Illnesses Linked to Industrial Foods, Part I

Why is it that chronic deseases such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and some cancers, dental crowding, and E. coli 0157:H7 infections have been increasing in industrialized countries (Dowdle 2009; Pollan 2008; Schlosser 2001; Wroth 2009)? Have technological advances in medicine and public health resulted in longer life expectancies and more age-related illnesses? Or, are these illnesses somehow linked with the industrialization of societies and industrial food production? Are these chronic illnesses correlated with an increasingly globalized food market that delivers exotic and out of season foods to ethnic groups that have not physiologically adapted to them? Or are these chronic diseases a product of over-population and insufficient food that is nutritious? Are the ever-more densely populated and urbanized industrial societies exceeding their carrying capacities for providing affordable and nutrient rich foods?

This report is from a research project I did in 2009 for a graduate level class called Social Evolution taught by an archaeologist. My goal was to discover and describe the markers (or in non-archeological terms “physical evidence”) in the human body that indicate habitual industrial food consumption in populations. What I found out was that in populations that consume mostly industrial foods, the markers were mostly bad.

Chronic diseases, formerly known as “Western diseases” or “modern diseases,” are common industrialized countries such as the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan and countries in Western Europe. They are common in all populations acculturated to industrialized foods (CDC 2009; Kenner 2009; Pollan 2008; Price 2008; Roberts 2009; Schlosser 2001). In the United States where industrial food production and consumption predominate, chronic diseases are the leading causes of death and disability. They account for 7 out of 10 deaths among Americans each year according to the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC 2009). Chronic diseases such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers are believed to be diet-related diseases by medical researchers (CDC 2009). Interestingly, chronic diseases are non-existent to extremely rare in non-industrialized and pre-agricultural societies (Miller 2008; Price 2008). Fossil remains from the Cro-Magnun period “show none of the diet-related chronic diseases that plague us today,” according to Neil Mann, an expert of paleonutrition at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia (Roberts 2008:8). The only evidence of earlier peoples suffering from obesity and heart disease are the upper-class elites in early civilizations such as Ancient Egypt and Han China (Buck 1975; Rose 2009; Winslow 2009).

Human populations all over the world have physiologically adapted to a diversity of diets based on locally available foods and environments. There is no single ancestral diet that is optimal for everyone (Naban 2004:55). Some diets are entirely vegetarian and adapted to local wild and domesticated plants. Other diets are entirely carnivorous and adapted to local sources of animal protein prepared in a traditional manner. Most diets are a combination of both. But what humans have not adapted to, it appears, is the industrial food diet. The industrial diet features a high proportion of calories produced from grains. Grains are commodity foods that are easily produced, traded and stored with commercial profitability as the goal rather than nutritional value (Pollen 2008:10). “Grain is the closest thing in nature to an industrial commodity: storable, portable, fungible, ever the same today as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow,” says journalist and food activist Michael Pollen. He adds that, “Since it can be accumulated and traded, grain is a form of wealth…throughout history governments have encouraged their farmers to grow more than enough grain… (Pollen 2007:201).” In response to food surpluses, changes in diet were induced politically by elites to encourage further consumption of wealth-building commodity foods such as sugar and tea in Victorian England (Mintz 1985), corn derivatives such as high fructose corn syrup in modern day America and the consumption of maize in Inka empire (Hastorf 1990).

In fact, the key correlate between the development of early civilizations and the concentration of political power in the hands of a few was their ability to produce, store and control commodity food surpluses. According to anthropologist Bruce Trigger, it was “the upper classes’ ability to ensure that farmers produced substantial agricultural surpluses and that most of these surpluses be at the disposal of a small ruling group” that helped early civilizations develop, and, eventually, what that gave rise to the Industrial Revolution (Trigger 2003: 395).

This report is a review of illnesses linked to the consumption of industrial foods by looking at their prevalence in the populations that consume them. Or, in other words, looking that the dietary markers in populations that consume industrial foods.

The sources of data in this paper include ethnographic research of the diets of both industrial and non-industrial or self-contained societies, where access to industrial foods is limited, and medical and dental studies. Material evidence of food production and dietary markers are from ethnographic and archeological research.

Definition of Terms

Researchers and journalists have used many different terms to categorize processed foods commonly eaten in the United States and chronic non-infectious diseases. To make my explanations more clear about the correlation between chronic illnesses and food produced by the industrial food system I will define my terms.

Industrial foods

Instead of referring to refined and processed foods made from access to cheap commodity grains such as corn, wheat or soy as “fast food,” “modern” foods or “Western” foods as some researchers do, I use a generalized term “industrial foods” because it describes their key differentiating feature: their industrial method of production (Price 2008; Pollan 2008; Schlosser 2001; Weber 2009). Industrial food production is a mechanized system in which “inputs” of capital “in the form of seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, machines, fuels, and research” are expected to deliver a predictable income from “outputs” such as grain, meat or processed foods made from them (Roberts 2008:25). The main “hallmarks of the industrial food system,” according to Joel Salatin, a third-generation sustainable farmer in Virginia are these:

· Centralized food production and processing

· Mono-speciation (growing only one species on a piece of land)

· Genetically modified plant species that require artificial fertilizers and herbicides and can not adapt to fluctuations in the environment

· Confined animal feeding operations (also known as feedlots or CAFOs for “centralized agricultural feed operations;” These generate huge concentrations of animal waste and methane –a significant source of green-house gas emissions)

· Chemicals that end in “cide” (Latin for “death) such as herbicides and fungicides

· Ready-to-Eat packaged convenience foods

· Long-distance transportation based on fossil fuels

· Externalized costs that hurt the economy, society, ecology and human health (Salatin 2009:189).

Most of the food consumed in the United States is produced by the industrial food system. “For all intents and purposes, the traditional farm has vanished,” according to journalist and industrial food system expert Paul Roberts in his book The End of Food (Roberts 2008:23).

Self-contained society

A “self-contained society” in this paper means any society that is either not industrialized or is not involved with an industrialized economic system by purchasing or consuming manufactured commodity foods. I use the term “self-contained society” instead of referring to self-contained population that produces it’s own food as a “non-Western” or ”pre-industrial” society as do some researchers (Mintz 1985; Trigger 2003). Self-contained societies are societies that produce their own nutritious food in adequate quantities and in environmentally sustainable ways.

Chronic Diseases

Chronic Illnesses are obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer (CDC 2009a). These are also known as “Western diseases” due to their early prevalence in Western Europe and rarity in non-European or Euro-American societies until the last hundred years (Pollan 2008). It was once believed that only Westerners suffered from chronic diseases until British doctor Denis Burkitt and other Western researchers in the early 20th Century observed that non-Westerners were also suffering from these diseases once they adopted a diet of refined and processed foods (Pollan 2008:91). The diseases seemed to occur with the introduction of sugar, refined flour, and processed “store foods” that contained high concentrations of fat or sodium (Pollan 2008:91). Chronic diseases are also known as “modern diseases” due to their significant increases world wide in the past 50 years (Miller 2008:15).

Illnesses traced to industrial foods

The industrial food system’s over-abundance and centralized production have some unintended consequences. Chronic diseases, food borne illnesses and dental crowding have been linked to the consumption of industrial foods. All three of these have increased significantly in industrial societies where people are acculturated to industrial foods.

Chronic diseases

“Chronic diseases—such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes—are the leading causes of death and disability in the United States. Chronic diseases account for 7 out of 10 deaths among Americans each year,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC 2009a). Today, heart disease is leading killer worldwide (Winslow 2009:A5). As the most lethal chronic disease some believe it is an unavoidable consequence of modern times. However, the upper classes in early civilizations such as Ancient Egypt suffered from heart disease, too. A team of archeologists and medical imaging specialists has recently found out that seven of the eight mummies, determined to be older than 45, they examined from the National Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, had obvious symptoms of heart disease. The “artherosclerosis looks just like it does in our modern-day patients,” cardiologist Randall Thompson said (Winslow 2009:A5). Today, due to industrial food production, high-calorie and high-sodium diets combined with a sedentary lifestyle, are now the provenance of commoners (Pollen 2008).

“Every year, cancer claims the lives of more than half a million Americans. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, exceeded only by heart disease,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (Centers for Disease Control 2009c).

“The United States has the highest obesity rate of any industrialized nation in the world,” according to food activist Eric Schlosser (Schlosser 2001).” Obesity is a growing problem in the United States. “More than one third of U.S. adults—more than 72 million people—and 16% of U.S. children are obese. Since 1980, obesity rates for adults have doubled and rates for children have tripled according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2009b).”

At least “23.6 million people in the United States (7.8% of the total population) have diabetes. Of these, 5.7 million are undiagnosed,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease and Prevention (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2009d). “If current trends continue, 1 in 3 Americans will develop diabetes sometime in their lifetime, and those with diabetes will lose, on average, 10–15 years of life,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,”(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2009d).

Food borne illnesses

“Some 5,000 Americans die and 325,000 are hospitalized annually as a result of food contamination.” according to a 2009 news brief about food safety in Time Magazine (Time 2009:57).” Food borne illnesses traced to large-scale factory farms and CAFOs has increased significantly “with some of the biggest recalls in U.S. history occurring in the last few years (Schlosser 2009: 14). E. coli 0157:H7 is a particularly lethal strain of bacteria produced in the gut of a corn fed feedlot cow didn’t exist until 1980 and by 2005, 15 years later, was responsible for 73,000 illnesses and 2,000 hospitalizations (Frenzen 2005; Pollan 2006:82). Centralized meat production has brought new epidemics into the food system from pathogens that didn’t exist before the industrial food system: camphylobacter, lysteria, E. coli, salmonella, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, avian influenza or bird flu (Salatin 2009:188).

Dental crowding

Nearly two-thirds of Americans suffer from some degree of dental crowding or malocclusion caused by insufficient alveolar (tooth arch) bone growth that is related their diet diet (Rose 2009). “In contrast, most of modern society’s ancestors naturally had ideal alignment without malocclusion and their third molars were fully erupted and functioning (Rose 2009).” Recent research on relatives who consume industrial foods and those show don’t indicate that refined foods cause these pathologies and not inherited traits (Rose 2009). Dental researcher Weston Price believed that the increasing incidence of dental crowding and tooth decay that he saw in the 1920s was due to “poor health” caused by the consumption of nutritionally inferior produce grown with artificial fertilizers, factory farmed meat and processed foods made of refined grains and preserved foods (Price 2008:xxiv).

In the following section, Part II of “Illnesses Linked to Industrial Foods”, I have several explanations for the increase of chronic disease, dental crowding and food borne E. coli infections in the United States and other industrialized countries.

In the final section, in Part III of “Illnesses Linked to Industrial Foods”, I posted a summary of my secondary research results of illnesses attributed to processed foods consumption and the references I cited in this paper.