(Dis)Agreement: As American As Apple Pie (à la Mode)

The looming budget disaster is being nudged in the headlines by another burgeoning national crisis: Our ever-increasing waistlines. The two issues share some similarities: Everybody agrees there is a serious problem but they radically disagree over how to address it. Meanwhile, things just get worse.

Mark Bittman, a foodie turned op-ed columnist for the New York Times, reignited one controversial solution to the obesity problem yesterday when he advocated taxing food that is bad for us -- "soda, French fries, doughnuts and hyperprocessed snacks" -- and using the proceeds to subsidize the market for healthy foods "seasonal greens, vegetables, whole grains, dried legumes and fruit."

He believes the benefits would be twofold: People would eat less unhealthy food because it costs more, and they'd eat more healthy food because it costs less.

"The food industry appears incapable of marketing healthier foods," he writes. "And whether its leaders are confused or just stalling doesn't matter, because the fixes are not really their problem. Their mission is not public health but profit, so they'll continue to sell the health-damaging food that's most profitable, until the market or another force skews things otherwise."

So, Bittman writes, it's the government's responsibility to fulfill its "role as an agent of the public good." Will this upset the processed food industry? Of course. "Oh well," Bittman writes.

Well, we all know that it already has "upset" the industry and it's not just kvetching to each other at industry get-togethers or writing irate letters to the editor. Highly organized opposition to so-called soda taxes has popped up wherever they have been proposed on a local basis, from New York City to San Francisco. And it generally attacks the concept from two positions: "we the people" don't want any more taxes and why are you, the big, bad government getting involved in the first place?

"Give me a break," as the irate lady cruising the supermarket aisles says in this ad for Americans Against Food Taxes. "I can decide what to buy without government help. The government is just getting too involved in out personal lives."

American Against Food Taxes "is a coalition of concerned citizens -- responsible individuals, financially strapped families, small and large businesses in communities across the country -- opposed to the government tax hikes on food and beverages, including soda, juice drinks, and flavored milks."

Oh, not to mention Pepsi Bottling Group, Pepsi Bottling Ventures, Pepsi Northwest Beverages, PepsiAmericas, Inc., PepsiCo, Inc., Pepsi-Cola & National Brand Beverages, Pepsi-Cola Bottlers Association and more than a dozen other Pepsi-Cola Bottling Cos. from around the country, along with the other usual suspects.

Trouble is that a recent study out of Northwestern University shows that soda taxes "don't actually help obese people lose weight, largely because people with weight problems already tend to drink diet soda rather than the sugary kind," Tara Thean reports in Time. "So taxing full-calorie sodas may not help many Americans make better dietary choices."

(Interestingly, Bittman's proposal explicitly excludes diet soda, although there is a case to be made that any more than about one a day is also bad for you.)

"Price sensitivity is not what's driving the results I'm getting," Ketan Patel, the study's lead author, tells Thean. "But he admits that the research "could not predict whether a soda tax would help prevent people from consuming sweetened drinks in the first place and becoming fat later on" -- one of several counterpoints raised by Kelly Brownell, the director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

In other obesity-fighting news, "executives from Wal-Mart, Walgreens, SuperValu and other stores joined Michelle Obama at the White House on Wednesday to announce a pledge to open or expand a combined 1,500 stores in communities that have limited access to nutritious food and are designated as 'food deserts,'" Sean Collins Walsh reported in the New York Times Thursday. Wal-Mart corporate affairs chief Leslie Dach told reporters that the company had conducted research that shows ways "we can serve customers and shareholders at same time," Dow Jones Newswires' Karen Talley reports.

The idea, of course, is to bring healthy foods to areas that traditionally only see heavily process fare and fast-food joints -- low-income areas where more than 500 people, or 33% of the population, lives more than one mile from an affordable food store, or 10 miles in rural areas, according to the Department of Agriculture.

"With your commitments today, you all are showing us what's possible," said Michelle Obama to the assembled food company executives. "This isn't some mysterious issue that we can't address. We know the answer. It is right there."

There is, of course, a report out there that says that access to grocers bearing healthy fare doesn't improve diets. "The study, which tracked thousands of people in several large cities for 15 years, found that people didn't eat more fruits and vegetables when they had supermarkets available in their neighborhoods," writes the Los Angeles Times' Daniela Hernandez. "Instead, income -- and proximity to fast-food restaurants -- were the strongest factors in food choice."

"This raises the serious issue of how we get people to eat healthy," says lead author Barry Popkin, director of the Nutrition Transition Program at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Okay, can we all agree with Michelle Obama on this, then?

"Kids emulate what they see. You don't have to make a lecture if you're living it," she says in the cover story in the August print edition of Better Homes and Gardens, "Fresh and Healthy: Ideas and Inspiration To Help American Families Eat Right."

Agree? Sure. Agree on a solution?

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3 comments about "(Dis)Agreement: As American As Apple Pie (à la Mode) ".
  1. Rachel Geller from The Geppetto Group , July 25, 2011 at 8:22 a.m.

    Mark Bittman is clearly not involved in a serious way in the obesity debate in the marketing community. Marketers, including the ones you mentioned, are working very hard to find healthy options that people who need to change their habits will buy. The problem is, that obese people already know what they should do, but find it too difficult on an ongoing, life changing way, for a variety of social and psychological reasons. Mark Bittman should try going to Overeaters Anonymous to get an inkling of what it is to be obese. Taxing high calorie foods and aiding healthy ones will give back money to the affluent and thin who don't need the break, and punish the low income and obese. It will not change their behaviors.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , July 25, 2011 at 9:35 a.m.

    There is not one thing that will help this road to suicide. There are many. Have you seen the photos that Dr. Oz showing interal fat over internal organs ? It's impressive. And see all of those people who live into their 80's and 90's ? How many people are obese ? Let's hear it from the Pinocchio Group, too.

  3. Jonathan Hall from The Hall Water Report , July 25, 2011 at 10:06 a.m.

    The elephant in the room, of course, is that while consumers absolutely want healthier products, Congress continues to support Farm Subsidies that keep sugar and corn commodities low. The problem is that the obesity crisis is unsustainable from a health $ perspective -- all toll $300 bil annually and growing. Also, as Prof. Patrick O'Neil points out ("Weight Loss Through the Ages" Library of Congress presentation transcript, Jan 2011) "There is certainly a role for personal responsibility but we've got to sort of be able to think about the part that the obese person can play in rectifying their situation while appreciating all of these other factors that are making it perhaps more difficult for many of them"