Tuesday, April 9, 2013

We're Not the Bad Guys

When I tell people that I am studying food science, I tend to get a lot of questions like these and the remainder of the conversation always continues on pleasantly. But when I go online to catch up on my food news, I sense a feeling of hostility. Reading discussions and articles about food philosophy or food law and then seeing the comments that follow make me feel like food scientists are not welcome in society. Food scientists are painted as the evildoers responsible for high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats, and ultimately obesity in America. We're supposedly the ones who put so much salt, fat, and sugar into junk food that it is now being compared to cocaine.

And yes, that's true. Food scientists are the ones who pioneered the process of obtaining a low-cost sugar from corn. Food scientists are responsible for figuring out how to hydrogenate fat. And yes, food scientists are responsible for developing recipes that consumers will like. But we are much more than that.

Physician Mark Hyman recently wrote an article published in the Huffington Post discussing the alliance between the FDA and food industry, accusing the two of being responsible for the current obesity epidemic. He highlights the role of "frankenfoods," which are not food, but "byproducts of industrial manufacturing" made by food scientists and continues to bad-mouth the profession. I could write a novel discussing my feelings about his article, but these two excerpts left an exceptionally bad taste in my mouth:

"The food industry comprises 17 percent of our economy and is controlled primarily by Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Cargill, the largest privately-owned companies in the world. They are the creators of "Food Science," Orwellian double-speak for "Frankenfoods." Food used to be just food. Now what we eat is a byproduct of industrial manufacturing."
Food Science is not equivalent to what Hyman calls "frankenfoods." While food scientists are responsible for some of the weird items in the grocery stores, cheese in a can and blue raspberries do not represent the entire food industry. What he fails to acknowledge is that the food industry also includes the microbiologists who work to prevent food borne outbreaks, the engineers who developed the technology to mass produce food, the chemists who assure the quality of food products, as well as the farmers who grow his local organic free-range grass-fed non-GMO soy-free kale!* The food industry does not solely employ scientists who want to create and get you hooked on chocolate-covered pizza-flavored bacon strips; food scientists are responsible for all aspects of food. How else are you supposed to obtain information for a nutrition facts panel? Food science, course!
*I know what I said, I'm just trying to make a point.
"Broccoli, peaches, almonds, kidney beans, and other whole foods don't need a food ingredient label or bar code, but for some reason these foods -- the foods we co-eveolved with over millennia -- had to be "improved" by Food Science. As a result, the processed food industry and industrial agriculture have changed out diet, decade by decade, not by accident, but by intention."
The problem I have with this segment is not is what Hyman wrote, but the manner in which it was written. While the statements are true, Hyman implies that food scientists have maliciously manipulated food with the intention of transforming our diet. I'm going to assume that he is referencing genetically modified foods since that seems to be the hot topic nowadays. After reading through his article, Hyman seems to be under the impression that GMOs were created by the evil food industry in order to take advantage of consumers and deteriorate their health. Riiiiiight. Let's consider the facts, shall we? Food is necessary to feed a population. The earth's population is increasing. An increasing amount of food is needed to feed an growing population. Pest infestation, drought, and disease decrease the yield of quality crops used to feed the increasing population. Genetic modification gives plants their own defense system in order to resist these attacks which yields more food. The intention of genetic modification is not to put consumers under the control of the food industry and industrial agriculture, it is for the general well-being of the planet's population. 

Despite my general feelings about this article, as a nutrition minor, I do agree with a few of Hyman's positions about the relationship between the food industry and our nation's state of health. However, food science is not the sole cause of this obesity epidemic. I believe most of the responsibility relies on the consumer. Companies are not forcing anyone to buy their product. They're trying to market and sell their product in hopes that someone will buy it and like it, but that decision is ultimately up to the consumer. So I want to advise those blaming the food industry for the increase in average human volume to take a closer look at who is responsible for the foods being consumed. Is this really the fault of junk food and soda manufacturers? Or is this a result of a lack of nutrition education and poor decision making?