The Toxic Environment

The Toxic Environment
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The food industry shapes consumption patterns and, by extension, body types in several ways.
In modern societies, food supplies are stable and plentiful. Since 1935, the number of US farms
has fallen dramatically and there has been a general trend towards large farms (Hoppe and
Korb 2005). The emergence of factory farming, while posing problems to the environment and
engaging in ethically questionable treatment of animals (Turner 1999), has resulted in increased
specialization, efficiency and productivity. The US food supply now provides a daily average of
3,800 calories per capita, about double what is required by most adults (Nestle 2002). While this
assures consumers access to a wide variety of affordable foods, this abundance also
encourages over-consumption and an energy ratio imbalance leading to weight gain.3
Consumers not only have more opportunities to buy food, but when it is purchased, portion
sizes are large. Since the late 1970s, portion sizes have increased, with the largest sizes found
at fast food establishments (Nielsen and Popkin 2003). Many of these foods are also energydense. This is in part because the food industry faces an economic quandary. While
globalization and the concentration of ownership have resulted in extra profits for industry
(Silverstein 1984), there are still limits to individual consumption. Industry must develop
innovative ways to increase its profit margin. One strategy is to increase the sale of high-profit
foods such as processed foods or foods made with cheap ingredients such as sugar and wheat.
These energy-dense foods are typically low in fiber and high in sugar, salt, fat, cholesterol and
food additives—similar to what Winson (2004) describes as “pseudo foods.” Pseudo foods
provide overabundant calories and are low in nutrients such as proteins, minerals and vitamins.
Diets comprised of such foods lack bulk and consequently encourage eating more than the
body needs (Worcester 1996). Marketing of these high-fat low-fiber foods, especially to children,
is seen as an effective, and thus widely used, industry strategy (Gamble and Cotugna 1999;
Story and French 2004). Accordingly, there has been an upward shift in the energy density of
foods consumed, alongside an increase in edible oil and sugar intake, in both local and global
diets (Drewnoski and Popkin 1997; Popkin 2004; Popkin and Nielsen 2003).
The food industry has also been accused of supplying nutritional misinformation to consumers,
using supposedly conflicting evidence, and hiding negative data in the name of profit (Chopra
and Darnton-Hill 2004). These tactics reflect similar strategies used by tobacco companies such
as Philip Morris—an organization that has suppressed its own research, developed even more
addictive products, divided the tobacco control movement, and attempted to appear
responsible, all in the name of profit (McDaniel et al. 2006). Critics accuse industry of creating
an environment where consumers are misinformed about nutrition, thus encouraging greater
consumption. These strategies are linked to industry attempts to influence public health policy
more broadly (e.g. see Nestle 2002). For example, there is an ongoing battle between the sugar
industry and the World Health Organization (WHO) about dietary recommendations. In 2004,
the US sugar industry lobbied the Bush administration to challenge the WHO’s scientific findings
linking sugar to obesity and an accompanying dietary recommendation to limit sugar intake to
less than 10 percent of daily calories (Barrionuevo and Becker 2005; WHO 2003). Lobby groups
have also had their say about the US Food Pyramid (Nestle 1993). Corporate influence on
health guidelines is difficult to deny when, for example, food and beverage groups sponsor
many of the nutrition fact sheets produced by the American Dietetic Association (ADA) (e.g. ADA
2006). In sum, American society provides foods that are readily and easily accessible, in large
portions, and that are not necessarily healthy—a problem confounded by misinformation and
nutritional guidelines that, some have argued, encourage (over)consumption as they are
influenced by food industry lobby groups.

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