sugary popiah to deep-fried youtiao to cholesterol and sodium-filled kway chap, these meals are cheap, quick, and easy calories but can come with many consequences. 

Lack of nutritional knowledge and misinformation is also why our food system is so broken. 

One's knowledge of nutrition has been found to be negatively correlated with one's respective fat and cholesterol intake. Therefore, not having a foundational-level of nutritional knowledge could lead to many health problems, with obesity being the most common. Many people also have misconceptions about nutrition that could prove dangerous in the long run. For example, in a survey, nearly half of participants with high cholesterol intakes incorrectly believed that their cholesterol intakes were "about right." 

On the other hand, nutritionally savvy consumers are more conscious of what they are putting in their bodies and make an effort to go for more healthful options. A study aimed to determine the relationship between nutritional knowledge and application found that participants with high trans and saturated fat knowledge were more likely to consider the Nutrition Facts label when buying packaged foods. More specifically, 86% of the participants who scored high in the survey assessing their nutritional knowledge considered the nutrition label, 75% took into account the calorie content, while 80% considered the total fat content of a food. 

It's easy to grab a donut rather than an apple or a chocolate energy bar rather than an actual nutritionally balanced meal, especially when our food system is saturated with fast and unhealthy food options. It's up to you to decide whether the immediate gratification from junk foods outweighs future health and environmental problems, and it's up to all of us to help make this decision easier by educating ourselves and our community on nutritional knowledge and limiting the production and consumption of unhealthy foods. 

References: 

Aubrey, A., 2016. Does Subsidizing Crops We're Told To Eat Less Of Fatten Us Up?. [online] Npr.org. Available at: <https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/07/18/486051480/we-subsidize-crops-we-should-eat-less-of-does-this-fatten-us-up> [Accessed 14 January 2021].

Bragg, M., Miller, A., Elizee, J., Dighe, S. and Elbel, B., 2016. Popular Music Celebrity Endorsements in Food and Nonalcoholic Beverage Marketing. PEDIATRICS, [online] 138(1), pp.e20153977-e20153977. Available at: <https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2016/06/02/peds.2015-3977> [Accessed 14 January 2021].

Bishow, J., Variyam, J. and Blaylock, J., 2021. Perception And Reality Of Cholesterol. P.295.

Hess, S., Yanes, M., Jourdan, P. and Edelstein, S., 2005. Trans Fat Knowledge Is Related to Education Level and Nutrition Facts Label Use in Health-conscious Adults. Topics in Clinical Nutrition, 20(2), pp.109-117.

Siegel, K., McKeever Bullard, K., Imperatore, G., Kahn, H., Stein, A., Ali, M. and Narayan, K., 2016. Association of Higher Consumption of Foods Derived From Subsidized Commodities With Adverse Cardiometabolic Risk Among U.S. Adults. JAMA Internal Medicine, [online] 176(8), p.1124. Available at: <https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2530901> [Accessed 14 January 2021].

Ventura, A. and Mennella, J., 2011. Innate and learned preferences for sweet taste during childhood. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, [online] 14(4), pp.379-384. Available at: <https://journals.lww.com/co-clinicalnutrition/Abstract/2011/07000/Innate_and_learned_preferences_for_sweet_taste.12.aspx> [Accessed 14 January 2021].

Vox. 2018. Why Eating Healthy Is So Expensive In America. [online] Available at: <https://www.vox.com/videos/2018/3/22/17152460/healthy-eating-expensive> [Accessed 14 January 2021].

Who.int.. WHO | Nutrition For Health And Development. [online] Available at: <https://www.who.int/nutrition/nhd/en/> [Accessed 14 January 2021].

Yahia, N., Brown, C., Rapley, M. and Chung, M., 2016. Level of nutrition knowledge and its association with fat consumption among college students. BMC Public Health, [online] 16(1). Available at: <https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-016-3728-z> [Accessed 14 January 2021]

Why is our food system filled with unhealthy options?