Fast food

Diet dilemmas

Photo: George D Thompson

In his most recent column the NYT’s John Tierney — a conservative political columnist turned “skeptical” science columnist — objects to NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to reduce New Yorkers’ salt intake. He compares the proposed new policy to a mandatory experiment in which residents are unwitting (and possibly unwilling) participants.

…Why bother with consent forms when you can automatically enroll everyone in the experiment?

And why bother with a control group when you already know the experiment’s outcome? The city’s health commissioner, Thomas R. Frieden, has enumerated the results. If the food industry follows the city’s wishes, the health department’s Web site announces, “that action will lower health care costs and prevent 150,000 premature deaths every year.”

But that prediction is based on an estimate based on extrapolations based on assumptions that have yet to be demonstrated despite a half-century of efforts. No one knows how people would react to less-salty food, much less what would happen to their health.

Put aside the fact that Bloomberg is, according to the policy announcement, attacking “packaged foods and mass-produced restaurant meals” (i.e processed and fast foods) and not real restaurant food (much less an individual’s salt shaker) — a point that Tierney conviently ignores. Also put aside the fact that such foods have positively frightening levels of added sodium. And even put aside the fact that we have much more to fear from the massive biological experiment (in which we are all unwitting participants) represented by the vast sea of effectively untested industrial chemicals in which we swim on a daily basis.

Rather, the fundamental problem with Bloomberg’s approach is to try to address health one nutrient at a time. Bloomberg and his health commissioner point to their “success” limiting trans fats as a model for the salt reduction policy. But trans fats, which are so potently bad for your health, are frankly more similar to a poison than a nutrient. While they do occur in trace amounts in nature, trans fats are just a manufactured food additive that play no role in human nutrition.  Their presence in processed food is a by-product of food companies’ search for inexpensive ingredients with a long shelf-life (i.e. partially hydrogenated vegetable oils).  We had no business eating trans fats and never would have if not for the efforts of food processors and manufacturers.

Trans fat bans are thus the exception to the nutrition rule (and thus more like toxic substance regulations), not the model on which to base all future policies. Indeed, it’s the nutrient-based guidelines that have gotten us in the pickle we’re in now, and it’s why you can eat Froot Loops and M&Ms for breakfast, a cheeseburger for lunch and 3 slices of pepperoni pizza for dinner and still stay safely within the USDA food pyramid.

Meanwhile this ongoing focus on nutrients just keeps the food companies happy as they get to roll out new products based on the latest food fad. To wit: according to the WaPo, we’re now seeing processed food with fewer ingredients. Five ingredient ice cream (which Haagen Dasz has introduced) is great — who needed that carrageenan and guar gum anyway. And corn chips that just have three ingredients are, well, better than corn chips with 15 ingredients, most of which were unpronounceable. But I’m reminded of the Jay Leno-era Doritos tagline, i.e. “Crunch all you want. We’ll make more.” And that’s exactly the issue right there.

Because until the USDA or NYC or someone attacks calorie-dense, nutrient-poor processed foods (and soft drinks) as the problem and until they come up with a solution that makes whole foods like fruits and vegetables cheaper (not just competitive, but cheaper) than their processed cousins, we’ll stay on the nutrition merry-go-round getting dizzier and dizzier and fatter and fatter as we keep reaching for the brass ring — the one nutrient that will solve all our problems if only we eat enough of it.

Perhaps the key is to throw out the food pyramid and go with a calorie-based “food budget” — budgeting being the new national pasttime. Whole foods have fewer calories but fill you up. Processed foods give you far more calories by weight — you consume more calories before you feel full. Getting governments behind those sort of guidelines would be far more effective than nickel-and-diming processed food ingredient lists. But that, of course, would require going directly up against the food industry behemoths. You can’t approach them as partners (a fundamental aspect of many of these nutrition policies) when you’re advocating wholesale abandonment of their products. And politicians, no matter how much salt you take away, simply don’t have the stomach for that fight.