42. Nutrition as a political issue

What kills more Mexicans: coke or coca? While we are being mass poisoned, many rush forward to defend their favorite snack against regulation. Rather than discussing lifestyles, the political and economical sides of nutrition should be object of debate.

The perspective of nutrition can be used to critically analyze society, exposing how healthy food is rarely available to large groups, which in turns amplifies their vulnerability. By focusing on what people (can) eat, inequalities are rendered tangible and bare. At the same time, nutrition is often encountered as a component of the high life, an addition to the gym culture with its large line of special products, dietary trends and coaches to assist people in ‘living their best life’, as the rich like to say. That is why it is trendy to only eat meat, vegetables and special 60 peso cookies. In this essay we will focus on some facets of the first perspective, and ask what happens if we take nutrition out of the gym and into the street. We will first elaborate on the seriousness of this issue in Mexico, before addressing some of the exploits of the food industry and the issue of access to both healthy and unhealthy food. Note as a disclaimer that I am still a sociologist, not a nutritionist, and will mainly talk about the outward societal, not the chemical aspects of nutrition.

Years of liberal indoctrination have told us that what people eat is an entirely private issue. Yet it  has interesting societal dimensions. We will touch upon two:

    The most evident one is hunger and undernourishment, which is especially consequential if it manifests itself in the developmental stages of children. Hunger is still very much a part of modern life. Despite a surplus of food, the long queues for handouts at foodbanks from the United States to the Netherlands show that even richer countries were never able to eradicate it. In our more humble context, we learned to culturally disguise it, for example by making skipping breakfast part of a ‘busy’ life.

    In Mexico we also suffer from an epidemic of overweight, which in our context doesn’t always come so much from an excess quantity of food but from the caloric nature of what we do eat. While we sometimes cloak this as a lifestyle choice, it does have important public consequences for our healthcare system. Nutrition related conditions where one of the main reasons why Mexico got hit so hard in terms of mortality by the initial waves of Covid19. Mexico was not exceptional in term of spread, vaccine rollout of hospital availability. It was the fact that our country is amongst the global leaders in obesity and diabetes that made many citizens almost twice as vulnerable to the deadly effects of this disease. Only 27% of deaths did not have any specific affection, while 37% were diabetic and 25% obese, in addition to 43% with hypertension and 8% smokers. We can add to this risks like heart disease and certain cancers.

The objective of this essay is not to moralize about lifestyles, but to look at the structural aspects of this situation. As various experts have commented, Mexico used to have one of the most diverse and healthiest diets, but this went downhill in the last thirty years.

    One important factor is the food industry, which has increasingly pushed ‘food products’ rather than naturally edible foods onto our markets, following the American pattern of consumption of highly processed foods. Such products might have advantages such as long preservability, but they don’t make a good diet. As discussed in an earlier essay, we also copied the American appreciation for fake products, making it deceptive for people to understand what is healthy, for example by associating products with fruits while they don’t contain them.

    I want to draw particular attention to how the food industry uses addiction to stimulate consumption. It is well known that addictive substances like sugar (or corn syrup) and caffeine are smuggled into all sorts of products, which on a chemical level compel us to consume more, and irritate us if we don’t. Fat and salt are used in similar ways, along with a host of masking ingredients and artificial flavor to throw our senses off. At the same time they often offer little additional nutritional value besides a short burst of energy (or in case of caffeine the illusion of this), which makes it possible to be both obese and malnourished at the same time. Let us reflect on the fact that our capitalist food system is built upon the common practice of chemically manipulating humans into consumption at the cost of their health. In addition, the (North)Mexican obsession with overwork and almost maddening stress for two-income families drives people (your servant included) to the consumption of these products. The economy doesn’t give us a break, but McDonalds does.

    If the above is true, it implies that employers and more importantly lawmakers have sold us out in the past decades, allowing massive, hard to reverse health risks and addictions to take root for the sake of profit. These same politicians who resist tooth and nail whenever the current government tries to regulate things. For the younger amongst you that time that the CEO of Coca Cola became president might be too long ago (crazy story bro), but you might recall that time that Bimbo literally became a symbol of the opposition after receiving critique from the secretary of health? This company (in addition to Marinela and others) bears a heavy responsibility in pushing the country towards diabetes with its fake bread and corn glucose infused snacks, yet it’s cute images and familiarity are engrained in the collective memory. Note that many of these products are cheap copies of traditional Mexican or European pastry, and thus don’t have to include 50+ ingredients to exist. In this light, the introduction of the famous ‘sellos’ by the secretary of health was a major step forward, for the first time giving consumers a clear warning about excess of salt, fat, sugar, calories, etc.

Next there is the issue of access. A few years ago it became fashionable to talk about ‘food deserts’, to refer to the fact that in poor neighborhoods the available food had low nutritional value. In Mexico the prevalence of street markets might offset this is bit, yet it does clearly hold true for many work and educational environments. In general, food with low nutritional value and health risks is far more readily available in the street than healthy alternatives. While we can still understand the impressively unhealthy stock of the average Oxxo, it is selling of trash food and all unhealthy products under the sun in pharmacies that really draws the attention. In Mexico, pharmacies literally offer both poison and cure, because technically many of them are registered as supermarkets with a license to sell medicine, rather than being considered to be part of the medical infrastructure.

    Yet the geographic barrier to nutrition cannot be separated from the more elementary economic barriers. When doing my doctoral dissertation on poverty projects related to food, I noticed that there is no shortage of well-intended yet gimmicky projects that want to teach people in poverty how to cook, or grow their own food, etc. Yet we have to look at the structural determinants: it is mainly poverty (= lack of economic resources) itself that places people in these environments and bars their access to healthier but more expensive options. While many rich people have nutritional health issues due to lifestyle, the more humble parts of the population must constantly navigate hard dilemmas regarding food, balancing hunger versus health and time. It’s not as simple as asking your cook to make lobster with sweet potatoes, bro. In addition, rather than being ‘ignorant’, large groups are confronted with deliberate obstacles to accurate information of what we eat, as well as lacking access to experts. 

To answer the question I opened with on what is more deadly, cocaine or coca cola: soft drinks are estimated to kill 25.000 Mexicans per year. That is less than the current murder rate, although most of that violence cannot be attributed to cocaine in specific, which is also far less deadly for consumers. The point is that nutrition is a political issue like any other, with large consequences for national wellbeing (as well as economic dependence on multinationals), and thus merits intervention. Without claiming expertise regarding nutrition itself, in terms of public policy a few suggestions can be made.

    One is a strengthening of the efforts to warn citizens about the nutritional content of food, which can be done to various degrees. While our current labels are good, they could be supplemented by an easy to understand overall nutritional rating (for example from A to F, green to red) like some European countries use. After all, it’s not just knowing about what is bad, but also what is nutritious. Additionally, these warnings are often missing from medicine, making it for example hard to know if your child is consuming large amounts of sugar that might affect her cognition. In a stronger regulation, the most fake or outrageous products (that have no cultural significance) could be forbidden to publicly advertise. In the strictest form, the aforementioned could be outright banned until certain criteria are met.

    The second and most concrete proposal is to close the legal loopholes that allow pharmacies to sell and/or advertise food products that they know are unhealthy or have no medical benefits. Selling Bimbo next to diabetic medication is surrealist cynicism. The law could be changed so that companies who want the word ‘pharmacy’ in their name must only sell medicine and health products.

    A third, less concrete proposal is a stronger incorporation of nutrition in education. While various efforts have already been made to raise nutritional education, its continuous and direct incorporation in schools can be strengthened. This includes not just the theory on nutrition itself, but especially also practical awareness about the marketing tricks and real life traps and dilemmas people need to navigate.

   The fourth, most general objective is to bring the knowledge and practice of nutrition within reach of everyone. This is not limited to increased access to nutritional guidance, for example by stronger incorporation of such experts in (group) medical practices or educational institutions. It also includes continuing social policies that are centered around redistribution and economic support to families (or even a special budget for this as part of social security). Taking nutrition from the yoga matt to the street will require a lot more than cooking tips – what proposals would you add?