Home > Energy Efficiency > 10 calories in, 1 calorie out

10 calories in, 1 calorie out

Last night, I attended Michael Pollan‘s lecture at UT’s Bass Concert Hall. My friend, Katie, had called me that morning to ask if I would be interested in joining her for the lecture – she knew that I had read three of Pollan’s books on food and had also found out that there were $10 student tickets to be had for the lecture. Long story short, at 740pm I found myself zipping down Guadalupe with Katie for my first Bass Concert Hall event in my tenure at UT.

Pollan’s lecture was interesting, engaging and funny. This was not surprising to me, after having read his books. The bags of groceries that he brought from the Fiesta across I-35 brought in the usual laughs (“Venom” who knew it was a drink??) and groans (Twinkies… ahh, the infamous Twinkie).  But, of all the things that he said last night about “food-like substances” and the problems with the Western diet, the thing that stuck in my head was the following….

10 calories in, 1 calorie out

According to Pollan, for every calorie of food that is produced in the United States, 10 calories of fossil fuel energy are put into the system to grow that food. By no means a break-even system.

I was chewing on this factoid as we left the lecture last night – just after Q&A started so we could miss the mad rush for the book signing line – musing through how our agriculture industry works today. We grow food – corn, wheat, sugar – and, while some of it ends up on our tables in their whole form, the majority of this food is sent to a plant for processing into what Pollan likes to call “food-like substances.”

For the purpose of this post, I won’t get into what is and is not food – but I would like to discuss the concept of putting more energy into our food than we are getting out of it.

10 calories in…. 1 calorie out…

To get food to my table, I will (on average) spend 10 calories for every 1 calorie that I consume. And, if I am like the rest of the US, my household will throw away 1.5 pounds of food each day – and all of the energy that it took to grow that good. Today, the food that Americans throw away uses approximately 2% of the energy we use in this country. That’s enough energy to power two Switzerlands.

And, this food is more likely to be sweet, fatty, and well… more than it was a few decades ago. More calories, more food. In the United States, our eating habits have changed significantly in the last few decades and while there have been some decreases in the consumption of certain types of food, the overall trend is MORE. More protein, more sugar. More.

Figure 1-1

As a result, we are spending more energy on our food – and our returns are pretty small (10 calories in… 1 calorie out).

Doesn’t sound very sustainable to me. How can we change this?

According to Pollan, we can save ourselves a lot of diabetes and heart disease if we eat more whole foods, more local foods. I wonder how much energy we could save by doing this.


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