So long, Krispy Kreme, and hello health

by Rob Tiller

It was bittersweet to learn last week that the Krispy Kreme store in downtown Raleigh was closing due to lack of business. When a business fails, individuals suffer hardships. As a downtown Raleigh resident, I’m particularly eager to see businesses here succeed.

And Krispy Kreme and I go way back. As a boy I was a patron of the first Krispy Kreme store, in Winston-Salem. There you could sit at the counter and eat hot glazed doughnuts while watching more fresh ones coming off the conveyer belt. It was one of the few places in town open 24 hours. After finishing my paper route at 5:30 a.m., I’d sometimes stop in there for a delicious sugary treat. It was also a favorite late night spot for teenage munchie runs. Good times.

But in recent years I’ve come to associate Krispy Kreme doughnuts and similar sweet products with less cheerful things, like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and death. The products are more like cigarettes than food. The nutritional content is minimal, and the high sugar and fat content are unhealthy. This is not exactly big news. In a sense, everyone knows that too much fat and sugar are bad for you. But it continues to be a difficult fact for people to face and do something about. That much is obvious from our obesity epidemic.

We’ve made slow but meaningful progress in the last 50 years addressing the deadly public health effects of smoking. We’ve substantially reduced smoking rates, and therefore smoking deaths. The basic facts about smoking and cancer are now common knowledge, as a result of government requirements for warnings on cigarette labeling and restrictions on cigarette advertising. We have not done anything like this with risky sweet food products that kill people.

If anything, we’ve headed in the opposite direction. Information about nutrition is obscured by industry and federal agencies. Our government transfers our tax dollars to agribusinesses as large subsidies for production of excess corn, which is processed into high fructose corn syrup and added to many common food items. Thus healthy unprocessed food seems unusual and, by comparison, expensive. Thousands of advertisements have convinced us that sweet, fatty food products produce good feelings of love and fun.

Sure, it’s possible to get sound nutrition information and it’s possible to eat in a healthy way, but our culture makes it quite challenging. People who make a point of trying to avoid unhealthy food are viewed with puzzlement and sometimes anger. It’s no fun being ridiculed as a food nut. It’s easier to go along with the crowd.

Lifetime Fitness gym recently published an article by Pilar Gerasimo titled “Being Healthy is a Revolutionary Act,” That’s putting it too strongly, but it is certainly an act that defies settled conventions. The related web site does a good job of putting in bumper-sticker form some home truths about health and nutrition. The first home truth gets down to business: “The Way We are Live Is Crazy,” based on our rates of obesity and chronic illness. But, it says, we can change.

Maybe so. If Krispy Kreme is doing less business, it probably isn’t because their doughnuts don’t taste good. They taste too good! It’s possible that more people are facing the fact that we can’t go on eating like this.