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Is Inexpensive Food Undermining Public Health?

Agricultural subsidies of crops like wheat and corn make processed foods affordable, but they may be undermining public health.

Are US government agricultural subsidies undermining public health? A study several years ago suggested that people who eat a lot of foods made from subsidized crops such as corn, soybeans, wheat and dairy products are more likely to become overweight. Now some heavy-hitter nutrition experts have crunched the numbers and determined that reducing the sugar content of packaged foods by just 20% could prevent a surprising number of cardiovascular deaths. 

Cutting Sugar in Processed Food:

The scientists modeled what happens if we reduce sugar by 20% in processed foods and 40% in beverages (Circulation, Aug. 27, 2021). (Beverage bottlers often sweeten their products with sugar.) They calculated that this change in the food supply could prevent 2.5 million strokes and heart attacks. Nearly half a million fewer people would die due to vascular causes. In addition, 750,000 people would avoid type 2 diabetes. If it contained less sugar, presumably even inexpensive food would stop undermining public health.

Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, one of the lead authors, concludes:

“Our findings suggest it’s time to implement a national program with voluntary sugar reduction targets, which can generate major improvements in health, health disparities, and healthcare spending in less than a decade.”

Inexpensive Food and Weight:

In the earlier study, investigators used data from more than 10,000 people who participated in National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) between 2001 and 2006. The participants averaged about 56 percent of their calories from subsidized food commodities (JAMA Internal Medicine, Aug. 2016).

Those who got more of their calories from corn, wheat, soy, sorghum and dairy-based foods were more likely to be obese. They had greater waist circumferences on average than those eating fewer foods derived from subsidized crops. They also had higher blood sugar and LDL cholesterol, risk factors for heart disease.

Why Would These Foods Be Undermining Public Health?

Most of these foods are highly processed and inexpensive. That makes them more accessible to people with low incomes. No one thinks, though, that processed foods are better for health than fresh fruits and vegetables. Some experts argue that consuming sweets can interfere with our ability to make healthy food choices. 

The participants in this research were adults. Families with children are also likely to look for inexpensive food, but that could be undermining public health for the future.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Shangguan S et al, "Health impact and cost-effectiveness of achieving the national salt and sugar reduction initiative voluntary sugar reduction targets in the United States: A micro-simulation study." Circulation, Aug. 27, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.121.053678
  • Siegel KR et al, "Association of higher consumption of foods derived from subsidized commodities with adverse cardiometabolic risk among US adults." JAMA Internal Medicine, Aug. 2016. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.2410
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