How the food industry exploits the common weakness in Capuchin Monkeys and Humans

stupidmonkeyBy Dr. Nadir Mir Ali

If one is driving east on Marina Bay Drive toward Kemah, there is a Bohemian coffee shop just before the intersection of this drive with South Shore Boulevard called Mrs. Monkeys Emporium.

If you happen to drop in for a delightful cup of Java, you will notice two Capuchin Monkeys housed in a glass cage. Their diet is carefully controlled by the owner, Robert, who recognizes the weakness of these primates towards sugar. If left to their own volition, they are capable of consuming sugary food in quantities equaling their body weight.

We as humans share this primal instinct; we and our brains crave sugar. In fact, our brains are not capable of using any other fuel other than sugar to function. My goal is to connect this craving for sugar we have as humans with the epidemic of obesity and diabetes that has afflicted us as Americans and also becoming a worldwide phenomenon as the rest of the world adopts our lifestyle.

In the middle of the 20th century, health officials in the U.S. started noticing an increase in the incidence of heart disease. Amongst the many likely culprits for this malady was the American diet, which at that time contained a generous percentage of animal fat and cholesterol. On the basis of observational data, saturated fat and cholesterol found in red meats and eggs was labeled as the culprit in increasing heart disease in Americans.

Even though this information was not scientifically robust, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), The American Heart Association (AHA) and other leading experts in the 1970s recommended a large scale change in the American diet to consume less red meat and eggs. Such a statement was not acceptable to the meat industry, which succeeded through its lobbying efforts to get this recommendation changed to the statement, “avoid foods that are high is saturated fats and cholesterol.” This way food choices were termed in nutrient terms and thus the industry could then sell meats that were low in saturation fat, i.e. “lean white meat.”

The food industry in the United States by some estimates has an annual turnover of over $30 billion. When the dietary recommendation first came out, there was a significant degree of opposition by the influential food lobby. However, they soon recognized that foods could easily be engineered to reflect the low saturated fat and cholesterol dogma being proposed by the so called experts.

Fat, as we all know, contains twice the number of calories compared to sugar and proteins. Thus it made intuitive sense that a low fat diet would also promote weight loss.  Neither the experts nor the industry could foresee at that time that this radical change in the American diet would start the obesity epidemic.

The nutritional experts failed to take into account that the low fat food the industry was churning out would replace the fats with carbohydrates. In addition, the food industry soon recognized the human weakness, like that of the Capuchin Monkeys for sugar. Hence, processed and engineered foods containing generous quantities of sugar, sugar like substances, and simple carbohydrate that are treated by the body as sugar became common place.

The food industry even succeeded in getting the endorsement of USDA and AHA, the associations that are charged with protecting and promoting our health for this “health promoting low fat food” (filled with sugar). The American Heart Association has no trouble in endorsing any processed food as long it is low in saturated fat and cholesterol, giving it the symbolic check of heart healthy for a simple fee that the industry is more than willing to pay. Thus, the supermarket isles are filled with cereals that are high in sugar or sugar like substance and refined carbohydrate carrying the seal of approval of the AHA.

Of course, there have been dissenters and skeptics even when these dietary guidelines were first proposed. Initially they were unable to get an audience, but with the wide scale adoption of this low fat diet by Americans, aided by the recognition by the food industry that the human body can be easily addicted to sugar (like the Capuchins) led to the obesity epidemic. One can easily show initiation of the obesity trend starting with these dietary guidelines of low fat diet.

Alternatives to the recommendations of low fat diet over the last 50 years have been the Atkins diet, The South Beach Diet and the Paleo Diet, to just name a few. While each of these diets have their merits, they have failed to gain a universal following because they lack essential elements for long term sustainability and health promotion.

My goal through this column and over the next few issues is to examine each of these to start a discussion in the Clear Lake and Bay Area community about so fundamental a subject as “food” that is not only necessary for health but also a key component of socializing and pleasure.

The later part of the 20th century has seen an industrialization of our food sources. However, only recently the increasing incidence of obesity and diabetes have fueled a small but vocal group of consumers, scientists and journalists to question the dogma we have been given about health promoting nutritional policy. There are nutritional heroes of our time like Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Michael Mosely to start the conversation. Their work is worth examining to modulate our behavior of buying, consuming and enjoying food.

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