David Kessler was arguably the most activist FDA Commissioner in history. Now, he's back in the spotlight with a new book, The End of Overeating(here's my rabidly positive review if you missed it), in which he lists four controversial recommendations to rein in a food industry that he believes has run amok.
Are his suggestions good ideas or hopelessly misguided? In my view, a little of both. Let's take a look.
1) "Restaurants should list the calorie counts of all foods they serve on their menu--by mandate, if they're not willing to do so voluntarily."
Let me admit up front that I've only recently come around to agreeing with this idea. I'd always taken more of a free-market view towards food, both in restaurants and in stores, and for a long time I was completely against the recently-enacted rules requiring major chain restaurants to post calorie counts for their menu items. My logic fell along the lines of "hey, nobody puts a gun to your head and makes you wolf down that Monster Thickburger, so let's focus instead on personal responsibility and eating in moderation."
However, after learning about the many food engineering, processing and layering techniques the restaurant industry uses to entice diners to eat far beyond their daily needs, I've come to believe that the preposterous calorie counts of restaurant dishes should be revealed to consumers, and all restaurants, chains or not, should fall under these rules. Consumers should know exactly what they're getting themselves into when they order a meal. Furthermore, a mandate like this will give restaurants an instant incentive to put several lower-calorie options on their menus. If you disagree, I'd love to hear why.
2) "All food products should convey prominently on their labels the percentage of added sugars, refined carbohydrates, and fats they contain."
Again, agreed, and I didn't even have to come around to this one. I've felt all along that the federally mandated labels on packaged food don't go far enough. For more on this subject, and to see a particularly devious way to exploit labeling requirements in order to hide the contents of a processed food, see my post on how to hide sugar in plain sight. Kessler's recommendation would add the final piece of the puzzle for the consumer to make truly informed decisions about the packaged foods they buy.
3) "Well-funded public education campaigns should address the issue of "big food." People need to hear repeatedly, from many sources, that selling, serving, and eating food layered and loaded with sugar, fat, and salt has negative, unhealthy consequences."
The model that Kessler wants to follow is that of government funded anti-tobacco advertising. One could imagine gruesome photos of clogged arteries, or appetite-killing descriptions of advanced Type II diabetes symptoms.
I have issues here: it's one thing for the government to use tax dollars to sponsor advertising on something that literally kills you. It's another thing to have the government sponsor negative advertising on something that only kills you when eaten to ridiculous, Homer Simpson-esque levels of excess. Is it fair to punish everyone for the sins of a few people who eat too much of a good thing, and more importantly, is this an intelligent use of tax dollars? I think it's a stretch to say yes.
4) "Food marketing should be monitored and exposed. When the industry promotes superstimulants that lead to conditioned and driven behavior, it's not presenting neutral information; it's promoting harmful behavior."
This is the squishiest and most dangerously broad of Kessler's ideas, and I'd hate to see the 1,000 page bill that comes plopping out of Congress to try and satisfy this vaguely phrased recommendation. Not to mention, we already have a government agency that monitors advertising and marketing: The Federal Trade Commission. Perhaps a more prudent idea would be to stiffen that agency's regulations and policies first.
Readers, what do you think about these recommendations? Fair? Or foul?
Finally, for those of you who haven't yet read David Kessler's The End of Overeating, do so. It's well worth it.
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