Food, marketing, and laws--how to encourage healthy food consumption?
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
As I'm getting ready to cook lunch, I noticed that our canola oil is labeled "0 Trans fats." This confused me. Trans fats are partially hydrogenated unsaturated fats--basically taking an unsaturated, relatively healthy fat (like canola oil or olive oil) and adding hydrogen molecules to the chain--making it more saturated and less fluid--more like butter and less like oil. The reason processed foods are made with partially hydrogenated oils is because hydrogenated oils have a longer shelf life. But vegetable oils are, by nature, unsaturated--why would they ever have had trans fats in them? Wouldn't that defeat the point of buying oil (as opposed to, say butter) to begin with?
It's probably some marketing scheme to make my oil seem healthier, because trans fats are the latest health boogy man. Which is not to say that trans fats are healthy, because they are very unhealthy for you--worse than regular saturated fats, even--but just because something has "0 grams of trans fats" doesn't make it healthy.
I've read a lot recently about lobbyists trying to get governments to pass laws to either restrict unhealthy foods (such as a British doctor trying to get the UK to ban butter) or to pass taxes or other incentives to reduce consumption (such as in soft drinks, salt, and "junk" food). I am not sure what I think of these law changes.
On the one hand, I understand the logic. With the rapid rise in obesity in the last few decades, and the accompanying health problems (heart attacks, diabetes, etc.), obesity is costing the public a lot of money--both directly (such as increases in Medicare and Medicaid costs) and indirectly (such as treatments for the uninsured, which drives up everyone's health costs). It's essentially the same logic used to justify the luxury taxes on tobacco and alcohol. Taxes on these products is intended to off set the costs.
However, the goal of these new health-taxes is not to recoup costs but rather reduce the levels of salt consumption and obesity and so forth. Did the tax on tobacco reduce tobacco consumption? I don't know; I would have thought that it was public health campaigns emphasizing the health risks of tobacco that made the difference, not the tax. In fact, among the lower income smokers I know, the cost of cigarettes causes them to buy cheaper brands (often with worse filters and so actually less healthy) but does not cause them to buy fewer cigarettes. Will a tax on pizza and potato chips actually cause people to spend less money in the long run on junk food? Wouldn't it make at least as much sense to make healthy food--such as fresh vegetables and meat without additives--less expensive?
I think it makes sense for governments to want to lower the consumption of unhealthy foods; I'm just not convinced that taxes or legal restrictions is the answer. Obesity and heart disease are clearly society wide concerns, and something needs to be done to turn the ride on both, but these are complicated illnesses without clear cut roots. Soft drinks alone don't cause obesity. I actually drank significantly more soft drinks back in my "skinny" days than I did after I got married--which is when I put on all this weight. In fact, I put on a lot of this weight while eating a lot more healthy foods, like salads and fresh fruit and vegetables. Obesity is the result of eating more calories (wherever those calories come from) than burned. It results from a combination of diet, activity level, and metabolism. Our sedentary lifestyles is at least as much to blame for our society wide obesity as the food we eat. Yet are we talking about also taxing our cable? Our couches? Our cars? Any real, effective solution has to take the whole picture into consideration, not just a fragment.
That said, I would love to see tasty, healthy foods on the market that are lower in salt. It's very hard to eat a low salt diet these days if you 1) eat out at all and 2) don't cook from scratch. Time is a big factor for me; I don't like to cook and I hate spending time cooking when I'm always pressed for time. I confess if it takes me more than a few minutes to put lunch together, most days it's not going to happen. But processed foods are loaded in salt as a rule (even my daily soft drink has 65 mg of salt in it!) and canned foods are among the worst. Yes, there are already low salt alternatives out there of at least some things, and some of those low-salt or salt free versions I buy, and we rarely add salt when we cook. But a lot of the low-salt canned goods on the market, while healthier, also taste terrible. I don't know why. When we make homemade soup, it's loaded in flavor, not salt--why is it so hard to do that with canned goods?
Maybe if the government encouraged restaurants to reduce the salt--or maybe even required restaurants to post their salt levels, just as packaged foods do--it would encourage companies to find tasty alternatives? Certainly the campaign to reduce trans fats in our foods has been effective in at least reducing, if not eliminated, trans fat consumption--without taxes or making trans fats illegal, and without sacrificing flavor. Would something similar work with salt? It would be wonderful if it did.