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|l||Too Much to Eat
Eat your till your heart's content?
Are you ready to pay a "sin" tax on that can of Coke and Pepsi? It is not as far-fetched as junk-food addicts might think. Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, proposed a two-cent tax on soda pop to fund education programs to combat the growing epidemic of childhood obesity and related diseases, such as heart disease and Type II diabetes.
Coke and Pepsico, and its friends in the junk food business, were none too crazy about the initiative, though it was supported by parents and public health officials. Yet it is a sign of things to come as parents are already complaining about the exclusive "pouring" contracts that Coke and Pepsi are battling over to sell their sugar-laden drinks to school children.
In California, the state legislature has already banned the sale of junk food by 2004, and other states such as Ohio, Minnesota, and New Mexico are debating whether to regulate the new fast-food-heavy "food courts" that are popping up in many middle and high schools.
This new movement to put a sin tax on junk food is just the latest battle in the 30-year war to define what is "healthy" to eat.
Food producers and marketers such as Kraft, (owned by Philip Morris), Unilever, Pepsico, Groupe Danone, and General Mills have quelled critics and dominated the debate over government nutrition standards. The food marketers have stopped the government from sending out clear nutritional guidelines about what is healthy to eat and what types of food should be avoided.
The fundamental problem is that affluent Americans consume too many calories dining on sweets, fast food, and sugar-based soft drinks. The data is quite startling. Americans on average eat 500 more calories in food than we did 30 years ago. At the same time, we are drinking less milk, but our thirst for soft drinks has doubled. And consumption of fat has also nearly doubled as evidenced by our expanding waistlines.
As a result, Americans have turned the famed food pyramid on its head. We eat more sweets and fats than fruit and vegetables, and do not get enough of bread, pasta, milk, and cheese.
In 1998, two-thirds of all new food products introduced were snacks, candies, baked goods, soft drinks and dairy products-including ice cream. And, hoping to profit on Americans' guilt for eating the wrong foods, marketers introduced a slew of "nutritionally enhanced" foods, such as low-fat cookies, vitamin-enhanced cereals, and calcium-enriched juice drinks.
New York University Nutrition Professor Marion Nestle finds little to cheer about regarding the current state of the food industry. A veteran of the 1990s nutrition battles, Nestle, in her new book, Food Politics, portrays an industry out of control and easily able to manipulate federal regulators and nutritionists alike.
When Nestle was hired in the mid-1980s by the U.S. Public Health Service to help edit the Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health, she was given some practical political advice. No matter what the research on saturated fat, salt, and cholesterol suggested, never recommend that Americans should "eat less meat" as a way to reduce saturated fat and prevent such chronic health problems as heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
In the Reagan era, it was best not to irritate food producers who could make a lot of noise in Congress and squash the report. In the final report in 1988, Nestle inserted the less offensive "eat lean meats" and suggested limits on sugar for people with dental cavities.
In the late 70s, liberal icon Sen. George McGovern, head of the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, set off a firestorm by suggesting that mainstream Americans simply eat too much-period. In 1977, McGovern released a groundbreaking report that called for "eating less" to battle obesity, diabetes, and other "killer diseases." The report, "Dietary Goals for the United States," called for Americans to eat more fruit, vegetables, whole grains, poultry, and fish. The South Dakota liberal encouraged Americans to cut back on eating meat, eggs, butterfat, sugar, and salt. McGovern also urged American consumers to switch from whole milk to skim milk.
The food producers, especially cattle ranchers and dairy processors, revolted. They were extremely upset that their foods might be "bad for you." Cattle ranchers from McGovern's home state wanted the report to be tabled. Meat and egg producers got a new hearing to express their fury. And former Sen. Bob Dole, a member of the committee, offered Wray Finney, president of the National Cattlemen's Association, an alternative to the suggestion to "decrease consumption of meat." Dole proposed the now popular notion of "increasing consumption of lean meats." Finney replied: "Decrease is a bad word, Senator."
McGovern relented to the pressure and issued a revised version of the dietary report a few months later. It beefed-up advice on obesity and alcohol consumption, but allowed increased consumption of salt and substituted the "eat less" meat recommendation with the more political "choose meats, poultry, and fish, which will reduce saturated fat intake."
That was the last time the U.S. government ever stated that America should eat less. Over the last decade, the food industry has spent a considerable amount of money and clout to restore its public image and tone up its political muscles on Capitol Hill.
But what can be done to rein in the food industry? Nestle, an academic, provides few answers other than to patronize farmer's markets and buy more organic produce. What's needed is nothing short of a new "eat less" movement that will get the American government to establish clear dietary guidelines based on health standards that have been recognized for decades. It's really a matter of forcing politicians to have the backbone to stand up to the food and snack companies.
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