The Food System
Individual choices about eating and physical activity are critical to obesity prevention. However, individual choices are made within a system that influences what is available. The U.S. food system influences what foods are in the marketplace, which are most affordable, and what types of venues are accessible for people to purchase food.

A Shift in the Food Marketplace

  • After World War II, the American agricultural system was transformed by the use of industrial inputs such as fertilizer. This shift, combined with government subsidies for specific foods like corn and soy, has contributed to creating to a farming system that produces large quantities of inexpensive food.
  • These abundant and cheap ingredients have stimulated the growth of a food industry with a financial incentive to use corn and soy products (such as high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, modified corn starches, etc.) to produce a huge quantity and variety of highly processed foods.. The result is a range of inexpensive foods that enable Americans to eat more. Furthermore, there are multiple reasons that these inexpensive, processed, ready-to-eat foods are so attractive, among them are: both parents working outside the home (some in multiple jobs), increased stress, children's activities and homework, lower or stagnant wages, increased proportion of cost for other items in the household budget such as housing and health care, and saving for college and retirement.
  • The U.S. food industry produces enough food to supply each American with approximately 3,900 calories per person per day158.
  • As most food is shipped thousands of miles before it is eaten159, foods that are the most profitable are those that ship well, have a long shelf life, and can be branded. This means that the food market is flooded with processed, packaged foods61.
  • Most fruits and vegetables are not subsidized (corn and soy are subsidized). They are also more labor intensive to grow and harvest, perish quickly, and are more difficult to brand. This can make them less profitable for companies. Overall, far fewer fruits and vegetables are marketed than other products such as salty processed snack foods and sodas. Snack foods not only cost less to produce than fruits and vegetables, but they are given more shelf space in food stores61,62. Technological innovations in food processing, food packaging, and food preparation have enabled Americans to consume a wide variety of foods without investing a great deal of time in cooking and cleanup. This enables us to get food quickly, and in turn, to eat more often and to eat more overall160.
  • Since the 1970s, the price of fruits and vegetables has increased at a faster rate than inflation, making them even more expensive relative to processed food items which have increased by a much smaller amount and increased at a slower rate than inflation. This makes many fruits and vegetables even more expensive than items such as soft drinks161.

The Problem with Abundant Processed Food

  • Foods that are high in fat and sugar are often perceived to taste great162. Some scientists hypothesize that preference of fats and sugars is explained by the fact that we adapted our tastes to the environment of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, where food was scarce. During times of scarcity, calorie-dense foods were more desirable and were typically foods that were high in sugar and fat.
  • In the modern world, sugar and fat-rich processed foods are readily available, convenient, inexpensive, and good-tasting, so people are more likely to buy and eat them. Since the 1970s, the amount food available per person increased by 16%163, making more calories available in the U.S. food supply than we need164.

Portion Size and Eating Away from Home

It is more profitable for food companies and restaurants to "supersize," or sell large portions of food at relatively cheap prices compared to smaller portions165. In these situations, they are simplifying the preparation process by purchasing and preparing a larger bulk of the food item, as opposed to buying less and preparing smaller portions that individuals may not see as desirable or as a "good value".

  • Portion sizes of most foods, especially foods in restaurants, have increased over the past several decades. A portion of pasta and the size of a bagel have more than doubled in the past 20 years64. The same is true for many other foods.
  • Larger portions lead to higher caloric intakes. When a person is given a large portion, they tend to eat more without realizing it, a phenomenon related to "mindless eating."166 Larger portions can easily lead to eating too many calories.

Americans are cooking less often and eating out more often than they once did67. Eating out more often leads to eating more, in part due to the larger portions sizes of prepared foods. Today, just over half of people in the United States devote time to daily food preparation and cleanup67. In contrast, the portion of the food budget spent on food away from home has been steadily increasing since the 1970s162. This appears to be driven mainly by increased spending at fast food restaurants66.

"Food Deserts" and "Food Swamps"

People can purchase only those foods that are available. The food environment, therefore, has a large impact on what people eat.

  • Many people live in areas known as "food deserts" where supermarkets are not readily available to buy things like fresh fruits and vegetables168.
  • Many others, especially individuals with low-incomes and minorities169, live in areas considered "food swamps," where there is a high density and variety of fast food restaurants and convenience stores selling large quantities of calorie-dense snack foods and sugar sweetened beverages.

Living in an area with a high concentration of fast food restaurants is associated with eating more fast food129, which, in turn, is associated with obesity risk.

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