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Christina Pirello Headshot

How Did Our Food Get So Crazy?

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A night of television viewing is enough to make a person schizophrenic. We bounce like tennis balls among reality shows that are laughable in their banality and how out of touch they are with most people's reality; cooking shows that rival the coliseum events of ancient Rome; news programs with hosts like Dr. Sanjay Gupta encouraging Americans to eat more plant-based foods and interviewing people like former President Bill Clinton on his commitment to health and a vegan diet. Sandwiched between each program are ads for food, all kinds of food -- bizarre food, excessive food, greasy, salty, sugary food, diet food, fast food, convenient food -- but no food that supports human health.

The question is: How far can this food insanity go?

Just when I think there's no other outlandish product to bring to market; not one other junk food that can be flavored, colored, deep-fried and packaged like a Christmas ornament, something else hits and I am, once again, shocked at the quality of food being marketed to us without conscience or consequence. Except, of course, to our health.

An article written in TIME in June 2010, cites a study published in 2004 in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association that discussed the impact of advertised foods on American health. It wouldn't surprise any of us now (knowing what we do) that when the research team involved in the study calculated the nutritional content of a 2000-calorie a day diet using foods only marketed on television, they discovered that this diet exceeded government recommendations for fat by 20 times and contained 25 times the recommended amount of sugar.

Oh, and this "TV diet" contained less than half of the recommended fruit and vegetables. To me, that time seems almost innocent in the face of the food marketed to us today.

Did food go crazy because of marketing or are food manufacturers just making crazier food to see what they can push us to buy next? This begs the bigger question: Are outrageous food items being marketed to us because we want them or do we want them because they are being marketed to us?

There's a lot of blame to go around, but ultimately, I am of the belief that we would not want -- or even think of -- some of the foods being sold to us if they were not so virulently marketed. Seriously, would you, in your wildest dreams, create a 2,300-calorie pork-topped deep dish pizza in your kitchen? Would a sandwich created from two pieces of fried chicken with bacon and cheese in the middle even occur to you? Would you create a salad that had more fat and calories than a cheeseburger and fries?

I don't think -- even in your most decadent dreams of food -- that you could come up with some of the swill being passed off on us as food. It's as though products are being created by mad scientists and we are living in one big experiment!

I am reminded of the 1980 film, "Fatso," with Dom Deluise about an overweight Italian man's struggle to lose weight. He joins a group called The Chubby Checkers, and one night, after watching television ad after television ad showcasing yummy, rich, fattening food, he calls his supporters to get him through a moment of weakness. His "checkers" arrive and they begin to chat about food, describing their most decadent treats and culminate with: jelly donuts with the jelly sucked out; ice cream stuffed inside and placed in a warm oven until they just begin to melt. That pales in comparison to what is on offer today.

With burgers the size of your head, buckets of fried chicken with cheese and mashed potatoes on top, pizzas with three meals worth of calories, chocolate-covered stuffed Oreos, the Baconator Triple from Wendy's (with 1330 calories and 38 grams of saturated fat), a bowl made of bread and filled with pasta, croissants and bagels stuffed with ham, cheese, eggs and bacon, it's no wonder we are losing our collective battle with obesity, diabetes, stroke and heart disease.

Things are so crazy that compared to other fast food options out there, Chicken McNuggets with fries seem like health food.

Sadly, there's a lot of money to be made by those who support the way we currently eat -- and the interests of those commercial organizations come at a great cost to consumers. More than 4 billion dollars was spent marketing fast foods to America in 2010. Television ads comprise the lionshare of ads we are bombarded with daily (with pharmaceuticals a close second and the great irony is that we wouldn't need a lot of the drugs out there if we ate food that was fit for human consumption).

Manufacturers love to tweak products in ways that leave our diet largely unchanged, but allow for new "hot buttons" to be added to the product packaging, creating a "health halo" and seduce us to buy more of whatever junk it may be. Pharmaceutical companies can then develop more and more drugs to cure us of the diseases that our food choices cause. The health care industry makes more money treating chronic diseases than it does preventing them. And the circle of business goes round and round -- leaving us dizzy with confusion.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out how people can go on believing the nonsense being fed to us (pun intended) about food. I cannot figure out why we are not protesting in the streets at the injustices being put on us in the name of profits. It's obvious to me that the bottom line of food companies has become far more important than the collective health of the people buying food.

People find lots of excuses. I hear them all the time: Life is difficult. We're entitled to a little pleasure as a reward for surviving our daily challenges -- like getting a lollipop for going to the dentist. The science is complicated and we suffer from information overload to the point of paralysis. It takes too much discipline and money to eat healthfully. Just getting through the day is hard enough. Besides, somebody will invent a pill or treatment, or some diet guru will give us the magical formula that will make us thin, fit, and energetic -- someday. In the meantime, what's the point of denying ourselves anything, no matter how bad we know it is for us? Eating fresh, whole foods, fruits and vegetables is a lot of work and oh, so expensive. So we smoke, we drink too much and we eat stuff that hurts us. There's a disconnect between what we say we want and what we are willing to do to get it. Then we feel guilty and stressed and the cycle just perpetuates itself.

We are in serious trouble. If you think it's too expensive to eat well, just take a good look at the increasing cost of health care -- much of which could be reduced if we took some pretty simple preventive measures now. Why is no one asking why? Or doing anything about it?

Just a few decades ago, the food industry made a conscious choice to seduce the American public into eating more processed food, which featured fat, sugar, salt and dozens of preservatives. And we could not have made it easier for them. We've come to love anything fast and convenient. "Heat and eat" or "grab and go" have become the buzzwords of the day. It seems that the less healthy the food, the more we love it. We left the dinner table for dinner in a bucket.

There has been a shift away from learning to cook -- even on television cooking shows -- to watching chefs stuff their faces in diners, cafes and at the base of the Eiffel Tower. And while many of these chefs make treks to the White House to plant gardens and cook vegetables for underserved school kids, you will not see them cooking these kinds of food on their shows. It's bad for advertising.

Our fascination with cooking shows and celebrity chefs rises, but the consumption of fast and processed foods has skyrocketed. With cooking transformed into a spectacle it has become another soporific that keeps us on the sofa, yearning, wanting, craving ... something -- which is just what advertisers want.

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