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tricks of the trade

April 19, 2014

Reading this recent Nature article got me thinking that crises of capitalism don’t just take the form of economic downturns and unemployment. They also take social forms, such as the creation of industries that actively seek to produce cheap, addictive, and unhealthy products that are produced solely to make a profit. While it might not seem like a typical crisis, for example, the epidemic of obesity has economic roots.

As authors Stephen Simpson and David Raubenheimer note, “Food manufacturers have a financial incentive to replace protein with cheaper forms of calories, and to manipulate the sensory qualities of foods to disguise their lower protein content.” And this trend, they argue, has contributed to the growing epidemic of obesity since, “The paucity of protein relative to fats and carbohydrates in processed foods drives the overconsumption of total energy as our bodies seek to maintain a target level of protein intake” because “the [human] appetite prioritizes protein over carbohydrate or fat.” We’re eating way too much of the latter and not enough of the former.

Unfortunately, most people fail to connect the economic roots of these kinds of social crises to the mode of production because they’re so conditioned by the ideology of ‘personal responsibility’ to blame the individual for poor choices despite the fact that the very same system puts people into a position where, “The higher cost of protein drives consumers to buy cheaper processed food loaded with fat and carbohydrates — an effect that disproportionately affects people on tighter budgets.” Sometimes we simply can’t afford to eat well. And even when we can, we often don’t have the time and settle for whatever’s convenient in our fast-paced, consumer society.

It’s a catch-22. The consumer is often treated as a ‘rational actor’ who makes decisions that provide them with the greatest benefit or satisfaction. But when they act in such a way, such as when they’re coerced by the limitations of time and money to purchase greater quantities of processed foods to feed themselves and their family, they’re simultaneously making a ‘poor choice’ despite it being an economically rational one.

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