Our economic system is based on the idea that everything is for sale, and that the sale of anything can be justified just by the fact that it makes money. It doesn’t matter whether it’s ethical or healthy to sell something, all can be justified under neo-liberal capitalism. Where this belief system intersects with food, we get all sorts of junk foods being sold for the purpose of making money at the detriment of public health. The history of the product Jell-O illustrates this perfectly. You have a product that is simply sugar, food colouring and gelatin dissolved in water, and that really can’t be called a food, and it didn’t sell until they started aggressively marketing it. This history of Jell-O archive reads:
The success story is one, the result of advertising and merchandising methods, new and different, never before employed. Salesmen, well-trained, well groomed, well versed in the art of selling went out in “spanking rigs, drawn by beautiful horses” into the roads, byroads, fairs, country gatherings, church socials, and parties to advertise their product.”
It is marketing that turned red sugar gelatin water into a food.
The best description of Jell-O, in my opinion, comes from a Strongbad email, although I can’t remember which one, in which Strongbad calls it “red-flavoured translucent dessert-related substance.” (If you happen to be a fan and remember which one it is, please let me know!) This is just fantastic because it nails down what’s wrong with all the commercial junk foods from the 20th century. They’re not foods, they’re substances. Their flavours don’t even resemble the flavours of actual foods, they are just flavoured like colours. And they are not exactly desserts, they’re just related to dessert. Kinda like how a lot of commercial ice creams these days are not called ice cream anymore, they’re called “frozen dessert.” Never eat dessert-related substance, people! All foods, including desserts, should have actual food names, not just product names! Throughout the 20th century as we’ve become dependent on electricity, refrigeration, and convenience foods, we’ve come to accept a whole bunch of consumer products as food. We’ve come to believe that manufactured products in boxes are foods and we’ve forgotten that food is actually the plants and animals we find around us, like fruits, vegetables, fish, and chickens, for example.
So what we learn from the history of Jell-O is that a person can “discover” a “food product” in the course of a science experiment, and then can market that product in a way that convinces everyone that it’s a food, and then sell it on a large scale to make tons of money. At no point does the question of whether the “food product” is healthy to eat become relevant. This system also brought us soft drinks, candy bars, sugary breakfast cereals, mac and cheese from a box, candy-like snack foods for school lunchboxes (such as fruit roll ups), frozen sugar and food colouring in a bag (freezies and popsicles), frozen oil and sugar (Cool-Whip), and all sorts of other dessert-related substances that are really not fit for consumption. The effects these “foods” have on humans include diabetes, obesity, and malnutrition.
Not only are we eating a whole bunch of consumer products that aren’t foods, but ordinary foods that used to be foods have turned into junk foods over the years, thanks to our food manufacturing system where the important thing is rising sales, not health. Take a look at yogurt for example. Yogurt is just milk with active bacterial cultures in it to make it thicken and ‘sour’. This allows the milk to last a bit longer. People invented yogurt by leaving milk on the counter until it soured naturally. But if you look at a yogurt aisle in a store you’ll find all sorts of flavours, and not just straightforward fruit flavours like peach or strawberry but such exotic flavours as “key lime pie.” Only through artificial flavours and marketing can sour milk turn into a key lime pie. And some yogurts are not even yogurt but skim milk with gelatin in it to make it thicker and artificial sweetener to make it sweeter. So, essentially, a Jell-O made out of skim milk and in other words, a food product where all the actual food has been removed. The only reason anyone thinks that’s a food is because we are out of touch with what food really is and we are buying into the advertisers’ messages.
In capitalism, the most important thing to do is to increase sales in order to make more money for your shareholders. In order to increase sales you make your product addictive and you market it like crazy. So we’re constantly bombarded with propaganda telling us to eat junk food and the foods we eat are constantly made more addictive through the addition of refined sugar, salt, fat and MSG. Sugar is an addictive substance that causes many health problems in humans, but capitalists are deliberately making sugary addictive food products in order to increase their sales.
This brings us to the “obesity epidemic.” In the 20th century nearly everyone in capitalist countries has gotten fat, particularly the poor. It’s no surprise, because our capitalist food system ensures that we get fat. And this fat has been an additional source of profit for capitalists, because they shame us for being too fat, and then sell us diet products that we buy to alleviate our shame. They create a narrative where it’s the individual’s fault for “choosing” the wrong foods, they blame us for the sugar we’ve ingested, even though they deliberately put that sugar into our food, and then they sell us more products that are supposed to solve the problem they created! And the diet products they produce don’t actually make us thin or healthy, they just take our money and distract us from the real problem. The real problem is not the fat itself, the real problem is malnutrition, and thin people have malnutrition too. We all have it because we’re all eating junk food. (Except, of course, for the rich.)
There is no opting out of neo-liberal capitalism. The way to opt out of the system is to grow your own food and/or buy from local farms. However, buying land is too expensive for most of the working class. Since we cannot own our own land and be self-sufficient, we have to work for wages, often in cities. The upper class has ensured that peasants can no longer be self-sufficient because they need us to be a source of labour who work for them. We have no choice but to work all day doing jobs that benefit only the rich, and at the end of the day we don’t have the time or the energy or the resources to plant and harvest, we only have enough time and energy to buy food products in stores that were manufactured by capitalists. The working class is like a bunch of hamsters on wheels, we just endlessly work and consume and we cannot get anywhere else. We are trapped in a system we did not create and would not choose for ourselves.
The jobs I have worked at so far have been either stressful or boring. In my extremely stressful job, I had no time to eat all day and even if I had had time to eat I was too stressed to possibly digest anything. I used to go all day without eating and then at the end of the day I was finally able to eat. And guess what was always around and available? Junk food. So for about a year and a half of my life I starved all day and then ate junk food. I knew very well this was a bad system but I can’t just quit my job without having a new one lined up that pays just as much, and when you’re hungry and there’s junk food right there it takes enormous amounts of willpower to avoid it, especially when you’re feeling miserable. I just didn’t have it in me to change this habit until I finally gathered the strength to quit that job and start a new one. Now I have a job that’s boring. Guess what happens to people when they sit at a desk all day feeling bored? They get the munchies. It’s inevitable. Most jobs in capitalism involve a combination of stress and boredom—it’s a combination that ensures we keep buying products in an attempt to reduce the stress and boredom. Over the last few years I went from thin to fat. It’s no surprise—I don’t even see how I could have avoided it. If I was born upper class I’d have way more choices—I could quit a job immediately if it’s stressing me out, and have enough money to live without working until I found something else. And I could pay someone to cook and clean for me, which would mean even during stressful or busy times I’d have easy access to healthy food. For the upper class, it’s much easier to avoid getting fat. But as for me, I am a working-class woman who is just trying to navigate an oppressive system that was in place before I was born.
If I could make any decision I wanted to, I’d become a self-sufficient farmer. I’d grow fruits and vegetables and wheat and I’d buy local meats and honey and I’d make most of my own food. I wouldn’t work for wages and instead I’d work the fields and I’d work in my home. This would mean I’d get plenty of exercise just doing my daily chores and I’d get no more processed foods—I would have time throughout the day to cook things myself. This fantasy of mine sounds a bit like an idealized version of life before the 20th century. I wasn’t there to see what life was like then and I realize it wasn’t as ideal as it sounds in my head. For example, with no industrial food system there is scarcity and lack of variety. But the point is I don’t have a choice to figure out for myself if I like that system better. I have no choice but to work for the capitalists and to be a consumer of their products. I have no choice but to fall into the malnutrition they have set up for me as they create addictive products to increase their sales.
I really like the work of Ragen Chastain regarding fat oppression. I am 100% on board with her about the major points of her activism, like that being fat is not morally wrong, we do not owe it to anyone to become thin, we have the right to exist in our fat bodies and still have all our civil rights, including the right to be respected in public like anyone else. And I am 100% on board with the fact that most people cannot change their body size, diets do not work, and the diet industry is a for-profit industry that does not make anyone thinner or healthier. The only place where I diverge is that I wish fat activism would go further into the analysis and look at how capitalism has caused our overweight. I don’t think it’s just genetic. And to be clear, I don’t think it’s morally wrong to be fat or that there’s anything wrong with fat people, and I am fat myself, but I do see overweight as being a symptom of a deliberate campaign of malnutrition for profit. We are fat because fat is profitable for the capitalists and whatever is profitable is “good” in a neo-liberal economy. The so-called “obesity epidemic,”(not a name I would choose for it), is not an epidemic of people choosing the wrong choices but a problem of systemic malnutrition that the average person lacks the power to change.
It is entirely possible to create a food system that ensures everyone is fed with healthy food. This would require prioritizing health instead of the profit of a few people. It would require using our resources and energy to nourish instead of to sell and advertise.
I see a connection between the selling of junk food and the selling of pornography. In both cases, the capitalists take something natural that humans can’t resist: food and sex, and they create an addictive consumer product out of it and sell it to us for a profit, and in the process ruining the public’s health. In the case of food, you take real food items like fruits, vegetables, pasta, bread, dairy and meats, and you add artificial substances, refined sugar, salt, etc in order to make them addictive. In the case of pornography, you take the normal act of sex and you add to it domination, violence, and a masculine god complex to increase the feeling of exhilaration people (mostly men) get while watching and ensuring they become addicted to the product. It doesn’t matter to the capitalists what harm comes to the public from these things, all that matters is that they are making money.
If you want to increase public health or fight the “war on obesity,” bullying individual fat people is not going to work. Bullying people does not make them thinner, unless they fall into a deep self-hatred and starve themselves for the rest of their lives, which is not a healthy outcome. In order to increase public health, you have to overthrow capitalism. For now, before capitalism falls, here’s the nutrition advice that I promote. Eat healthy food as often as you are able to, but don’t beat yourself up when you eat junk foods. It’s not your fault that you are overworked and overtired and don’t have time to cook. It’s not your fault that you cannot access land to grow your own food. That is not within your control and you are justified in eating processed foods when that is all you can manage. Healthy foods that you have made yourself are ideal, not because you have a moral obligation to be thin or healthy, but because they are a gift you give to yourself, they are life-enriching. You deserve the life-enriching healthy foods like fresh fruit and vegetables and ethically-raised meats. If you are trying to avoid eating junk foods, don’t try to fat-shame yourself by telling yourself that junk foods will cause fat and that fat should be avoided. Tell yourself that capitalism wants to sell you malnutrition for their profit, and THAT’s what’s morally wrong.