When coming into freshman year of college, I had the illusion that I would be done with mindless writing assignments that had absolutely no real-world application extending beyond the stylistic devices employed by some author of some poem that I had to read for AP English class. So, when I found myself in a critical thinking and writing class at the beginning of the year I went into it moaning and groaning, preparing myself for two more quarters of mind numbing syntax and diction analyzing monotony.
The first day of class started with Professor Leither marching into the room at exactly the 5:40 start time and putting up our class’ introduction page. The title of the course was first to flash onto the screen- “FOOD PORN”. Well, this might get interesting after all, I thought. Next, Leither launched into a brief description of the course and how we would be discussing and writing about “food, self, and culture” over the course of this class. This is the moment that I stared in disbelief at the professor. You are telling me, that I am going to be spending the next two quarters writing about food? Analyzing syntax in one-hundred-year-old poems was one thing, but food? What is there to say? We eat food. Food tastes good. It keeps us alive. That’s about it. Yes, I will admit, I was slightly skeptical about the point of this class when it first started and why on earth I had to take it. But, into the first couple chapters of the assigned book for the quarter, Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, it became very apparent that this class was not simply another monotonous course with no real-world importance. You, me, and everyone else around the world has to eat which makes it crucial that we know where are food comes from, how it got to our table, and what’s really in it. My preconceived notions of English class were tossed out the window with this course as my research and writing about food and the food industry led me to one conclusion; the lack of regulation in the food industry has created a wealth of dishonesty from corporations, and confusion from the consumers about food.
My revelation started with my first essay, analyzing the purpose of expiration dates. We all look at them. And often, we refuse to buy a product if its expiration date has passed or is close to being passed. There is a common myth that expiration dates determine food quality and healthfulness. However, expiration dates are not, in fact, absolute determinants of whether food has spoiled. I decided to dig into the topic a little more. According to the FDA website, “with the exception of infant formula, the laws that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) administers do not preclude the sale of food that is past the expiration date indicated on the label” (Did). The FDA does not require food companies to put “expired by”, “use by” or “best before” dates on food products. This is at the complete discretion of the company.
Not only do many companies choose to put these dates on their products, they also choose what the expiration dates are. The company goes through an unregulated process of experiments called storage studies. The R&D team determines how long these products last by taking into account shelf life of similar products, how long the ingredients are supposed to last, what conditions the food will experience during distribution, and other factors (Heidi). These tests are not used to determine when the product is unusable, they are simply a measure of when products lose freshness, not safety. However, this confusion has led to many customers wrongly concluding that the product is unsafe. The lack of federal, or any governmental regulation, begs the question: How accurate are the expiration dates? And, since food manufacturers understand consumer’s confusion regarding expiration dates (which causes an incredible amount of wastage because food is constantly thrown out by consumers) what is the point of putting expiration dates on products since it isn’t required? Are they trying to increase product turnover in grocery stores in order to sell more and increase their profit? Or do they really just care about us consumers getting the highest quality product?
This brought me to the question; are food companies purposely deceiving us with their products? To answer this, in my next essay, I turned to Gatorade. If you have ever watched a sporting event on TV, chances are you have seen a Gatorade commercial.
Ring a bell?
Gatorade claims to produce a “scientifically formulated product to meet the sports fueling needs of athletes in all phases of athletic activity”, and that their product “replenishes essential nutrients”. They back this claim by making it appear as if professional athletes use their product constantly. However, what they don’t mention is the thirty-four grams of sugar per bottle. Your average can of soda has around thirty-nine grams of sugar. Not only is that a lot of sugar, but that is also not a lot of difference in the amount of sugar between a drink that has been tagged as an incredibly unhealthy, obesity causing, liquid sugar concoction and a drink that is respected as a healthy alternative to water after exercise.
Gatorade claims the sugar is there for a reason, stating, “The scientifically formulated amount serves as a functional fuel for athletic performance” (Gatorade). However, in a study done by the Smithsonian, “while professional athletes might need electrolyte-replenishing juice, the rest of us do not” (Schultz). To test how many electrolytes were lost during exercise, the study gathered recreational runners and tested their blood before and after a forty-five-minute run. “None of the runners depleted either their glucose or electrolyte levels enough to require a sports drink to replenish them. In many cases, electrolyte and glucose levels increased in the blood”. This test, showing that the runners would have benefited from water alone, led the researchers to the conclusion: “In the scientific community, we generally don’t recommend sport drinks for anything less than 90 minutes, if you are exercising really intensely, if you are exercising in the heat, if you are exercising for a very long period of time”. These findings are a direct contradiction to Gatorade’s earlier statement that their product is scientifically designed to meet the fueling needs of athletes “in all phases of athletic activity”.
So, they are creating a product and claiming it is a healthy alternative to water when, for most people, it is simply an unhealthy amount of sugar to consume. To make it worse, they are targeting aspiring athletes who look up to the professional stars by getting those stars to back their product. Gatorade pays one of their biggest poster athletes, Michael Jordan, in retirement, 2.5 million dollars a year (Moore). As for current athletes, Tiger Woods recently signed a five-year deal with Gatorade worth 500 million dollars (CNBC). This might seem like some seriously heavy incentives for athletes to get behind Gatorade, and it is, but to Gatorade, these figures are simply pennies. According to Forbes, as of October 2012 the Gatorade brand was worth 4.8 billion dollars with nearly 3.3 billion dollars in sales (Forbes). Clearly, their investment is paying off.
When young fans see an ad of their favorite player performing wildly improbable athletic feats, while drinking, sweating, and even exploding into Gatorade, they believe that by drinking Gatorade they too could achieve athletic superstardom. While some might believe that it is only young, impressionable, wannabe athletes affected by this advertising, a study I conducted with students at Santa Clara University shows that even students at one of the nation’s elite universities are susceptible to this kind of advertising. Of 100 students polled, forty-two believe that Gatorade is a healthy drink.
Gatorade has conned a sports-obsessed culture, using the heroes of the day, to sell an unnecessary, and in many cases harmful product to guileless children and even adults, all eager for any edge to join the next generation of superstars. Clearly, this is a willful act to deceive consumers in order to sell their product. And they have done it for nothing but money, spending profligately to reap even greater rewards.
As my research across the quarters grew more in depth, food became a much more complicated issue than I could have ever imagined, and one reoccurring theme seemed to float to the surface; corruption in the food industry. So, instead of focusing simply on the industry of food and its companies, I decided to turn my research to an entire market of food: organics.
Right off the bat, I found things that anyone walking through the grocery store would. Organic food costs more than conventional food. A look at eggs, a common household staple, in Walmart found that a dozen, non-organic, large brown eggs typically costs $2.68. However, their organic counterpart, a dozen, large brown organic eggs cost around $4.68 – a 75% markup (Cost). But what is it about “organic” that demands a higher price than its counterpart right beside it? According to Organic.org, a website devoted to the education of people about organic food, Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; without fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; without bioengineering; or ionizing radiation (Organic.org).
According to the Organic Trade Organization, 81% percent of families with kids in the United States say they purchase organic products at least sometimes. When asked why they buy organic, parents note reasons such as better health and the desire to avoid toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers (Chait). Other parents state they are attempting to reduce family exposure to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and growth hormones. This feeling about organic is echoed around the world as well. According to a poll conducted by Nielsen Holdings PLC – a global information, data, and measurement company- of 27,000 people in 55 markets from Asia Pacific, Europe, Middle East/Africa, North America, and Latin America, seventy-six percent of respondents say they eat organic food because it is healthier. Another fifty-three percent said they eat organic food to avoid pesticide consumption (Global).
In an analysis done by Stanford’s medical school, it was found that there is, in fact, around thirty percent more pesticide residue found on non-organic foods, supporting many people’s choice to pay extra for organic. Except, according to Stanford, the vast majority of the residues that the USDA scientists detected on the non-organic food were present at less than one part per million (1 milligram/kilogram), making them far less toxic than even the caffeine you consume every day in your morning coffee. So, Stanford concluded that thirty percent more pesticide residue is essentially meaningless because there is such a minuscule amount on non-organic food to begin with. In addition, Stanford concluded their analysis of 237 peer-reviewed articles comparing organic and conventional foods by stating, “the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods” (Savage).
Then Aurora Farms came up in my research. Aurora Organic Dairy, a company with 15,000 cows producing enough milk to supply the house brands of Walmart, Costco, and other major retailers. They state, “We take great pride in our commitment to organic, and in our ability to meet the rigorous criteria of the USDA organic regulations” (Post). However, under closer scrutiny, particularly of the inspection system allowed by the United States to determine if a company is, in fact, producing organically, whether or not products labeled as organic are actually organic is brought into question.
The USDA allows farmers to hire and pay their own inspectors to certify them as “USDA Organic.” Naturally, industry supporters claim the enforcement is robust. For organic dairies, the cows must be allowed to graze throughout the growing season. Essentially, cows are supposed to be grass-fed and not confined to barns and feed lots. However, when members of the Washington Post were at the Aurora farms across eight days last year, signs of grazing were sparse (Whoriskey). Satellite footage of the farm shows a typical sight – only a few hundred cows in the pasture, less than five percent of the entire herd.
An Aurora spokeswoman stated that these were just anomalies and “drive-bys”.
However, further evidence was uncovered against Aurora when a test of the milk was done by members of Virginia Tech University. The test, conducted on a key indicator of grass feeding, resulted in a complete match of conventional milk, not organic (Post).
Furthermore, the USDA certified inspectors hired by Aurora make their annual audit in November, far after grazing season, which makes it impossible for them to determine if the rules of organic grazing are being broken (Post)
Aurora came out with the statement, “We take these assertions very seriously, as we are a 100% certified organic producer, and our organic practices are the cornerstone of our operations” (Post).
Despite their adamancy that they followed the organic rules, after a complaint was filed with the USDA, the USDA found evidence and charged them with “willful violation” of organic standards. But, because of a settlement that was reached, Aurora was allowed to continue operating.
It began to dawn on me that there is a pattern of collusion between the greed of food producers and the hopes of the consumers for an easy edge, whether it is health, athleticism, or something else. Just like consumers continue to guzzle down Gatorade in the hope for some athletic edge despite there being so much information about how unhealthy it is, are consumers in the organic market partially responsible for their own deception?
Despite Aurora Farms, an organic milk company, producing a product that wasn’t organic, the confusion and deception in the organic industry are not strictly a result of the food companies. Consumers are deceiving themselves. They have created an association between organic and healthy, essentially equating the word “organic” to health. Despite there being evidence explicitly stating there is no nutritional difference between organic and conventional foods, people are still buying it. Why? Because it is much easier to pay a few dollars extra here and there for a “healthier” food purchase than it is to, say, go to the gym, or make any serious change to adopt a healthy lifestyle. People are inclined to do what some call identity buying. Claude Fischler, a French social-scientist, once said “Food makes the eater: it is therefore natural that the eater should try to make himself by eating” (Eating). Essentially, they are buying a product to make them feel a certain way. In this case, they are buying organic simply to feel healthier despite there being no correlation between organic food and nutritional value or the healthfulness of it. It is through this process that the word “organic” has taken on its new meaning in society: healthy.
Through my freshman year and through this class, I have begun to understand that food is not just something we eat, or just something that tastes good. It is one of the most important things in our lives, and yet, most of us who consume it know so little about it. Through a lack of government intervention, the food industry has become a market in which companies’ sole goal is to maximize profits, rather than provide for the well-being of everyone in the world. And the consumers join in, choosing to believe whatever they are sold as they look for that easy fix, easy health, easy athletic stardom. Food companies have grown dishonest, and consumers have grown less educated and more confused about where their food comes from, what’s in it, and if it is safe for them to consume. It falls upon both the producers and the consumers of food to try and turn around a food industry that I have found, after a year of diving into different aspects of it, to be disturbingly corrupt.
Chait, Jennifer. “8 Different Reasons People Buy Organic (and How to Market to Them).” The Balance. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 May 2017. <https://www.thebalance.com/who-buys-organic-food-different-types-of-consumers-2538042>.
“Cost of organic food.” Cost of Organic Food – Consumer Reports. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 June 2017.
“Did you know that a store can sell food past the expiration date?” Did you know that a store can sell food past the expiration date? N.p., 05 Jan. 17. Web. 24 Jan. 2017. <http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/Transparency/Basics/ucm210073.htm>.
“Eating yourself: We consume identity through food?” :: Culture Decanted ::. N.p., 19 Oct. 2014. Web. 08 June 2017.
“Forbes: Gatorade on World’s Most Powerful Brands List.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, n.d. Web. 15 May 2017. <https://www.forbes.com/companies/gatorade/>.
Gatorade – Contact Us. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 May 2017. < https://cu.pepsico.com/gatorade>
“Global Trends in Healthy Eating.” What People Watch, Listen To and Buy. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2017.
Heidi. “How are food expiration dates determined?” A Dash of Science. N.p., 09 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 Jan. 2017. <http://adashofscience.com/2013/09/09/food-expiration-dates-determined/>.
Moore, Matt. Aug 13, 2015 • 2 min read. “Michael Jordan making an unreal amount of cash in retirement.” CBSSports.com. N.p., 06 Apr. 2017. Web. 15 May 2017.
Organic.org – Organic FAQ. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 June 2017. <http://www.organic.org/home/faq>.
Post, The Washington. “Milk from large dairies, including Colorado’s Aurora Organic Dairy, may not be as organic as you think.” The Denver Post. N.p., 02 May 2017. Web. 01 June 2017.
Savage, Steve. “Applied Mythology.” Do You Really Need to Buy Organic Foods To Avoid Pesticide Residues? N.p., 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 23 May 2017.
Schultz, Colin. “You’re Probably Not Working Out Hard Enough to Actually Need that Gatorade.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 03 Feb. 2014. Web. 02 May 2017.
Whoriskey, Peter. “Why your ‘organic’ milk may not be organic.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 01 May 2017. Web. 01 June 2017.