Food Fight

The ongoing debate on whether or not junk food and/or ads that promote it should be regulated is a difficult issue for me. On the one hand, I am not in favor of certain measures that smack of “nanny state.” On the other hand…
  • I do support some measures, like seatbelt laws and laws restricting use of cell phones while driving (the latter mostly because as a pedestrian I’ve been nearly killed too many times to count by distracted drivers).
  • We humans have a innate drive for sweet and salty tastes that can be, and has been, easily exploited.
  • Advertising can exert a powerful influence on us, whether we realized it or not. Study after study has confirmed this, and food manufacturers would not spend billions and billions of dollars on advertising if it didn’t work.
  • Children are innocent and not yet worldly-wise, and so are even more susceptible to the billions and billions of dollars in advertising that are directly targeted to them.
  • There is an established precedent that people are far more likely to adopt certain healthy habits (seatbelts, installing child-safety guards on windows of high-rise apartment buildings) when they are mandated by law (and not so much when they are simply promoted through public health campaigns).
For me, the debate about restricting junk food advertising is less murky. Limiting advertising doesn’t restrict access to these foods or take away anyone’s choice to eat these foods or not. What it does do is reduce the triggers that can prompt people to reach for (or drive to the store to buy) these foods. Are you really choosing to eat a food if you don’t want it until you happen to see an ad for it.
The debate about restricting junk food itself is more problematic. How would you define junk food? To me, it smacks a bit of obscenity laws (“I’ll know it when I see it.”) Most people would agree that cheap mass-market potato chips are junk food, but what about an “upscale” organic brand? Is a cellophane-wrapped snack cake from a convenience store junk food? What about a chocolate cake from Whole Foods? French fries from a fast food chain with millions of outposts around the world? French fries served with a gourmet, lamb burger at a French bistro? Yeah, talk about a big gray area.
It’s been said by many people more knowledgeable than I that the place we are at right now in the discussion about the role of junk food, fast food and other highly processed high-calorie-low-nutrient foods in the epidemics of obesity and chronic disease that are plaguing our country (and other countries that have adopted our Western-style diet) is very similar to the place we were in half a century ago in the discussion about the role of cigarettes in lung cancer and other diseases. This debate is not clear-cut, either. I mean, cigarettes and tobacco are absolutely non-essential and have been clearly linked to disease. Food, in general, is essential, even if junk food isn’t. Trouble is, it’s a bit trickier to establish cause-and-effect between crappy food and disease, because people who eat a lot of crappy food may be more likely to not exercise, which has its own associations with disease.
I don’t think too many people will argue that obesity and chronic diseases aren’t problems, and that eating junk food probably isn’t the best thing for us to do, and that, yes, those things may be somehow related. But what to do, what to do? In case you missed this video story on the New York Times website a few months ago, it provides some food for thought about the scope of the childhood obesity problem, the role junk food plays, and what some parents are doing about it.