Pop quiz: What’s better for you, “Fruit Loops” or actual fruit? Take a minute. Remember that while fruit grows on trees in sunny climes in the open air, Fruit Loops come from a modern and clean factory in Michigan and contain some level of fiber. Need more time…?
Of course you don’t. But there is every indication that the government thinks you do need help evaluating your groceries. Inside of this view there appear to be well-intended but, at a certain level anyhow, condescending attitudes about the buying public’s ability to understand the food and food products in a grocery store. And past that, the notion that American families don’t grasp the unhealthy aspects of, say, eating pizza for dinner three times a week. In truth, I think there exists something of a junk food syndrome that compares on many levels to a national drug problem. And entire families can suffer from the syndrome. But even those addicted know that a bag of Cheetos isn’t an apple.
Before we go in on the “Smart Choices” tussle from last week, let’s look at the dimensions of something like a tax on soft drinks. While a proposal for such a tax died in New York State, there is still energy to get one going at a federal level. The logic is there. “While many factors promote weight gain, soft drinks are the only food or beverage that has been shown to increase the risk of overweight and obesity, which, in turn, increase the risk of diabetes, stroke, and many other health problems,” Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is pushing the idea, has said in government testimony. “Soft drinks are nutritionally worthless… [and] are directly related to weight gain, partly because beverages are more conducive to weight gain than solid foods.” As food, soft drinks are garbage so let’s discourage them and realize tax revenue that we could apply to programs that help Americans be healthy.
While I clearly see where that thinking starts, I have no idea where it stops. When I buy a chocolate brownie in a theater lobby at intermission, I’m frankly counting on the sugar and cocoa buzz to get me through Act Two. I’m not deluded into thinking that there’s any positive nutritional value and the vendor never said to me, “Enjoy the good health that comes from rich chocolate cake.” So a sin or punishment tax on that brownie, no matter how well-intentioned, kind of says “You’re not able to select a proper theater lobby snack. Try the granola logs…”
A concept like the “Smart Choices” labeling has the appearance of trying to educate Americans who might be serving nutritionally wanting meals to their families. But I don’t think that’s the motive. We know these things to be true: That tight money prevents every single American from buying fresh at Whole Foods or a store with similar food options; that families where a single parent or both parents work and possibly commute long hours are pressed to find time to make healthier but more labor-intensive meals, and that Whole Foods-type stores aren’t exactly racing into economically depressed areas to set up shop although outlets such as food banks are making more efforts to provide locally grown foods. After all that, then there does have to be acknowledgement that many parents simply don’t step up to the dinner plate on better eating and nutrition. But with all this understood, who, then, needs labeling defining certain processed foods as “smart choices?”
“Industry leaders” are the ones that launched the “Smart Choices” program in August, and it includes nine major companies such as Kellogg’s, Kraft, and General Mills. “Smart Choices” is a label that highlights certain nutritional standards (Fruit Loops and Cracker Jack met the standard) and puts a green (green like the earth and green growing foods) stamp on food packages, implying that product has passed some kind of nutrition test. As of last week, the FDA is investigating “labeling issues” with the Smart Choices program.
Our sadness, however, is not going to come from revelation that Skittles and a Pepsi isn’t a meal. It will be in realizing that at the beginning of the 21st century we had the ability to properly and healthfully feed not only everyone in our own country but many in other lands. We had the resources to replace diabetes-instigating agents with things like bottled water or real juice. But instead of improvement, some of us remained intent on installing Pepsi machines in high schools, so that spare change can be filched from the pockets of our own children.
The Smart Choices board says it backs the efforts of the FDA to bring greater clarity to the program. They “applaud” the concept of making the program work for everyone. Yet General Mills still has a line of “fruit-flavored” snacks for kids. “Fruit by the Foot”, “Fruit Roll-Ups”, “Fruit Gushers” and “Fruit Shapes.” What drives changing fruit into decoy fruit configured as chewy wallpaper? How come soda cans in England are four ounces smaller than they are in the United States, home of the giant Slushee and huge plastic bottles of soft drinks? Who requested that they start stuffing the pizza crust with cheese? I’m not aware of a cheese deficit that might have spurred that change. But I’m pretty sure that for somebody, it was a smart choice.