Live Well
April 2016

The Right to Choose the Right Food

This month’s blog post is about choice, and the right of consumers to exercise their choice. On one hand, the food industry believes that consumers shouldn’t be able to choose to purchase or not purchase foods which contain certain ingredients, and that the government can legislate this. Yet, on the other hand, the food industry believes that when it comes to sodas and junk foods people should be able to choose to purchase whatever they want, and that the government should not legislate this.

In case some of you were reading the news recently, you may have seen that the Senate did not pass a bill called Deny Americans the Right to Know Act, also known as the DARK Act. The bill sought to prohibit states from requiring companies to label Genetically Modified Organisms*. Consumers would then be left on their own to find out whether or not a food contains GMOs. The food industry fought a hard battle trying to force the government to prevent GMO labeling of foods. According to the Environmental Working Group, food companies spent $101 billion in 2015 to prevent GMO labeling. Fortunately, since the DARK Act did not pass, there is now an opportunity for Congress to pass a new bill that is beneficial to both consumers and the food industry.

Yet, when it comes to junk foods and sodas, food companies seem to want the least government intervention possible. As Marion Nestle discussed in her book Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (And Winning), soda companies pushed very hard to prevent the government from passing legislation to prevent sodas from being excluded from food stamp programs and to cap soda sales.

In other words, according to the food industry, it’s okay for the government to legislate about consumers’ right to know about the ingredients in their food but it’s not okay for the government to legislate about consumers’ decision to purchase foods that could potentially be harmful to their health. So, should consumers have the right to choose? Yes, I believe that consumers should be able to choose the foods that they want to eat. I also believe that the government should put the health of its citizens ahead of food companies’ bottom lines and should ensure that unhealthy foods are not marketed to children, minorities and those who face significant health risks by consuming those foods.

*Note: As I wrote in a previous blog post, genetic modification is a process whereby the genes of one species of plant or animal are inserted into the genes of another in order to give that plant or animal specific beneficial traits. The process of manual genetic modification differs from the natural breeding process because it takes genes from different species and attempts to combine them. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – the organisms that are the product of genetic modification – can be created with genes from insects, animals, humans, plants, bacteria or viruses. In addition to creating genetically modified organisms from different species, large chemical companies, like Monsanto, have been treating genetically modified crops (in particular, corn, soy, and cotton) which have built-in pesticides. The problem is that no one really knows what the health effects of eating GMOs is. In addition, GMOs have a high pesticide content, which has been shown to cause cancer.

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Soda Politics

by Marion Nestle

I just finished reading Marion Nestle’s latest book, Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (And Winning), which I found fascinating. Dr. Marion Nestle is Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and Professor of Sociology at New York University and has written extensively about food, healthy eating and the state of our food system. My two favorite books are What to Eat and Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health and I quote extensively from them in my own cookbook, Live, Eat, Cook Healthy: Simple, fresh, and delicious recipes for balanced living.

As we all know, we are in the midst of an epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes, among other chronic diseases. The main cause of these chronic diseases are poor diet, in particular excess consumption of sugar. Sugar is found in sodas, snacks, and other processed foods where it is used as a preservative. The average American consumes the equivalent of 22 teaspoons of sugar per day, which is roughly 3 times more than the amount we should be eating. For reference, a 12-ounce can or container of soda has 10 teaspoons of sugar. So, just drinking one 12-ounce container of soda takes us over our limit. And, as Nestle writes, “Soda companies produce and sell the equivalent of nearly two trillion 12-ounce servings of fountain or packaged beverages every year.” (p.90) This means that soda companies produce and sell twenty trillion teaspoons of sugar every year!

In her latest book, Nestle investigates the soda industry and its role in the epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes in the United States and around the world. Soda companies, just like big food companies and pharmaceutical companies, go to great lengths to maintain their hold on people. I see it as a somewhat double-edged marketing strategy: on the one hand, they purport to want to help fight obesity and type 2 diabetes by providing “healthier alternative” and yet, on the other hand, they spend billions of dollars to maintain their market share to ensure that people keep consuming their sodas and eating their snacks. As Nestle demonstrates in her book, big soda companies have quite a few tricks up their sleeve to ensure that people, especially children, minorities and the poor keep drinking sodas: actively marketing to children, minorities and people in developing countries; actively blocking legislation to cap soda sales or to exclude sodas from food stamp programs (as Nestle writes, “Soda companies may insist that the government do nothing to interfere with food choices, by they expect taxpayers to pick up the costs of treating the health problems that result from poor food choices.”(p.219)); supporting corporate social responsibility programs that support health and the environment, which are really another way for these companies to get “brownie points” with the public.

I thought the book was fascinating but it also left me very angry. What I was left wondering at the end of the book is whether the children of employees in soda companies are allowed to drink soda and, if not, whether these employees can sleep at night knowing what they know about the links between sodas and obesity and/or type 2 diabetes. Because, frankly, at this point, I think it’s a crime to keep selling junk foods and sodas to children, minorities, and people in developing countries.

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