Op - Ed

We poison ourselves with industrial food, sugar and pills

By Bill Schubart

Editor’s note: Bill Schubart is a retired businessman and active fiction writer, and was a former chair of the Vermont Journalism Trust, the parent organization for VTDigger. 

I once weighed 485 pounds. I now weigh a bit over half that. My addiction to sugar and refined carbohydrates was killing me. When I understood that, I safely lost 244 pounds over the course of two years by simply abstaining from refined carbs. I also lost the craving to binge-eat and quit eating when I was full.

I grew up in rural Vermont at the dawn of the processed food industry. Patch’s Market in Morrisville still sold locally grown seasonal fruit and vegetables. In the cooler hung beef, lamb and pork carcasses and a few locally shot deer in the fall. 

Mr. Patch custom-cut meat for his waiting customers on a large butcher block behind the counter. Two wheels of cheddar cheese sat under a cloche to protect them from flies, and Mr. Patch cut whatever size slice you wanted and wrapped it in butcher paper. The only plastic in the store was his black Bakelite telephone.

The industrial food blitz was just beginning. On the shelves were a few Campbell’s soup cans, Miracle Whip, Skippy peanut butter, Cheez Whiz, Heinz ketchup and French’s mustard, and a few packets of Jell-O, Junket and Kool-Aid. Bunny Bread had yet to replace locally baked breads.

Today, 60 years later, we poison ourselves and our children with industrial food, much of it sourced from mono-cropped industrial farms where the push for higher yields requires the addition of chemicals such as Roundup, which contains, among other chemicals, glyphosate. Then there are the neonicotinoids, chlorpyrifos, ammonium sulfate, urea and many other toxins.

“Progressive” Vermont has yet to ban the application of many toxic additives that are applied to our soils as it tries to sustain a dying dairy industry, one that produces more milk than the market can sell, dumps excess milk and whey, and relies on federal price controls to stay afloat. So much for “free market economics” or safeguarding public health.

In 1947, the year I came to Vermont, there were 11,200 small Vermont farms feeding their communities. Today there are around 500, a diminishing mix of mega-dairy farms and an encouraging number of organic and regenerative farming start-ups that focus on soil, water and animal health while producing healthy food for local markets.

California, which grows the lion’s share of domestic fruits and vegetables, has at least set out a 27-year timeframe for banning the worst of the chemicals used in pest management, while Europe is actively reviewing and outlawing many of our most commonly used soil additives.

But here at home, money talks. Industrial ag interests spent $166 million and chemical companies spent $66 million in 2022 lobbying Congress and state legislatures to curtail any efforts to safeguard our air, waterways and soils, and thus the American people.

An outlier in the developed world

In spite of headlines like these, “An epidemic of chronic illness is killing us too soon” from The Washington Post, the industrial food system and the ag chemical industries forge ahead given the inadequate regulatory oversight, significantly reducing life expectancy in the U.S., and making us an outlier in the developed world.

To make matters worse, according to Politico, far-right Republicans championing the interests of the wealth that funds them have put forward their plan to defang the Environmental Protection Agency by reducing its already slender budget by 39%.

Meanwhile, some 80% of breastfeeding mothers have PFAS in their breast milk, passing the chemical on to their infants. PFAS is thought to be contaminating drinking water for more than 200 million Americans. Multiple studies have found rain to contain high PFAS levels, and many of our takeaway paper coffee cups are lined with PFAS that leaches into the coffee we drink.

Why does it matter? Recent soil cores taken in New Hampshire showed 100% PFAS saturation. PFAS is a class of about 15,000 chemicals used to make thousands of products resistant to water, stains and heat. Food wrap and takeaway containers are two.

Scientific studies tell us that these compounds are linked, even at low levels of exposure, to cancer, thyroid disease, kidney dysfunction, birth defects, autoimmune disease and other serious health problems. They’re called “forever chemicals” because of their longevity in the environment. Yet they are still legal in this country. 

Some states, including Vermont, have made some efforts to control their use and to regulate the presence of PFAS in drinking water, but to too little effect.

There are resources available showing how to avoid many of these applied poisons in our food supply, such as the Environmental Working Group. 

The Center for Science in the Public Interest took the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to task after it declared red dye 3 (Erythrosine) a known carcinogen as far back as the early 1980s, yet made no effort to ban it. Candy company Brach’s alone sells more than 100 different candies with the dye. Red 3 is used in some varieties of Betty Crocker’s Fruit by the Foot, Dubble Bubble chewing gum, Entenmann’s Little Bites, and Hostess Ding Dongs.

60 pounds of sugar a year

Andrea Grayson of UVM Larner College of Medicine recently published ”Sweet Tooth Dilemma,” an illuminating work on the impact of sugar on our physiology and its heavily marketed prevalence in our society and institutions.

Her carefully researched work goes beyond the simple vilification of sugar and explains how it became so prevalent in our society and what health benefits accrue when people taper off their addiction.

The average American consumes 60 pounds of sugar a year. Imagine sitting down to eat a 1-pound bag of sugar every week, then eat more. 

For most of human history, consumption of refined sugar was virtually zero. This slowly began to change about 2,000 years ago with the discovery of sugar cane. 

In the 1960s, the sugar industry hired scientists to downplay the dangers of sugar consumption and shift the blame to fats, a natural part of humankind’s diet.

Among the latest industrial food efforts to addict our youngest to sugar is the marketing of “Toddler Milk.” It is distinct from regulated “infant formula,” which can be safely used when breast-feeding. The pediatric community has widely condemned this product as deleterious to children’s health.

The new frontier for marketing edible toxins to young people is “influencer” dietitians. American Beverage, an industry trade group representing Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and other beverage manufacturers in the multibillion-dollar beverage industry, has been paying dietitians to promote chemically sweetened food and beverages now deemed dangerous by scientific research. 

The review found that among the 68 dietitians with 10,000 or more social media followers on TikTok or Instagram, about half had promoted unhealthy food, beverages or supplements to their combined 11 million followers within the last year.

Link to mental illness

Another fascinating book is Brain Energy by Christopher Palmer, M.D. It connects the rising tsunami of mental illness at all ages with the environmental degradation from our dependence on chemicals in food. 

Their damage to human and animal metabolism and mitochondrial anatomy, he posits, is a common thread in all mental as well as physical illness. His work paves the way for what is being called nutritional psychiatry.

Sadly, the human instinct is to look for panaceas — take a pill.  But healthy solutions require more than a pill, as I learned. What we eat matters as much as how much we eat of it.

To sum up: We face an existential choice. If we continue to prioritize profits over people, we can only expect life expectancy, sperm count, maternal death, and physiological and mental health statistics to worsen. 

The Earth will survive the disappearance of our species. We’re one of many species. Will we be the wealthiest and most powerful people in Gaia’s Cemetery of Extinct Species, or will we commit to being a beneficial contributor to the well-being of the planet and all its inhabitants? It’s up to us to decide.

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