Wednesday, July 12, 2006

X hits the spot

People experience obesity as a highly personal failure, but this animated obesity map shows that it is fundamental social shift made up of a series of individual capitulations (thanks to BoingBoing for the link). But maybe a social system that stresses personal responsibility to the point where many people experience personal failure is more accurately described as a social failure.

One of my favorite conspiracy theories involves a secret nocturnal meeting in the CEO's corner office in a cookie company. A nervous research scientist scuttles in, clutching the single copy of the TOP SECRET RESEARCH. The TOP SECRET RESEARCH shows that INGREDIENT X bypasses the satiety reflex, and that people consume thirty percent more cookies if those cookies are spiked with INGREDIENT X. In the old-fashioned version, the wild-eyed CEO laughs maniacally, lightning flashes outside, and he gives the order to introduce INGREDIENT X into the food supply. In the updated version, the calm and fit CEO -- who does yoga, has a beautiful and charming wife, and pictures of three lovely children on his desk -- looks at the research, runs some spreadsheets, and reluctantly concludes that it would violate his fiduciary responsibilities to his shareholders if he did not immediately alter the recipes to include INGREDIENT X. In the traditional telling, the CEO is vaguely aware of the dangers posed by by INGREDIENT X and achieves his revenge on the world by poisoning the children, but in the newer version the CEO is supremely uninterested in possible side effects, since his job is simply to increase the revenue of his company.

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) looked like a good candidate for INGREDIENT X, but recent preliminary research is showing that the internet paranoia around HFCS might be overblown. Another candidate is the absence of fiber in processed foods, but many countries have lower fiber diets without obesity. The most interesting explanation for the rise in obesity is to correlate it with the decrease in smoking. It is quite plausible that self-destructive oral fixations have remained fairly constant, while manifestations have shifted. This is wonderful news for the lawyers, since it means that after they have finished taking on "big tobacco" and "big fat", human nature will continue to provide them with a series of new and successful industries that profit from poisoning America while slowly becoming vulnerable with growing popular sentiment against them.

{Yes, there is still hope, HFCS could still be INGREDIENT X! The research mentioned above was paid for by the corn refiners association, and compares HFCS with processed sugar rather maple syrup, honey or other alternative sweeteners -- though lots of studies show that maple syrup, honey and processed sugar are basically the same. Even so, though conspiracy theories make great Hollywood, but not very good history: when the optimal path survives, it is usually because suboptimal paths have been winnowed out, and not because someone actively chose it in a dark room with lightning flashing. }


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