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Dear American Consumers: Please Don’t Start Eating Healthfully. Sincerely, the Food Industry

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Dear Consumers: A disturbing trend has come to our attention. You, the people, are thinking more about health, and you’re starting to do something about it. This cannot continue.

Sure, there’s always been talk of health in America. We often encourage it. The thing is, we only want you to think about and talk about health in a certain way—equating health with how you look, instead of outcomes like quality of life and reduced disease risk. Your superficial understanding of health has a great influence over your purchasing decisions, and we’re ready for it, whether you choose to go low-calorie, low-fat, gluten-free or inevitably give up and accept the fact that you can’t resist our Little Debbie snacks, potato chips and ice cream novelties.

Whatever the current health trend, we respond by developing and marketing new products. We can also show you how great some of our current products are and always have been. For example, when things were not looking so good for fat, our friends at Welch’s were able to point out that their chewy fruit snacks were a fat free option. Low fat! Healthy! Then the tide turned against carbohydrates. Our friends in meat and dairy were happy to show that their steaks, meats and cheeses were low-carb choices. Low carbs! Healthy!

But we’re getting uneasy.

In 2009, Congress commissioned the Inter-agency Working Group (IWG) to develop standards for advertising foods to children. The IWG included the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Congress identified these organizations as having “expertise and experience in child nutrition, child health, psychology, education, marketing and other fields relevant to food and beverage marketing and child nutrition standards.”

We were dismayed when the IWG released its report in 2011. The guidelines said that foods advertised to children must provide “a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet.” For example, any food marketed to children must “contain at least 50% by weight one or more of the following: fruit; vegetable; whole grain; fat-free or low-fat milk or yogurt; fish; extra lean meat or poultry; eggs; nuts and seeds; or beans.”

This report was potentially devastating. These organizations, experts in nutrition, were officially outlining what constituted “a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet.” Thankfully, we have a ton of money and were able to use it to get the IWG to withdraw the guidelines.

In a public comment posted on the FTC website, our friends at General Mills pointed out that under the IWG guidelines, the most commonly consumed foods in the US would be considered unhealthy. Specifically, according to General Mills, “of the 100 most commonly consumed foods and beverages in America, 88 would fail the IWG’s proposed standards.” So you see? If you people start eating the way the nutrition experts at the CDC and USDA recommend that you eat, that would delegitimize almost 90 percent of the products we produce! Do you realize how much money that would cost us?

According to the General Mills letter, if everyone in the US started eating healthfully, it would cost us $503 billion per year! That might affect our ability to pay CEOs like General Mills’ Ken Powell annual compensations of more than $12 million.

But revamping the food environment will also cost you money. The General Mills letter stated “a shift by the average American to the IWG diet would conservatively increase the individual’s annual food spending by $1,632.” Sure, we’ve heard talk about costs to the individual that arise from being obese. One 2010 paper from the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services estimated that the annual costs to an individual for being obese can be upwards of $8,000. We like to think of this as a small price to pay for consumer freedom.

Of course, we don’t necessarily want you to be unhealthy. It’s just that it’s so much more profitable to provide foods that happen to be unhealthy. We’ve been able to industrialize the food system so that we can produce massive amounts of the cheapest ingredients available, in the cheapest, most efficient way possible.

On top of that, we understand human biology. Humans evolved in situations in which food was scarce. This led to an evolutionary adaptation that causes you to crave salty, sugary and fatty foods. Consuming foods with these characteristics actually lights up the same pleasure centers in the brain as cocaine. Who wouldn’t play upon that biological craving to increase profits? If one company didn’t, their competitors would, so we all kind of have to do it.

We are also able to provide you with perceived value. Because it doesn’t cost us that much more to make a soda, say, 42 ounces instead of 22, we can almost double the size of a beverage and only charge you 20 percent more. How could you resist a deal like that? You can’t. Trust us, we know.

So you see, dear consumer, everything is fine. We’ve got a good thing going here. There’s no need for you to start worrying about the industrial food system. If you do start thinking about your weight, check out our line of Healthy Choice frozen meals. If that doesn’t work, our friends over in the pharmaceutical industry, the health and fitness industry and the healthcare industry will be happy to help you to continue to fulfill your role as an American Consumer.

Images: by the author


Patrick Mustain About the Author: Patrick Mustain is a Minneapolis-based freelance health and science writer and digital media producer. He is interested in the challenges of public health in a consumer society. He is also a co-founder and director of, an organization inviting health and fitness professionals to help reform the industry from within. He also likes sandwiches and climbing on things. You can find more of his work at his website, Follow on Twitter @patrickmustain.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 68 Comments

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  1. 1. vince52 2:42 pm 05/19/2013

    Our opinions on many public policy issues are often informed by our understanding of the conclusions of scientific studies.
    Does that make our opinions on such public policy issues “scientific”? I think not. I think we select the scientific findings that fit our sense of the way the world works and string together the facts that reinforce our biases?
    I find that many of my views make sense to me because of the accidents of how I was “imprinted”, as if I were one of Tinburgen’s ducklings.

    Link to this
  2. 2. singing flea 3:51 pm 05/19/2013

    I see no problem with the way that the food industry exploits the masses by profiting on obesity and poor nutrition. Imagine how much worse things will get if everyone lived twice as long and collected social security for most of their lives.

    Link to this
  3. 3. tomgarven 4:38 pm 05/19/2013

    Many years ago I watch the History Channel program entitled the “Human Footprint”. I recently revisited this program and find it to be more applicable today than it was years ago. Here is a link to the program.

    After viewing the program it made we think; just how much longer can 7 billion people continue to use the planets resources at the current rate?

    Link to this
  4. 4. Percival 4:45 pm 05/19/2013

    On one hand we have the example of the British East India Company (working hand-in-glove with British industrialists) allegedly promoting tea consumption in order to get Englishmen addicted to sugar so as to get more work out of them, on the other hand we have the constant contradictory refrain of “meat is bad/good for you, eggs are bad/good for you” and so on.

    It would be nice if we could all cook our meals from fresh locally grown ingredients, but then the ecologistas would try to tell us what plants we “should be allowed to” grow in a given locale lest we support “invasive species”. Well, sometimes I like redneck comfort food, sometimes Sonoran cuisine, Vietnamese, and so on. Sometimes you just have to open the (salted, sulfited, preserved, genericized) box and hope for the best.

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  5. 5. John A. 4:59 pm 05/19/2013

    The industrial food system is what allows us to feed seven billion people. It is what makes food cheap and accessible for even the poorest of people. It is one of the main drivers of our modern prosperity, allowing us to have money to spend on everything else. The downside of this is that food has become so cheap to produce that (some) people eat too much of it. However for every person who doesn’t know how to take care of their bodies there is four of us who do, and we don’t want to go back to the pre-industrial, labor intensive, government controlled, or whatever other alternative there is to the “industrial food system.”

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  6. 6. Tanmay 5:53 pm 05/19/2013

    No, in India, the industrial food system has been absent till now. We even had very very inefficient substinence farmers feeding the entire country of 1.2 Bn so far.

    So, if we could improve on the poor substinence farmers and bring techniques upto western standards, I think India can comfortably feed itself far into the future.

    Do you know why ? Because 85% of indians are vegitarian. That is changing now with people becoming richer. But meat consumption per capita is probably 1/20th that in the US.

    So, even with really bad farming we didn’t need industrial scale agriculture.

    There is a lesson here. Cut back on meat, your health issues will drop, you will save more money, and you won’t need to bother with industrial agriculture.

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  7. 7. extramsg 6:10 pm 05/19/2013

    Yes, yes, the pleasure centers of our brain, as with cocaine, love fat and sugar. Anyone whose mind is blown by this fact must have a very small mind.

    Know what also triggers these pleasure centers? Love, exercise, and sex. Ban them!

    What’s goofy is that while mocking General Mills’s letter, you ignore its valid concerns. I knew reading your piece (of…) that you must be mis-characterizing the letter. So I read it. And they go on to point out that obesity rates have been going up despite these ads disappearing. And I know, eg, that soda drinking rates have been going down as well. Your prejudices against business get in the way of actually recommending anything effective. Instead you just limit people’s freedom of choice and the ability of businesses to compete with each other.

    Shame on Scientific American for publishing this very unscientific unamerican propaganda.

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  8. 8. ndoris 6:27 pm 05/19/2013

    Dear author,
    you are doing it wrong:

    “I read Scientific American for the well written and unbiased articles about advancements in science.”

    That is what an insincere yet poignant message should look like. I don’t particularly appreciate the blatant push of your political agenda, but I really don’t appreciate this mockery of an article that is reminiscent of something I may have read in my high school paper. I guess you just don’t think your audience is intelligent/mature enough to be able to interpret the severity of this issue when only provided with an objective article that is unladen with sarcasm.

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  9. 9. frankblank 6:51 pm 05/19/2013

    This article (a blog, deep thinkers) sure brought out the apologists for stupidity. The article, guys, is satire. Although not particularly witty, it already satirizes your responses.

    Here’s the straight skinny: eat whatever you want. I did. If you get old (I did) take your blood pressure pills and start eating sensibly.

    Specifically for the dimwit who thinks the artcke is an anti-business screed: please eat lead-based paint chips regularly. They make you stronger. And the industry has known they make you stronger since the 1920s.

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  10. 10. singing flea 7:26 pm 05/19/2013

    frankblank, I like your advice. Any Limbaugh educated conservative knows that the lead paint argument was an attempt by communist environmentalists to destroy the honest industrialists in the chemical industry who have proven time and again how they made life better for us all with products like DDT, napalm and lead in our paint and gasoline. Now these horrible people are going after our Twinkies and Cokes! God knows conservatives work hard without complaint to pay the highest medical costs in the world. Do you see any of them complaining about the taxes these corporations pay to support their darling weapons industry? Besides, why worry about eroding health if we can afford the doctors in the first place? We can all agree that if we just let the poor die from cheap nutrition less cheap food then we can spend more on wars to kill off the rest of societies deadbeats.

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  11. 11. extramsg 7:47 pm 05/19/2013

    Yes, lead paint chips are exactly the same as Cheerios. I dub thee Fallacio.

    The author makes no attempt to engage General Mills’s arguments or counter its facts. Instead, it misrepresents them under the guise of satire. But the use of satire is only there to mask the weakness of the case being made and house the fallacious reasoning.

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  12. 12. Csensis 7:49 pm 05/19/2013

    We are living in Aldous Huxley’s dystopia.

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  13. 13. pmustain 7:53 pm 05/19/2013

    John A: Sure, the industrial food system has virtually eliminated starvation as a major public health issue in the developed world (though in some cases, when we send our industrially produced food aid to 3rd world countries it can have devastating effects on the local food economy, but that’s another story. We also still have hunger in America as well). We enjoy easy access to a greater variety and volume of food than has ever before been seen in human history. That’s awesome. I try to remember that every time I walk into a grocery store.

    This satire was not demanding a return to a pre-industrial food system, and especially not advocating government control (love thos Soviet bread lines, right?). I merely try to point out in a hopefully interesting way, that things have gone a bit too far.

    The fact is, we have a problem with obesity. The overwhelming evidence points to the industrialized food system as one of the primary drivers of obesity and its costly related health effects (google: Lancet Obesity Series). The obesity problem is not a result of two-thirds (not one-fifth as your comment indicated) of the population becoming less personally responsible over the last several decades. People are acting like people have always acted: We like to eat, we like a good deal, and we don’t really like to move all that much unless there’s a really good reason to.

    What’s changed is our environment. I think it’s reasonable to ask the food industry to take a bit more responsibility for how it has changed the food environment for most Americans. The food industry is well aware of how its practices are affecting health and yet it continues to push mostly food that is incredibly unhealthy, even though it has the capability of producing healthier food on a large scale. The bottom line is that the healthiest foods are not as profitable as the foods that are engineered to push our pleasure buttons. For more I point you to Michael Moss’s article in the New York Times: The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.

    Thanks for weighing in.

    With respect,


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  14. 14. Doctor B 8:00 pm 05/19/2013

    It is a myth that industrial ag is what makes it possible to feed the billions, and that without it we would all starve. Truth: industrial ag is NOT the most efficient way to grow food, is only the most efficient way to grow dollars. You can grow far more food per acre using intensive growing practices than you can using mono-cultures and chemical inputs, it merely requires more people to do the farming. Which means more employment. Which is not a bad thing at all.

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  15. 15. pmustain 8:27 pm 05/19/2013


    How exactly did I misrepresent General Mills’ arguments? If anything, General Mills takes an even more dire stance in their comment and my interpretation is tame (and more light-hearted) by comparison. However, since you bring it up, the link below will take you to a paper that explores not only General Mills arguments, but also arguments from four other fortune 500 food companies that reject the proposed guidelines for self-regulation of marketing aimed at children.

    Most of the economic figures cited by General Mills in their comment came from a study that was performed by the Georgetown Economic Services, an economic consulting firm that provides support to organizations facing challenges in the areas of international trade, antitrust, environmental regulation, and commercial litigation. The research cited by General Mills was sponsored by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Association of National Advertisers.

    With respect,


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  16. 16. 8:32 pm 05/19/2013

    I’m sorry but I don’t let my child do my shopping for me, we go out to eat once every 2 weeks or so and when they beg for McDonalds just because they saw one, I say no.
    My children don’t dictate to me what they will eat or be served, when America grows up it will be too late for many.

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  17. 17. pmustain 8:36 pm 05/19/2013

    frankblank, I appreciate the sentiment, but let’s keep it classy, yea? And c’mon, it was kinda witty…

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  18. 18. Vincentrj 9:43 pm 05/19/2013

    What an interesting piece of satire. Unfortunately there are some serious issues here which are very difficult to address.
    Obesity is not simply due to food being relatively cheap. It’s due to the excessive sugar additives in processed food, mainly fructose, which interfere with the brain processes that inform the body it is full or satiated. When this sensation of fullness is damaged or removed, and the food is tasty, and a person is perhaps sexually frustrated or lonely, then the pleasure of eating just for the taste gratification can become addictive.
    Combine this eating behaviour with a lack of exercise, then we have predictable trouble and health problems which could have been avoided with better education. It’s very sad really. Not only do we have a significant wastage of food as a result of, say, one quarter of the world population overeating, but we have the consequent massive increase in medical expenses due to the effects of the obesity, whilst another quarter of the world population suffers from a lack of food and a lack of medical services.
    If only there was a way of transferring that overeating and overuse of medical services to the starving and undernourished portion of the world population. We’d all be better off.

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  19. 19. Scienceisnotagenda 12:28 am 05/20/2013

    We all know what foods are best to eat….but most choose to eat processed foods. Each to their own.

    I’ve never heard anyone say a bag of chips is healthier than an orange. Individuals are not stupid. ‘Blaming’ the food industry is just another cop out.

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  20. 20. justin ou 1:55 am 05/20/2013

    Nowadays people have become more aware of what they eat. The statement is correct, however, people have become less aware of the content of the food they consume.
    The benefits of industrialized food production are clear, companies make food cheaper, diversified, tasty and meet every demand. But they come at a price as well. The ingredients, manufacturing processes and packaging have getting complicated and should have been regulated.
    But in most cases it’s difficult for bureaucracy to pace with the development of food industry. Thus can lead to serious and dangerous problems.
    Overall, government should impose stricter laws on food industry to ensure the safety of the food. If more people maintain a healthier diet and have access to natural and nutrient food we should save a lot of money on health care costs. In addition, with a healthier population, we can enjoy a higher productivity and efficiency at work and school, and save tens of thousands of people die from cardiovascular diseases every day.

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  21. 21. AvangionQ 8:19 am 05/20/2013

    “This report was potentially devastating. These organizations, experts in nutrition, were officially outlining what constituted “a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet.” Thankfully, we have a ton of money and were able to use it to get the IWG to withdraw the guidelines.” … was there any evidence of bribery of public officials?

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  22. 22. #2change2morrow 8:46 am 05/20/2013

    To feed the world, or for that matter, to feed a country, it is a daunting task. The unfortunate thing is, we, as a people, have become self-induldging, undisciplined people, as a mass. (no, not all, but many) What do we stand for? Do we know? The Food Industry has been tasked with keeping up with our awful eating habits and has learned to cut costs in order to do it quickly and easily.

    With that said, maybe we, as a people have been brought down this path because what has been put in front of us was addictive, cancer causing additives, preservatives, GMO’s, etc. I don’t know which came first, but what I do know…is that we, as a people, need to put discipline back into our health care (as in our own personal health care…not the system’s health care) and we also need to stand up for what we believe in.

    Kudo’s to those who have entered this industry, as entrepreneurs, to create food that they believe in. I am thankful to them. I have food allergies and it is their food products that I buy. Thank you to all those who are taking a STAND and are taking ACTION!

    We, as a people, need to take responsibility for our actions, as marketers, as industry leaders and as consumers. DON’T buy it. Then they will be forced to kill something that doesn’t make a profit.

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  23. 23. killingmesoftly 8:51 am 05/20/2013

    Monsanto and General Mills are here to stay. Let uneducated people and people with no self control eat thier crap and die early. what did Dad say? the world needs ditch diggers too… you my friend, should avoid processed foods eat healthy and buy these companies stocks. doesn’t sound like they are going to fold anytime soon. WINNING!

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  24. 24. Jerzy v. 3.0. 9:12 am 05/20/2013

    Dear Fallacious American,

    What I fear is not Big Business promoting unhealthy food, because everybody is aware that promoting healthy food is also Big Business.

    I am afraid of Robber State and Robber Organizations, usurping my freedom, supposedly for my own good and Poor Children. And they don’t do it for free.

    I can decide myself what my children can eat, thank you.

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  25. 25. Stagnaro 9:32 am 05/20/2013

    “Congress commissioned the Inter-agency Working Group (IWG) to develop standards for advertising foods to children. The IWG included the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)”. With all this, what happened? So far no improvement. I mean that none of these authorities in the field of nutrition know the quantum-biophysical-semeiotic constitutions-dependent, inherited real risk, bedside recognized with a sethoscope, and removed by quantum therapy. In my opinion, this is the fundamental bias in every researches around the world, aiming to prevent common and dangerous disorders, like CVD, T2DM, and Cancer, today’s growing epidemics. As a matter of facts, neither mice nor humen are created equal: Stagnaro Sergio. Not all mice are created equal! BioMedCentral Physiology, 3 December, 2009.

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  26. 26. GuyNoire 10:05 am 05/20/2013

    The Magazine’s name is Scientific American, yet this piece is no more than ideological exposition.

    This is where our modern scientific community is moving these days, unfortunately, a la climatology. When scientists become advocates, they cease to be scientists.

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  27. 27. rodrigobernardo 10:27 am 05/20/2013

    This article is just so logical and clear. Reading the comments I see how people want to even justify their lousy eating habits under freedom of choice. They are so immersed in the supermarket furore that they cannot see that there is only induction, not choice, to their thinking.

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  28. 28. Scienceisnotagenda 10:40 am 05/20/2013

    Guy Noire…..agreed.

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  29. 29. bentheguy 12:02 pm 05/20/2013

    There’s a serious flaw in your logic. You’re assuming the IWG’s suggestions are good ones. They seem remarkably similar to the old four balanced food groups model. Wanna know what happened when the government began pushing the four food groups and old food pyramid paradigm? We got an obesity epidemic!

    I’m not saying General Mills is correct, either. They have even less incentive to give good food advice.

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  30. 30. Scottilla 12:24 pm 05/20/2013

    Over and over, we read how the food industry is just giving us what we want. Whether is be 11 ounce pounds, 14 ounce pints, 28 ounce quarts, 56 ounce half gallons, it’s always because it’s what we asked for.
    I have yet to find a packaged food that is what it purports to be. Everything in the supermarket has added ingredients, tea with vitamin C added, Bread with flaxseed added, now Ice cream with cream removed. I was in the supermarket yesterday looking for jelly, specifically Polaner All Fruit, because it’s mostly fruit, and lo and behold, All Fruit is now All Fruit plus maltodextrin. Why? I guess because that’s what we asked for. Can’t get enough of that maltodextrin!

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  31. 31. rogern1967 12:28 pm 05/20/2013

    Nothing “Scientific” about this story. It is simply a leftist rumination about how Big Food is conspiring to kill granny and the kids. I especially love the expressed frustrations about how much Kellog CEO earned. This stuff is so tired, so predictable, so nauseating.

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  32. 32. Maureenataba 1:07 pm 05/20/2013

    If we want to get serious about healthy eating and obesity prevention, we need to focus on education, not government regulation. Bans, taxes, and other restrictions do nothing to teach people about healthy lifestyle habits. People are—and always will be—able to decide for themselves what they eat and drink.

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  33. 33. kefcorp 1:22 pm 05/20/2013

    Companies tend to change their tack when they realize their current approach isn’t profitable. I buy local and cook most of my meals from scratch, but I fully support another person’s right to do the opposite if they so choose, as well as these big corporations’ right to sell whatever they want. I’m not rich, and I’m not particularly educated, but that hasn’t kept me from prioritizing my own health. I think others are capable of the same – at least I’d like to think that.

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  34. 34. Steve D 1:22 pm 05/20/2013

    With all the research that’s been done on why people crave certain foods, you’d think advocates of healthy eating could come up with foods that taste as good as or batter than the processed, manufactured stuff. The food industry knows exactly what works and it’s openly available. Yet instead of applying that information, healthy food advocates keep pushing stuff that tastes like lawn clippings.

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  35. 35. wilder125 1:31 pm 05/20/2013

    *shrug* When I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, vegetables were my choice over candy. Cake was something I reserved for my birthday or a wedding. Candy was halloween. Forget Kool-aid. It sucked. I was eating healthy before the health trend got big.

    Why do I care if you want me to be a fatty

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  36. 36. Breeves002 1:43 pm 05/20/2013

    There is nothing worse than the smug technocrat who KNOWS The Answer and is eager to use the guns and shackles of the state to shove said answer down everyone else’s throats for fun and profit.

    Of course in a few years The Answer will have changed and with no trace of irony the smug technocrat will demand that he be allowed to shove THAT reform to end all reforms down people’s throats. It’s science, you see, and science is always right. Until it’s not, that is.

    The average citizen is far wiser on what to do with their own lives than the smug technocrat could ever be, if only because they retain humility.

    So mister Technocrat: if you feel the irresistible urge to dominate and push others around, please stick to your own family. And leave the rest of us the hell alone.

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  37. 37. Steve D 1:46 pm 05/20/2013

    By the way, the food industry adds two completely unregulated ingredients to everything. Hydrogen hydroxide is one. Hydroxide is what makes lye caustic. Then there’s dihydrogen monoxide. Monoxide is what kills people with faulty furnaces.

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  38. 38. Steve D 1:48 pm 05/20/2013

    wilder125 illustrates the problem perfectly. HE likes veggies more than candy, and once everyone adopts HIS tastes then everything will be just fine.

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  39. 39. daylily2005 2:39 pm 05/20/2013

    In a perfect world, people could eat what they wanted and get fat and incur health problems and die, and that’s just a part of life. That’s what several comments say. Personally, I agree. You are responsible for your actions. That’s what we’re all taught as children, right?

    Wait. Maybe not. Everyone wasn’t raised the way you and I were. Everyone in the U.S., or let’s say the world, does not naturally take responsibility. What does that leave us? A number of people who eat horrible foods, develop chronic health problems, and want someone to pay for medicine and healthcare. I’m not saying pay for all of it, but at least help out.

    That’s the world we live in. It’s not idealistic, it’s not over exaggerated. It is.

    Given that it is, shouldn’t we mitigate the damage that can be caused as much as we can? If you make the conscious decision to eat foods that are potentially hurting your body, that is your choice. If you were never educated beyond the government’s food pyramid, you don’t completely understand nutrition, and you go by the labels, advertisements, and Dr. Oz to make “educated” food choices…well, I’d like to think that anything I can do to help those people be a little bit healthier is worth it.

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  40. 40. larkalt 2:46 pm 05/20/2013

    The blog by Marion Nestle has a lot of information on how the food industry affects health.
    The economic pressures on food co.’s result in cheap food that is intended to push our buttons, with a lot of sugar, salt and fat. Fruits and vegetables are more expensive.
    You can’t expect the food co.’s to “take responsibility”. We can perhaps legislate to improve the quality of food, for example the FDA may set a ceiling on the salt content in processed food, which gradually decreases over time.
    The mentality of “personal responsibility” gets in the way of taking legislative action. Yes, individuals can control their own food intake – but on a large scale, people are seduced into unhealthy food habits by advertising and cheap junk food.

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  41. 41. mbpodcast 3:19 pm 05/20/2013

    The USDA and the FDA and NOT your friends. They are there for the benefit of Big Agro and Food Corp. by providing some cleanliness and product safety guidelines that, if these minimum requirements are met, protect said Big Agro and Food Corp. from lawsuits.

    As for nutrition and sustainability, that’s subjective isn’t it. “One man’s meat is another man’s poison” and all that.

    If its not covered in actuarial tables, the companies are blind to it.

    So you end up eating crap and living shorter and more debilitated lives? Tough…

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  42. 42. Jerzy v. 3.0. 3:23 pm 05/20/2013

    If you want to legislate how average American spends money on food, why stop at food? All the other life choices should be taken away, logically.

    There is a word for such mindset and such governments.

    Go, emigrate to North Korea, there government micromanages people’s lives. You will be happy, North Korea has no obesity epidemics.

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  43. 43. daylily2005 3:36 pm 05/20/2013


    I’m not advocating legislating how Americans spend money. That was quite the logical leap you made–and it was the wrong one. I’m saying that it’s better to face reality and the effects of Big Food (a la Big Pharma) than to ignore it and act like there is nothing wrong. There is. I’m just advocating not turning a blind eye.

    I’m not saying that companies shouldn’t aim to make profits–after all, we are in America. That’s part of the foundation of our economic system. What I’m saying is that as a society we should be advocating that people have the option to make better choices without consequence (like spending however much more a year on healthier food options).

    Don’t pretend to know my entire ideological and social stance from one post, and I will return you the same courtesy.

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  44. 44. doctordawg 4:24 pm 05/20/2013

    @singing flea Funny, but also tragic that MANY people believe that the best way to balance Social Security and Medicare is to kill Americans before they retire. Not many will say it out loud, but that’s the agenda.

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  45. 45. doctordawg 4:27 pm 05/20/2013

    @Jerzy v. 3.0. Since when is forcing food manufacturers to fully disclose everything they know about the food they’re selling us, including the bad stuff, how is that “forcing consumers to buy” anything? Food hawkers should NOT be allowed to lie blatantly about what we’re buying and what we’re eating.

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  46. 46. JohnSmith57 5:04 pm 05/20/2013

    No one knows what causes the increase in the number of fat people. Scientists studying the problem have not been able to formulate theories that stand up to scrutiny.

    The idea that food companies are the villains is nothing more than scapegoating. There’s no solid evidence that their advertising is a factor. We buy what we want to eat. The problem is us, not them.

    The federal government has not helped. As Nassim Taleb points out in his book Antifragile, the whole idea of a recommended daily allowance in foods makes no sense. We don’t need vitamins and minerals daily — just occasionally. Periodic fasting seems to be of more benefit than trying to limit calories and take vitamins and minerals on a daily basis.

    We see the same sort of overconsumption with medicine as with food. Antidepressants, statins, vitamin supplements, and most other drugs seem from studies to do little if anything for our mental and physical health. But people take them more and more.

    We waste money on food and medicine intended to make us feel better and all it does is make our health worse. How ironic, and how sad.

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  47. 47. larkalt 6:11 pm 05/20/2013

    “No one knows what causes the increase in the number of fat people. Scientists studying the problem have not been able to formulate theories that stand up to scrutiny.”
    Not true – there are correlations observed between density of fast food outlets in a neighborhood and obesity, etc. etc. There is a lot known about the causes. What is not clear is what to do about it. The causes are deeply rooted in our society.
    For example, people would be healthier if they used cars less, and walked or biked more. But, our entire society is molded around car transportation. People say their afraid to bike places … because of the cars. People live a long ways from their jobs, so they can’t just decide to quit driving to work … And so on. It isn’t an easy problem.

    “The idea that food companies are the villains is nothing more than scapegoating. There’s no solid evidence that their advertising is a factor. We buy what we want to eat.”
    So why then, would food companies spend billions on advertising … if people aren’t influenced???
    Of COURSE people are influenced by advertising! Advertising CREATES wishes. Advertising influences what people want. That’s the whole point of advertising!
    Obesity has been increasing. Basic human nature hasn’t changed. So it’s the changing environment that is causing the increase in obesity: the decline in relatively healthy home-cooked meals, people eating fast food, food co.’s pushing unhealthy food to kids on TV, an environment that isn’t conducive to exercising, etc. etc.

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  48. 48. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:05 pm 05/20/2013

    @daylily2005, larkalt
    Your views are maybe well-meaning, but you propose a cure worse than disease.

    First, fighting obesity is just another big business. NGO organizations, companies producing healthier types of food and government bureaucrats have budgets with millions of bucks, too. And who pays for it? Consumer.

    Worse, these campaigns and bureaucrats quickly grow out of proportion. You wake up in with an monster like EU nanny-state, looking all the time to regulate more trivia for bigger taxes.

    Third, these pro-health campaigns and laws are notoriously inefficient. Govt and people spend really big money, but rarely anybody evaluates the benefit. We witnessed dozens of health plans and campaigns already, did they work? Anybody was put to responsibility for health education which failed so far?

    I lived in nanny state for years, and no, don’t want more of it.

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  49. 49. bobmathews 12:32 pm 05/21/2013

    Patrick – great article. I could write a lengthy comment on ‘You are what you eat’, but enough has been said already. Thank you.

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  50. 50. El3737 1:12 pm 05/21/2013

    Thank you Patrick Mustain and Scientific American for addressing the elephant in our national living room. Don’t be surprised if Monsanto and/or Big Food tries to replace your editor with a more suitable lackey from the biotech or food industries. Mustn’t have paying consumers thinking about the lack of actual nutrition in the American diet. Trouble is, Monsanto, they already are.

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  51. 51. Jmitchell 2:05 pm 05/21/2013

    Wake up America. The FDA is ran by Michael Taylor ex Monsanto employee. The FDA was created in 1913 following by the American cancer assc. All natural cures to cancer were illegal only chemo and radiation were allowable treatments. Big Pharma wants us sick taking their blood pressure and diabetic meds! Stop eating fast food and processed food and grow some food that is LOL

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  52. 52. msbook 3:23 pm 05/21/2013

    The comments don’t seem to reflect what might be the most important factor in food costs and food “popularity”, and the article misses it as well. We subsidize very specific crops (corn, wheat, milk etc.) that are those most used in consumer foods. They are, therefore cheaper for companies like General Mills, who make food, and for others who sell food as a commodity. It’s not all about evil companies or irresponsible citizens, or you versus me. If we could agree to subsidize those things that make us healthy, and stop subsidies on the others, we might make a major step toward matching what we sell with what’s good for us to eat. Arguing is a sport; let’s take some meaningful action instead.

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  53. 53. ktribe1 3:40 pm 05/21/2013

    Now imagine the impact of all the Americans who are learning of the dangers of GMOs! Unless the food industry wises up, I foresee lots of people doing what I am doing – buying organic, locally-produced food and increasing the amount of food I grow myself. My goal is that within five years I will be producing the majority of my own food and trips to supermarket will be to only purchase items like detergents and trash bags!

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  54. 54. maco1 11:38 pm 05/21/2013

    For some reason, you can get coupons and see advertisements for the processed junk these companies sell, but try finding a coupon for bell peppers or turnips. Then take a look at what kind of crops the government insists on subsidizing. The corn lobby comes to mind.

    That’s the problem the article is talking about. All economic incentives for agriculture and shoppers point to producing and eating processed food instead of fresh produce.

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  55. 55. rwscid 11:52 am 05/22/2013

    > We’ve been able to industrialize the food system so that we can produce massive amounts of the cheapest ingredients available, in the cheapest, most efficient way possible.

    But let’s not forget (not denying a single point of the article) they are also able to provide healthy food in the cheapest, most efficient way possible. Today.

    One can eat extremely well, eating only healthy foods, for very little money (perhaps $120 per month per person) by shopping at WalMart today.

    The reason why people do not do this mystifies me, but I am reluctant to blame ‘the giant food industry’ instead of ‘willfully ignorant and/or self hating consumers.’

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  56. 56. whealthy 12:09 pm 05/22/2013

    It is all about supply and demand. The best way to increase the supply for healthy foods and beverages is actually by increasing the demand for these items. I know that for people who want to eat healthily, the label information on nutrients and ingredients can be confusing and overwhelming. Fortunately, there are mobile apps, such as FoodSmart or which can help simplify the process of identifying and shopping for healthy food items. Other suggestions are: 1. don’t shop on an empty stomach – eating or snacking before I shop helps me avoid buying more than I need and shop unhealthily. 2. Shop with a list, so you can buy what you need as opposed to what you desire. Digital shopping lists in apps such as FoodSmart can help you with this as well.

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  57. 57. kelsaurus 3:16 pm 05/22/2013

    interesting that in the photo of the cereal aisle, the sugarier cereals are placed lower – at kids’ eye level.

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  58. 58. pmustain 7:10 pm 05/22/2013

    Hi everyone!

    Thanks for the conversation this has generated, both here, on Twitter, on my website, and all over the web. Pretty overwhelming.

    I want to address something that I think is really important, but first let me get a couple other things out of the way.

    First, AvangionQ brought up a legitimate concern, asking if there was any evidence of bribery to public officials. This commenter was referring to this passage:

    “Thankfully, we have a ton of money and were able to use it to get the IWG to withdraw the guidelines.”

    I haven’t heard of any illegal bribes, but most corporations these days have no need for bribes, since they have at their disposal a well-funded army of lobbyists.

    Marion Nestle pointed reported in a 2011 post that there was more than $37 million spent by companies lobbying against federal attempts to set nutritional standards for foods marketed to children. Of that, General Mills contributed $660,000.

    So I suppose no bribery per se, but call it what you want.

    Here’s a link to the Nestle post:

    Second, a number of readers object to Scientific American posting this obviously opinionated piece. Keep in mind this work was posted on the Guest Blog, and I refer you to its description on the website:

    “The editors of Scientific American regularly encounter perspectives on science and technology that we believe our readers would find thought-provoking, fascinating, debatable and challenging. The guest blog is a forum for such opinions. The views expressed belong to the author and are not necessarily shared by Scientific American.”

    There you go.

    Third, there’s a lot of the inevitable “Keep-your-nanny-state-away-from-my-food-I-eat-what-I-want-It’s-the-parents-fault-stop-blaming-businesses-for-people-who-make-bad-decisions-stop-trying-to-take-away-freedon-of-choice” comments.

    Opponents of public health efforts often claim that the reasons that the “nanny state technocrats”, or “bureaucrats” (or other bad names), try to implement policy-level health initiatives is because they LOVE telling us normal Americans what to do, and that they hate freedom, and they think that they know better than everyone else.

    Those claims are absurd, but they are to be expected anytime any government action is discussed on the Internet, especially involving the topic of food. I would like to remind the readers that in this case, the government action was simply recommendations for SELF-regulation. The IWG’s guidelines were not taking away anyone’s freedom. Those who post such comments are not going to have their minds changed by anything that I write here, so I’ll just leave it at this reminder: In spite of government’s very real problems, by it’s very nature, it is not out to get you. It is specifically working (however often poorly) FOR YOU. However, by their very nature, businesses are NOT working for you. They are working expressly for the bottom line. Often this results in great things for the public. But often this also results in terrible things for the public. When that happens, we as a democratic people need to step in and limit those harms. The government is our tool for doing this. It may be unwieldy. It might be slow. But it’s ours.

    Ok, now to the thing I really wanted to get at.

    There were many commenters and tweeters who gave this piece a great reception. I’m blown away by the response and the support and I thank you for it.

    However, as awful as some of the actions of the food industry are, I think it’s important to take a measured, thoughtful, and sometimes even unemotional approach to these issues.

    The more we say the that food industry “sucks,” that they’re “criminals,” that they produce “poison,” then the more we turn off the average Joe who wants to enjoy his cheeseburger and fries in peace without having those health freaks trying to shove broccoli down his throat. And how can you blame him? We’re building fences when we should be opening gates and inviting people into the garden.

    I agree with a lot of what you say, but keep in mind, in the system we’ve set up, the actions of the food and industry are not necessarily “criminal.” That doesn’t mean those actions aren’t wrong. We can demand better, but we have to remind ourselves that just as a population responds to overabundance by over-consuming, a business will respond to a consumer desire by meeting it and encouraging it. We have to understand WHY corporations push fatty, sugary foods. Are they intentionally trying to make us unhealthy for the sake of making us unhealthy? No. Are they negligent? Probably. Are they responding naturally to their environment? Absolutely.

    We have to help change that consumer environment that the food industry is responding to, just as they have changed the food environment that consumers are responding to. In order to do that, we need Joe with his burger and fries, and we’re not going to win him over by drawing a line in the sand. I don’t necessarily have an answer about how to win those folks over, but we can start by not alienating them.

    Thanks so much for the conversation, and keep supporting change in the way we talk about and pursue health!


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  59. 59. sunnystrobe 7:16 am 05/24/2013

    Wonderful satire! And, yes, it fits into a scientific journal beautifully; after all, what’s more scientific than promoting the scientifically proven, species-specific nutrition for our own kind?
    Obesity is now clearly revealed as an industrial disease, caused by the ‘food’ industry- which profits most unethically from exploiting our dependency on their highly addictive- and highly unhealthy merchandise.
    Food Inc. are just as devious as Big Tobacco has been, if not even more so; because ‘super’markets (super being short for:superfluous) peddle so-called ‘food’ -which isn’t really food any more, but a virtual-reality, depleted delusion thereof.
    We voted with our feet years ago,here in Western Australia, buying fresh produce from farmers’ markets, and eating preservative-free- which meant ousting sugar, salt, and suet;
    and have never felt better in our lives.

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  60. 60. Jerzy v. 3.0. 9:17 am 05/26/2013

    You can eat healthy meal at KFC, if you take double chicken, leave 2/3 of chips and take green (leafy) salat. At Mc’Donalds the same. Every supermarket has vegetables and fruit. This is all there.

    It is nonsense that Americans are somehow kept in the dark about healthy food. How many fitness magazines are in average press stall? Dieting and nutrition craze are how old – 60 years? More?

    What I find spooky is the underlying belief that general population is stupid and needs to be forced to live better lives. If you cannot accept that people take care themselves about their lunch, why not just enslave them? Worst things in history started with enlightened people forcing others for their own good.

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  61. 61. name99 5:42 pm 05/26/2013

    There’s an awful lot of ignorance and foolishness in this piece; but it performs the annual ritual of blaming the food industry and these cultish obeisances are important to many of the chattering classes.

    Where to start?
    (a) The “thrifty gene” hypothesis: “On top of that, we understand human biology. Humans evolved in situations in which food was scarce. This led to an evolutionary adaptation that causes you to crave salty, sugary and fatty foods.” Uhh, no. The very ORIGINATOR of this hypothesis, James Neel, has, in fact, abandoned the hypothesis, considering it incompatible with most of the data he has accumulated since he first propounded it.

    (b) The origin of our problems is NOT the food industry, it is the McGovern commission and its completely unfounded claims (based on the bogus science of Ansel Keys) which told Americans to eat less fat and more carbohydrates. This led to a pull-demand from the public for low-fat (ie high carbohydrate foods) which gets us to the mess we are in today.

    (c) The food industry doesn’t give a damn about low vs high carbs or low vs high fat; they can create delicious items either way, and charge people for them. There is not intrinsically higher profit in creating a low-fat version of ice-cream (high on extra sugar) vs a low-carb version (with no sugar, and using splenda for sweetening). It is SOCIETY and the US GOVERNMENT which has directed the choice towards creating primarily the high sugar low fat options and not the low sugar high fat options.

    (d) If you want to eat healthy today, while still enjoying the convenience and taste of packaged foods, there is not some conspiracy out there thwarting you. It’s quite simple. On packaging look at two numbers: sugars and carbohydrates. Keep sugars below 30g/day and carbohydrates below 130g/day. This means eat a whole lot more fat and a whole lot less grain. Simple as that.

    For an article that claims to be all about the science of healthy eating, what we’re actually getting is very little science, rather just a huge helping of the pseudoscientific prejudices of our time.

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  62. 62. name99 5:59 pm 05/26/2013

    “The fact is, we have a problem with obesity. The overwhelming evidence points to the industrialized food system as one of the primary drivers of obesity and its costly related health effects (google: Lancet Obesity Series). The obesity problem is not a result of two-thirds (not one-fifth as your comment indicated) of the population becoming less personally responsible over the last several decades. People are acting like people have always acted: We like to eat, we like a good deal, and we don’t really like to move all that much unless there’s a really good reason to.”

    This is what makes your claims so infuriating, this trotting out of incorrect statements as supposedly established science.
    There is a massive body of work (both physiological and epidemiological) showing the problems with carbohydrate rich diets.
    The epidemiological work covers a large range of space and time involving many societies who were and are not eating primarily packaged food.
    The physiological work shows the nature of the different harms incurred by carbohydrate metabolism. (Primarily
    (1) from the transport OUT of the liver of fats manufactured in the liver; this is physiologically different from transport around the body of fats that are ingested
    (2) from poisoning of the liver by the metabolization of excess fructose
    (3) from the way that a spike of insulin leads to subsequent hunger, meaning that a carb-rich diet requires eating substantially more calories than a fat rich diet in order to feel full).

    Gary Taubes and Mary Enig have covered this material in great detail. But you don’t have to listen to them, you can experiment on your own body. Switch to a high fat low carb diet for just a few days and track how much you need to eat to not feel hungry. Then, before you go to sleep at night, give yourself an insulin spike, by eating a candy bar or two. You will wake up ravenous the next day. And if you try to reduce the hunger by eating more carbs, you’ll need a whole lot more calories than you did on your low-carb days.

    That’s what’s happening with most obese people — they’re constantly hungry because of insulin spikes, but, because they have been told not to eat fat (in the US) or cannot afford anything but carbs (in poor countries) what they eat is mainly carbs which just (two hours later) makes them even hungrier.

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  63. 63. karl 8:28 pm 05/28/2013

    Buisness is about making profit, so making one change (like the article says, asking for a minimum quota of nutrients instead of starch and salt) that implies a reduction in profits is bad and must be dealt with, so industrial food ltd will never accept such a recomendation.
    An example from another place:
    in Mexico the government passed a law to limit the amount of calories that food in schools had to have, because junk food is usually calorie rich, what did the industry did? make smaller packages and sell them a little cheaper, that way the kid buys three instead of one, pays a little more and everyone is happy.
    Finally lobbyists from every major buisness will defend their commercial intrests (and the people that lives from such industries) because that is what they are paid to do, (CARB vs the automakers, CDC and USFDA vs foodco…), and change is made more difficult because this guys have dug a deep trench by boasting what was low hanging fruit of their field tasty is easier to market than healthy, if you offer boiled broccoli and the other guy offers potato chips, who has the market?

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  64. 64. Quinn the Eskimo 5:04 pm 06/2/2013

    Yes indeed! Mmmmmm! Doritos.

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  65. 65. mjserver 11:07 am 07/22/2013

    I love seeing when people realize the USDA and FDA people are not really there to help us, just like anyone else they are out to make money, even if that means harming our bodies. Thankfully, my doctor, Pompa, healed me from the inside out with the Cellular Healing Diet, which anti-ages you, and helps you lose weight and feel great all in one. I’d recommend it to anyone, from all the crap we put in our bodies, we need to have our cells cleaned out. That’s the only way we’ll be truly healed again.

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  66. 66. tina66 11:16 pm 04/1/2014

    In short, the key to your success with drop shipping is to find products like wholesale candles.

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  67. 67. Charles12 12:26 am 11/29/2014

    Really great blog…

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  68. 68. Vickylass 4:22 pm 04/9/2015

    The food tragedy started when they let traditional agriculture die to impose the agro business one. Then, they provoked the dismantlment of food markets and local grocery shops where one could shop for local and seasonal food which is the best for our health and to enjoy to impose on us big chain supermarkets to sell their shitty and industrilized food. We’ve go two options -either return to what our parents or grandparents ate or to be poisoned every day.

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