"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Addressing Obesity–Another Bad Regulatory Idea

Gyorgy Scrinis writing in The Guardian (7.30.13) has taken up the cudgel to hammer the food industry for playing the calorie game.  McDonald’s and other fast food chains have not balked at federal requirements to provide nutrition labeling for all their products, he says, because a) consumers can’t figure the charts out anyway; and, more importantly b) such focus on calories diverts attention away from the other pernicious aspects of their products:

An alternative to this nutrient-focused approach is to regulate food and beverage products and labeling based on production and processing quality. The composition, proportion, and quality of foods and ingredients should be made more clearly visible on food labels, rather than just drawing attention to the quantity of calories or nutrients.

One cause of concern for Scrinis is approach taken by fast food – shared responsibility between producer and consumer for obesity.  Yes, the industry says, our food contains calories; but you, Mr. and Mrs. Consumer, have the responsibility to eat within your dietary needs.

This is exactly right; but I would go one step further.  The real onus is on the consumer who should be able to figure out that a Big Mac, large fries, and a strawberry shake, amounting to over 1500 calories, pushes up to his recommended total daily recommended adult limit.

What does it take? The existing food labels are exhaustive and detailed.  What is so difficult about looking at the recommended daily caloric intake, checking the values for the fast food and saying, “Oops, better pass on the bacon”.

The key but simple calculation is to estimate caloric intake for the entire day.  Only if a consumer knows what his energy intake is for breakfast and dinner can he make an informed decision about lunch.  The 550 calories of a Big Mac in itself means nothing except within the context of total consumption.  If one is used to having only coffee for breakfast and fish and vegetables for dinner, than a Quarter Pounder with Cheese is well within daily limits.

This is not advanced calculus, and it is a one-shot deal.  Once a consumer has estimated values for breakfast, lunch and dinner (people tend to eat the same things every day), he then has an approximate nutritional context within which to make food choices.

Which is to say that industry and government have done their jobs, and it is now up to the consumer. If most consumers are uninterested in losing weight, are too dumb to master the third-grade math, or too ‘busy’ to be bothered, that is their problem; and laying the blame on the ‘exploitive, greedy, and manipulative’ food companies is plain wrong.

Scrinis, rather than pursuing other ways to address obesity (other than deporting fat people as New Zealand intends to do (http://www.foxnews.com/world/2013/07/29/man-may-be-deported-from-new-zealand-for-being-overweight/), Scrinis chooses to keep the food industry on the anvil and keep hammering away.  Not enough attention, he says, is paid to the even more insidious aspect of fast food – its yucky products. A calorie is not just a calorie, he intones.  A calorie in a Chicken McNugget, he says, is not the same as one in a carrot.  In other words, if you have a limited number of calories in your day, you should be choosing carrots, not a Family Meal.

What would Scrinis tell consumers on the FDA label?  “This Big Mac contains the equivalent of 20 carrots”? Or “By eating this Big Mac you are not eating the 20 carrots you should”?

Once ‘comprehensive labeling’ gets a toehold who knows where it might lead? A label might have to inform the customer what actually goes into a Big Mac.  Conspiracy theorists have suggested everything from monkey livers to pesticide-laced millet from Chad, and no way that is going on the label. Other activists want all food products to be labeled with information about how the food was processed – i.e. no sweatshop labor, humane treatment of animals, and eco-friendly farming.

If consumers don’t pay much attention to nutrition labeling now, can you imagine how indifferent they would become if information were provided on the well-being of the chicken, the care and nurturing of the cow, the living wage of chicken processors, how much the food has been irradiated or genetically modified, and the percentage of non-meat products in a hamburger?

What is missing from all of this, is that for many poor people a dinner out at MacDonald’s is one of the few lighter moments of a two-job, two-earner family with four kids.  It is tasty, cheap, and quick. You can be sure that Big Daddy will toss the food wrappers and their labeling into the trash without reading a thing; and the family will enjoy the meal.

This working poor family, by the way, eats shit food most of the time anyway.  Corn meal, fatback, fried catfish, bacon, and lard-cooked greens is a nice break from canned corn, frozen fish fingers, and Chef Boyardee.  It’s not they wouldn’t like something better, but they can’t afford it.  In other words, many if not most Americans have enough to worry about other than the mental health of the chickens chopped up for McNuggets.

It is only the well-educated consumer who might be interested in calorie counts, trans-fats, proportions of sugar and salt, and the organic nature of ingredients.  Most others want a tasty, filling, and cheap meal.

The pressure on fast food chains to offer lower calorie meals means little to them, for they know that consumers will simply eat more and spend more.  It is a little like the specious ‘Fleet Average’ that was imposed on car manufacturers.  GM could offered one car with reasonable gas mileage while tempting customers to go with the gas guzzler. Here is our new, nutritious, low-calorie burger; but if you want a really tasty meal, go for the double cheeseburger with bacon. Before Mayor Bloomberg was laughed at for his Nanny State proposals to limit the size of soft drinks, movie theatres and Seven Elevens were already figuring how to end run the possible restrictions. Two-for-ones have always been good revenue producers.  Or have a small Coke and a big popcorn for only $3.00.

Obesity is all about the consumers; and until they shape up, learn some arithmetic, and have the time, inclination, and economic possibility to do something about their weight, America will continue to be a nation of fatties.  Stop blaming industry.

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