INSIGHTS: ADDICTIONS TO UNHEALTHY FOODS SHOULDN’T REQUIRE GOVERNMENT REGULATION
By Guest Columnist Jayson Lusk:
Professor of Agricultural Economics and author of the newly released book The Food Police: A Well Fed Manifesto about the Politics of Your Plate (Crown Forum, 2013).
He blogs at www.jaysonlusk.com. (Reprinted with permission from Townhall.com)
Michael Moss’s New York Times bestselling book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us is the latest in a long stream of journalistic exposés decrying the state of food and agriculture in America. The work has been met with fawning praise. Although his book melds with the emerging cultural narrative about food, Moss’s book is overwrought.
Moss reveals a shocking secret: food manufacturers diligently and deliberately try to make foods we like to eat; foods that are alluring and tempting. If food companies aren’t doing that I’m not sure why they exist. Martha Stewart, Mark Bittman, and Paula Dean don’t explicitly refer to the science of bliss points in their kitchens but you can bet they intuitively know how much sugar is too little and how much is too much. Their published recipes almost certainly reflect hundreds of attempts to find the ingredient combinations that taste best.
We expect nothing less from food companies, cookbook authors, and restaurant chefs. And we expect nothing less from authors either. Moss and I diligently and deliberately tried to write compelling, page-turning books with alluring covers designed by experts in the New York publishing business to attract consumers and tempt them to buy. We want the pleasure centers of our readers’ brains to light up when we tell a good story or make a compelling turn of phrase.
What is the alternative? Regulate food companies to make un-tasty food?
For all the talk of scientific bliss points and allusions to companies powerfully manipulating our taste buds, Moss’s book inadvertently reveals how little power food companies actually have. They spend hundreds of millions on advertising and promotion to try to convince us to buy their wares. Yet, all the flashy signs, well-crafted brand images, and corporate logos reveal another truth. Without all this stuff, we’d probably just ignore them and their scientifically optimized foods.
There is a key contradiction underlying Moss’s work. In one instance, he asks a food executive, “What if some of these products are so tasty, people can’t resist eating them?” Yet, elsewhere he argues that taste is not a sufficiently powerful allure to keep us coming back. After warning readers of how hard Food Giants work at making great-tasting food, Moss lets us in on a secret: “The selling of food matters as much as the food itself. If not more.” In fact, the allure of the best-selling soft drink “is derived as much from what goes on to the can or bottle than what goes into it.”
Despite their supposed prowess in food science and advertising, Moss barely alludes to the fact that food companies normally fail. Yet, his own statistics, offered in passing, reveals that two-thirds of all new food products fail to survive on the market after the first few months. But, this isn’t a side-line fact. It is key evidence against his argument that food companies are foisting anything they want on gullible consumers.
Narcotic-like, addiction, hooked. These are words that appear repeatedly in Moss’s book. However, calling salt, sugar, and fat addictive is stretching the science to fit an agenda. Is it really surprising to learn that sugar activates reward centers of our brain? Or that ice cream makes us happy? Using the studies cited to claim sugar, salt, and fat are addictive comes dangerously close to being able to call anything pleasurable addictive. If reading a good book or playing baseball with the kids activates a brain reward center, they too, following this line of reasoning, are addictive. The argument is tantamount to demonizing pleasure. It is modern day Puritanism. And it is demeaning to those who suffer from legitimate addictions.
Ultimately, one wonders whether Moss even believes his addition theme is true. He writes of one study in which, after a few days, “the subjects had, in effect, unhooked themselves from salt.” “Unhooked” is a word scarcely uttered in meetings of Alcoholic Anonymous or among ex-smokers.
I suspect Moss and I disagree about the value the average consumer derives from convenience and taste, and as a consequence are likely to have competing conceptions about the normative consequences of the changes in food brought about in the past fifty years and the desirability of government regulation aimed at reversing it. There is, however, one sentiment of Moss’s that I can whole heartedly endorse, and it is his last: “They may have salt, sugar, and fat on their side, but we, ultimately, have the power to make choices. After all, we decide what to buy. We decide how much to eat.”
If you want the Food Giants to sell healthier food, then buy their salads, wraps, and low-fat alternatives. Pointing the finger at Food Giants may sell books but it doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to choose wisely for ourselves.
ON THE ECONOMY: MAKING DECISIONS ABOUT SNAP IS NOT A SNAP
By Doug Mackey:
Economist, John Dunham & Associates
The United States food assistance program has come a long way since government cheese – the cheese that the United States Department of Agriculture produced from surplus milk and gave to the neediest Americans. Those in dire need used to receive food stamps from the government and also receive free cheese. In the 1990s, nutritional assistance transitioned from food stamps to SNAP cards – preloaded monthly cards that could be spent on food items at grocery stores and other convenience stores. The stigma associated with government cheese and food stamps used to be very real for the neediest amongst us, and the SNAP card eliminated some of this stigma. Now, state and city governments are seeking to return to the days of paternalism and stigma with proposals to limit or even eliminate foods arbitrarily deemed “junk food” from the SNAP program – proposals that may hurt the economy and fail to reduce obesity.
The evidence that SNAP benefits increase or cause obesity is weak. As the USDA pointed out in a 2007 white paper entitled “Implications of Restricting the Use of Food Stamp Benefits,” roughly 70 percent of SNAP recipients only receive supplementary benefits and are expected to buy a portion of their food with their own money. These SNAP recipients are free to buy junk food with their own money and use their SNAP on healthy foods if restrictions were to be enacted. The USDA also found that SNAP recipients are just as likely to consume a daily soda as other Americans, and they actually are less likely to eat sweets or salty snacks daily.
Also, the paternalistic attitude that poor people ought to be educated into buying healthy foods because they are unable to feed themselves properly does not align with reality. There is no evidence that obesity amongst the poor is caused by SNAP benefits. The evidence even suggest that that “vegetables, fruits, grain products, meat and meat alternatives account for nearly three quarters of the money value of food used by food stamp households,” according to a 2005 USDA study cited in a May 2013 Chicago Tribune editorial.
SNAP restrictions may also hurt the economy. In these tough economic times, grocery stores would feel the costly burden of complying with proposed restrictions. A recent proposal by the legislature in Wisconsin illustrates the problems of complexifying SNAP. According to Politifact, fresh produce, white potatoes, beef, pork, chicken, and fish, would be on the healthy foods list in the Wisconsin proposal, while organic milk, cereal, bread and canned or dried peas, beans and lentils would not.
The wish to make more people healthy may arise from a benevolent sentiment, but in this case the evidence suggests that policies that restrict SNAP benefits are highly unlikely to improve public health and highly likely to hurt the economy. It turns out that solving the problem of obesity cannot be done in a snap.
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