We'll need more than cheerleading to change our food system.
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Encouragement isn’t enough — we need laws.

Mrs. Obama — can I call you Michelle? — do you have a minute? I know you’re on tour right now, but I think you and I need to have a little chat.

First off, childhood obesity is a major crisis, and your Let’s Move! anti-obesity campaign is an important initiative. The report your Presidential Task Force on Childhood Obesity produced was a landmark document, and you’ve brought new and essential attention to the ways the nation must address the obesity and diabetes epidemic.

But your latest move? Expecting the processed-food companies and retail giants to spearhead the move to healthy eating? It’s just not going to happen. I hope that’s not too harsh, but I wanted to be straight with you after reading your recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “The Business Case for Healthier Food.” In it, you declare that:

Every day, great American companies are achieving greater and greater success by creating and selling healthy products. In doing so, they are showing that what’s good for kids and good for family budgets can also be good for business.

And then you laud Walmart and Walgreens for expanding their selection of fresh fruits and vegetables and Disney for “eliminating ads for junk foods from its children’s programming.”

Kudos to them, but that’s all about “selling.” What about “creating”? You give a nod to restaurants “cutting calories, fat and sodium from menus and offering healthier kids’ meals.” Now, that’s not nothing: Americans spend 40 percent of our food budgets eating out. But the rest goes to food we eat at home, and of that, we spend over 20 percent on processed food, and about 8 percent on soda and other sweetened beverages. That’s a big chunk of our daily caloric intake, not to mention our paychecks. And it’s not something you can ignore when you’re talking about any business case involving food.

You did once call on food companies to improve their products. Do you remember that time you went in front of the Grocery Manufacturers Association and said this?

We need you not just to tweak around the edges, but to entirely rethink the products that you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children. …

While decreasing fat is certainly a good thing, replacing it with sugar and salt isn’t. And it doesn’t mean compensating for high amounts of problematic ingredients with small amounts of beneficial ones — for example, adding a little bit of Vitamin C to a product with lots of sugar, or a gram of fiber to a product with tons of fat doesn’t suddenly make those products good for our kids … This isn’t about finding creative ways to market products as healthy. As you know, it’s about producing products that actually are healthy — products that can help shape the health habits of an entire generation.

Right on!

Except that was three years ago, and you’ve said not a peep on that subject since then. Instead we get empty platitudes on how healthy food is good for business. Well, the processed-food industry knows that what’s really good for business is engineering food products that hit consumers’ “bliss point” of flavor and texture. I’m going to let Michael Moss of the New York Times lay it out for you:

The public and the food companies have known for decades now — or at the very least since this meeting — that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities that we consume them. So why are the diabetes and obesity and hypertension numbers still spiraling out of control? It’s not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer and a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of the food manufacturers. What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive.

And you know what? That makes perfect sense. These companies are not charities. They make money making food products. They want those products to cost as little as possible to produce and to be so irresistible that consumers eat them every day (or more!).

To achieve that addictive quality, food companies go beyond just tweaking flavors and levels of sweet, fat, and salt. They also pour dozens of chemicals — a veritable industrial stew — into their products. Moss peeks behind the curtain to see how the Wizards of Oscar Mayer concoct their sure-to-be-pleasing products — and that’s scary enough. But Melanie Warner, in her book Pandora’s Lunchbox, takes it a step further and rifles through their cabinets to report what kind of chemicals they’re putting in this “food.” She uses as an example the Subway Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki Sandwich:

Ms. Warner reveals the 105 ingredients of Subway’s Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki Sandwich. The chicken alone contains such chemicals as potassium chloride (salt), maltodextrin (a starchy thickener), autolyzed yeast extract (a cheap substitute for MSG), gum arabic (tree sap used as a stabilizer), soy protein concentrate (cheap protein additive), and sodium phosphates (more salt!). The Italian white bread, meanwhile, comes equipped with ammonium sulfate (inorganic salt often used in fertilizer), azodicarbonamide (a flour bleaching agent), potassium iodate (a maturing agent for increasing the speed of baking dough), sodium stearoyl lactylate (a fat and sugar replacement for dough conditioning) and natural flavor (natural!). Some of these ingredients provide flavor (autolyzed yeast extract); some extend shelf life (ammonium sulfate); others are simply cheaper than alternatives (soy protein concentrate).

And this from a chain that advertises itself as a healthy alternative! These ingredients are also commonly found in store-bought processed foods. Of course, the industry would argue that it needs each and every one of these chemicals to help the product either reach its bliss point or maintain its freshness for the weeks or months it will sit on a grocery store shelf.

All of which is to ask, Michelle, can this stuff ever be truly healthy? You were right the first time. The answer is no.

Any anti-obesity campaign that ignores the chemical environment — both within the foods that millions of Americans eat as well as within the products that surround us — risks failure.

The power of the food industry, or rather, the power its creations have over us, is too great. Healthy food may be good for business. But unhealthy food is far better. That’s what New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg understands. Yes, restricting access to products designed to make us happy might, in the short term, make us less happy. But it will also make us more healthy — and we will learn to find happiness somewhere other than at the bottom of a Doritos bag or a two-liter bottle of soda.

As a nation we’ll need more than cheerleading to get us there, Michelle. We’ll need laws. Who better to push for them than you?