American Capitalism and the Science of Scaling

Two books of tangential interest to the topic of processed foods have jumped out at me in recent weeks. One, Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism by Bhu Srinivasan, provides a more balanced view of corporations than we typically experience in our daily reading. He is not an unvarnished advocate of free-market capitalism and American exceptionalism. Neither is he a harsh critic of anything associated with corporations as many critics of Big Food appear to be. The other book that I chose to review this week is Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation and Sustainability in Organisms, Economies, Cities and Companies by Geoffrey West. West argues that we tend to view scaling up or down from a linear perspective when that assumption is not usually valid. His assessment suggests surprising outcomes for the use of BMI, life expectancy as it relates to chronic disease, and the damage a 2ºC global-temperature rise on food sustainability issues.

The best to you each morning

Every chapter in Americana is named after an economic interest representing a distinct period in American history. These topics are presented in a rough chronological order. Only one chapter was directly related to food detailing the exploits of the Kellogg brothers and other food innovators in the late 1800s. The Kelloggs were leaders of the clean-eating movement for better health in their time. Others such as John Pemberton were coming up with the latest foods and beverages that would promote health and wellbeing. Pemberton’s contribution was an elixir that he named Coca Cola. I remember being interviewed by a journalism student about the latest superfoods on the market. She asked, “Do you think any of these products will ever become mainstream?” I paused for a moment and then picked up one of the manye processed-food packages that littered the top of my filing cabinets—a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. “Here’s one that became mainstream,” I replied.

Unsanitary meat

The chapter on food also featured the impact of Upton Sinclair’s influential novel, The Jungle. The outcome was not exactly what Sinclair, the socialist, had in mind, but it did lead to the rise of Dr. Harvey Wiley who introduced scientific methods to assess food safety. The novel also was a factor in the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. It is a prime example of how the overreach of a poorly regulated industry can lead to rational, evidence-based reforms that benefit the general population without resorting to socialism. The food industry is now receiving great criticism from the popular press. Will it result in the similar governmental scrutiny and lead to a greater embrace of scientific solutions? The Food Safety Modernization Act is a science-based answer to pressing concerns, but food evangelists have other ideas of how to fix the industrialized food system. It will be interesting to see who prevails.

The good, the bad and the ugly of American capitalism

American capitalism has many black marks from the scourge of slave-trading to the manufacture and sale of implements of war and death. Even urban sprawl, the growth of suburbia and the corruption of Wall Street have had major, negative consequences for the environment and the American population. Other products such as the automobile and airplane have brought access to the country and world early American generations could never imagined. Neither car nor plane should ever have been allowed to flourish if we had followed the precautionary principle

it is better to avoid or mitigate an action or policy that has the plausible potential, based on scientific analysis, to result in major or irreversible negative consequences to the environment or public even if the consequences of that activity are not conclusively known, with the burden of proof that it is not harmful falling on those proposing the action.   

Along the way innovations in technology of steam, electricity and the digital age also helped bring us together and expand the American middle class despite some undesirable consequences. I suspect most of my readers would be unwilling to give up access to the device being used to view this posting.

The other book, Scale, brings a physics perspective to biology and endeavors of human activity.


The scale used for the BMI is a mathematical function termed the Quetelet index. It was proposed by Adolphe Quetelet in the early-to-mid 1800s to classify sedentary individuals. It has been adopted for use by the medical community to classify each of us by weight category. According to West in Scale, the BMI is NOT consistent with an increase in body fat. Actually, BMI is likely to underestimate obesity in short people like me and overestimate it in taller folks. The discussion reminded me of one of the seven principles of fruit and vegetable quality I developed in my research life

It is better to measure what is really important than to believe something is important because you measure it really well.

Life expectancy

Another interesting statistic described in Scale is how elimination of certain causes of death would affect life expectancy. I am not able to check the math on such estimations, but the projections, if true, are shocking. If, for example, heart disease was eliminated, life expectancy would increase by 6.7 years. Finding the cure for cancer, a goal advanced since I was a child, would only increase expected life by 3.4 years. No other cause of death studies, including respiratory and digestive diseases, would increase life by more than a year! I think the general expectation is that elimination of such diseases would extend lives much longer than these projections. West does indicate, however, that caloric restriction could be an effective way to increase length of life. Clean eating and most modern diets tend to be calorie-reduction plans despite protestations to the contrary by their advocates. Other interesting projections include the peak performance by body parts clusters around age 15, and it is all downhill from there.

Global warming and other human activities

Another area where scaling makes a difference is the effect of global warming. The predicted change in temperature of 2ºC doesn’t seem like that much. Scale points out that a temperature rise of 2ºC means an increase in plant metabolism of 20% which translates to similar increases in greenhouse gasses and other environmental factors. The 20% comes from the principle most of us learned in biology classes of Q10=2 which means that the metabolic rate doubles with every increase in temperature of 10ºC. West explores numerous other relationships including why cities seem to grow and live forever but organisms and corporations grow and die.

Summary and tie-ins

Too often we get drawn into controversies of the day by reacting and not thinking things through. Americana and Scale challenged me to rethink some of my cherished assumptions. It is not useful to think of capitalism as good or evil. Rather, corporate innovation can bring great benefits to society, but unchecked capitalism can have grave consequences. They are two sides of the same coin. Likewise, I need to stop assuming linear relationships in everyday life. In the remainder of the month I will be looking at some media interpretations of recent studies that appear to indict processed food.

Next week: Childhood obesity and a note on the BMI

BTW: Monday was national frozen food day—Thanks Rebecca

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