Obesity Crisis in America: Why Better Labels, Not Bans, Will Combat Obesity Epidemic

I’ve written before that food bans are a bad way to combat obesity and other diet related health problems. But not because they erode freedoms — because they don’t work. They don’t work because they do little to address the root causes of obesity, which (ironically) have everything to do with personal freedom. Better labeling will empower consumers to choose healthier foods and insure that our choices about what to eat

Each of us chooses what we eat based on a variety of constraints and incentives. French fries are easily gotten and taste a lot better than carrots, which may also be difficult to find and more expensive in some neighborhoods. It’s an easy choice, especially if you’re poor, in a hurry, or just don’t know any better.

So what do we do to persuade, rather than coerce, the average American to make better food choices and take more responsibility for their diets? How do we get people to act as if their health is on the line when considering a Big Mac versus a salad?

We enforce food labeling. Food labeling could be a catalyst for a new American diet, one lower in unhealthy, over-processed food and higher in the types of healthy ingredients that prevent health problems in the first place.

Forcing companies to label their products is a decidedly liberal thing to do. It’s big government come to roost in the grocery aisles.

But, paradoxically, it should find favor in conservative circles as well. Why? Because choice is preserved. Requiring labels is not a ban or restriction. It is offering information with the intention of empowering consumers to make the choices that they want to make, instead of those that government or business want them to make.

So what is wrong with requiring a corporation to actually tell people in plain English what is in their products? A reputable company with nothing to hide should not balk at doing so. The additional labeling should not incur burdensome costs or tarnish the company’s reputation in any way — unless there is a good reason for the food industry to hide their practices or ingredients.

Will the revelation of industry practices and ingredients cause consumers to think twice before picking up that box of “food?” Is there an industry-wide fear that consumers will think twice about questionable ingredients and stock prices will crash? This is undoubtedly a bad outcome from a business perspective, but from a health perspective, it is good for people to know exactly what they are ingesting.

The ongoing battle in California over GMO labeling illustrates this well. Monsanto, Pepsi Co. and other big food companies are pouring millions of dollars into the campaign to defeat Prop 37. What are these companies afraid of? According to the Christian Science Monitor, “Proponents say that consumers have a right to know what kinds of food they are buying and eating, while opponents say it would produce a system too burdensome on food sellers and distributors and needlessly costly to consumers.”

Manufacturers in other industries, most notably the automobile industry, have had to deal with California’s generally stricter laws for decades. Why should the food industry be exempt, especially at the risk of the public's health?

In the end, the conservative argument is right. We should let the market take care of dangerous and unhealthy ingredients in the food supply. Let food companies put what they want into the food they make. Go ahead, McDonald’s: load those burgers up with salt and fat. Cargill, let sugar flow from the box in whatever form you want.

But you have to tell everyone in plain, idiot-proof English, what you are doing. It’s not evaporated cane juice. It’s sugar. That salmon was bred to grow twice as fast as normal. That sweet corn in the grocery bin originated in a test tube. Then consumers, empowered with information, can decide if they still want to purchase these products.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Nate Abrams

I'm a systems guy, which means that I look at almost everything in terms of interconnections, feedback loops, architecture and scale. In other words, I look for the big picture and the deeply buried reasons for why things are the way they are.

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