The War on Junk Food


This was a slow weekend for thought-provoking articles. But I thought that I would post this William Saletan article about the war on junk food. I find it a really interesting issue because I am in a small minority of folks who think that the industry bears a share of the blame for rising obesity rates. Of course, I don’t really believe in individual free will, which also places me essentially off the American political spectrum. I say that partially in jest, but in all truth I think that if you wanted to represent the extent to which we have choices about how our lives play out, versus the extent to which things are determined by accident of birth (including genetics, geography, parenting, luck, etc.), I would put the choice figure at about 1%. Sometimes I say 5% if I’m feeling more optimistic.

People always protest that this view is fatalistic and does not account for the ability of people to change. On the contrary, I think one can do a hell of a lot with their 1 to 5% free will. We just do it in a context where the deck has been stacked in certain ways.

How does this relate to junk food? Well, I guess I would say that the deck has been stacked in terms of what we eat, what we think tastes good, and where we get our food. It may seem strange for me of all people to say this, since I grew up in a house jam-packed full of junk food (soda, twinkies, cookies, processed cheese products, etc.) and still managed to become an adult who eats relatively healthily, although I am still addicted to sugar (and thus artificial sweeteners). After reading Fast Food Nation , I stopped eating fast food almost entirely and now am such a freaking yuppie that the thought of McDonald’s makes me slightly nauseated (does Au Bon Pain count as fast food?). My food deck was stacked, but I managed to overcome it, so I’m the poster girl for consumer responsibility, right?

Well, not really. I learned about nutrition because I desperately wanted to be thin — a desire that is also culturally driven. (Genetics helped out quite a bit in allowing me to accomplish this, another example of how free will is a crock). And my journey from hedonism to moderation was an uneven one. I still have a huge bag of Hershey’s miniatures in my refrigerator.

So I know and understand very well the strong pull of junk food. Eating healthy is expensive, time-consuming, and requires planning. Because of the decline in family meals and home ec classes (people dis them, but I know what a pastry blender is and how to use it because of my 8th grade home ec class!), a lot of people grow up not having learned much about nutrition or how to prepare food. People without cars are limited in where they can shop for food, and others lack the time and money to prepare meals with real vegetables in them. This is not to say that healthy eating can’t be done by almost anyone — it can — but it’s certainly not the path of least resistance. And the abundance of unhealthy food choices out there make it very easy to go through life thinking that french fries and ketchup count as vegetables.

How does this translate into a policy prescription? Rather than following the route of the big tobacco lawsuits, I would advocate legislation restricting the production and marketing of nutritionally worthless foods. Although ideally, the industry would voluntarily change its practices regarding same (I think it is Kraft that has made some strides in this way). Putting the blame wholly on the consumer is attractive because it’s easy — but it practically ensures that little will change.


19 Responses to “The War on Junk Food”

  1. Joe Longhorn Says:

    “I would advocate legislation restricting the production and marketing of nutritionally worthless foods.”

    What would this legislation look like? Would it ban certain foods? Would it put a “sin tax” on candy bars? How far would it go? Would you put the entire country on a “weight watchers” style point system. If you don’t eat all your fruit and veggie points for the day, do you get a ticket?

    Let’s just legislate everything because we know that people are too stupid to make their own decisions.

    Here is some legislation that I would propose to protect folks from their own bad decisions:

    – A law against low rise jeans. Because some people are too dumb to realize that their “muffin top” hanging over the top of their pants is gross.

    – Similar legislation against spandex.

    – A law against going outside, ever. Because some people are too dumb to remember to put on sunscreen every time they go out in the sun.

    Just because some people are too stupid to make decisions for themselves, that doesn’t hold true for the entire population.

    Of course, there are those intellectuals that are smart enough to think for us all. Let’s just put them in charge of everything.


  2. Sandi Says:

    Sorry you’re having a bad day, Joe. I didn’t say ban, I said restrict. And the restrictions would be directed at the companies who manufacture and market the foods, not at the consumer. There are a number of ways to structure restrictions so that they give the food industry (and by extension, the consumer) the appropriate incentives and still leave room for individual choice — although I have not thought in great detail about what my ideal legislation might look like. I would also advocate universal nutrition education in schools to the extent that it does not already exist so that future generations of consumers have access to information.

    I must agree with the low-rise jeans thing, though. πŸ™‚

  3. DeJon Redd Says:

    Ha ha! Muffin top!

  4. Michael Lasley Says:

    I’m not as much of a structuralist as you Sandi, but I agree that our tastes in junk food are in large part due to being told over and over again how good X tastes. And then having X be one of the quickest and easiest and cheapest things to get our hands on.

    The government did take a small step in this direction a few years ago by requiring nutritional information on food products. And it seems that telling “the industry” to be a bit more responsible isn’t unprecedented. (I’m talking out my ear here, so feel free to correct me.) Didn’t the government tell auto makers to be more responsible with the ways they manufactured cars (concerning gas mileage) back in the day? And this was a) before environmental concerns about fuel consumption and b) something that actually helped the car industry sell more cars.

    I’m sure there are bad examples of the government stepping in, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. It can make industries think in innovative and helpful ways.

  5. Whitney Says:

    I’m all for nutrition education, but legislation? Maybe require more honesty about all the ill effects of what we’re actually eating, but nothing more. Seriously, why do we have to legislate EVERYTHING? Do people not have a personal responsibility? Of course, I think seatbelt laws for adults are ridiculous, too. People KNOW they need to wear them. They KNOW that there is an abundance of evidence that they can save your life. If they choose not to, then they’re taking their own risk.

    Education, absolutely, 100% a great idea! Legislation? I don’t think so.

    And I still think Joe is funny. Of course, he knows that at the beginning of each semester I introduce the “no butt-crack” policy to my college-age girls. (Do you have this problem, Mikey?) Muffin-top + butt-crack is just obscene. I might just support legislation on that because it adversely affects many more people than the consumer.

  6. annie Says:

    I learned from Saturday Night Live that the proper term for the peek-a-boo butt crack is “coin slot” –hee hee.

    I agree with Sandi that something needs to be done. What about a higher tax on food items that have a certain level of trans and saturated fats? That may get rid of those “Dollar Menus” at fast-food restaurants. And here’s another idea – my friends with young children go to McDonald’s at least once a week so that they can eat a meal in peace while their children play. Why must McDonald’s be the only place with playgrounds? I bet if Subway started building playlands, more parents would bring their children there instead of McDonald’s.

  7. Sandi Says:

    I’m interested in this sensitivity to the word “legislation,” as if it is always and in all circumstances a thing to be avoided rather than one to be embraced. I said in the next sentence that in an ideal world, the food industry would voluntarily change its spots — and I applaud companies that are willing to do this.

    However, people don’t always do the right thing just because it’s the right thing. Sometimes incentives need to be provided — and I generally prefer the incentive approach to anything more heavy-handed unless there’s a compelling reason to put the beat down on folks. I think food is a perfect example of an issue where incentives at the industry level are an appropriate way to help people make better choices about something that affects their health.

    For one thing, marketing junk food to kids is absolutely verboten in my book. Kids are not able to make reasoned and informed decisions about what they want to eat in the same way that adults are. Parents have enough trouble trying to get kids to eat their vegetables without having McDonald’s, soda and sweets hawked to them on tv and in school.

    I also don’t have a problem with the idea of a “sin tax” on junk food. The whole way that food is priced in this country is f’d up — as Pollan said in the quote I posted from him, the least nutritional calories are the cheapest, and obesity is correlated with socioeconomic class. Only relatively well-off people can afford to eat in the healthiest ways, i.e. lots of fresh produce and raw ingredients, less processed foods. Fresh produce can be very expensive, and it takes time to prepare healthy meals. So maybe if the pricing structure changed a little, and healthy foods were no more expensive than unhealthy ones, people might be enabled to make better choices.

    I might add that a lot of good has been accomplished through legislation. And I have generally found that no one is against legislation per se — conservatives always seem to be in favor of it when it’s an issue that they care about, like conscience clauses for pharmacists, banning gay marriage and adoption, or mandating the Pledge in schools. So it’s definitely a case-by-case basis as to whether legislation is for good or ill.

  8. Whitney Says:

    I just don’t like the idea of legislating things that are meant to protect people from themselves. This does not mean children. I think laws meant to protect children are necessary because many parents just suck.

    Now, as for price, I think the idea of price control for healthy foods would not be a bad idea. Produce is extremely expensive, and it just shouldn’t be.

    And just for the record, here’s my stance on these legislations, as a conservative:
    *conscience clauses for pharmacists–if it protects the general public, good idea
    *banning gay marriage and adoption–don’t think this should be legislated (ha! surprised you, did I?)
    *mandating the Pledge in schools–don’t think this should be legislated, either (suprised you again! huh?)

    I think people should be able to make up their own minds about most things so long as it does not adversely affect others. That’s why murder is illegal and that’s a good thing. While I don’t advocate mandatory prayer time at school, I don’t think allowing prayer in school should be outlawed either.

    People that want to make laws for everything make me crazy (in no way directed straight at you Sandi, and I don’t mean crazy in a mean way, crazy in a argghhh-I-just-don’t-get-it way). Laws should be made to protect us from OTHER PEOPLE & entities, not ourselves. Incentives for food manufacturers just might be a good idea. “Sin taxes” or penalties are not. The consumer should drive sales. More education would hopefully drive sales of healthier foods. In addition, incentives to provide healthier foods at better costs may just lead to lowered sales of junk and less junk food marketing. Which might–and I say might, because some people just do not care about their own health, and that is their business–lead to a healthier society.

    One final thought: parents are responsible for what their kids eat. I know parents who go to McDs because it is EASY! EASY!? Huh? Is parenting supposed to be a cake walk? Does the word “no” come in here anywhere?


  9. Michael Lasley Says:

    Whitney, I don’t have as many student wearing low-rise jeans as I do wearing insanely short skirts or spandex running shorts with the legs pulled up so it looks like they are wearing bikinis. That’s an almost daily thing here.

    As for legislating only when it adversely effects others — didn’t the article say obesity related health problems cost tax payers $64 Billion a year (sounds absurd, so maybe I’m misremembering). That would qualify as an adverse effect to me. There needs to be responsibility on both sides, of course, but I have an inherent distrust of businesses doing something that isn’t immediately profitable for themselves (like putting seatbelts in cars or producing more effecient cars or placing warning labels on cigarettes and alcohol or putting nutrition labels on foods or etc.)

  10. Michael Lasley Says:

    And the article Sandi posted today begins a discussion of choice and individual responsibility on a much more concrete level (than advertising and cultural norms and tastes and time and the like). When certain less-than-healthy foods are subsidized and made readily available on the cheap, then it does take away a lot of our choices. We don’t have as many because the less healthy foods are being used and sold and consumed for next to nothing, and they are providing little nutritional value. So, in some sense, it takes not only money and time (to prepare a meal) but also time to research which ingredients making up the foods we cook actually have the nutritional value we need.


  11. Sandi Says:

    Hi Whitney,

    Before getting back to the substance, I have to clarify one thing as a lawyer who handled church-state issues for the first four years of my career and knows the state of the law intimately: people say “prayer was banned in school” or similar things, which sounds like a limitation on individual freedom, but the truth is that it is only school-sponsored prayer that is disallowed. Individual students can pray silently to themselves and in a non-disruptive way during non-instructional time in any school. Of course, there are definitely questions about where individual student freedom begins and school sponsorship ends — in terms of the school giving an individual student a platform and there being a captive audience, etc. But there is a mistaken idea out there that anyone caught praying in school is told to stop, and that’s just not true, nor is that what the ACLU or Americans United has advocated. On the contrary, both organizations strongly support individual religious freedom (free exercise clause) in the appropriate balance with separation of church and state (establishment clause). This is not so much to you as just a general public service announcement I feel compelled to make because the misunderstanding is so widespread.

    Now, back to junk food! I don’t see putting an additional tax on junk food as a penalty; I see it as an incentive. Or rather, perhaps it is the removal of an incentive (the inexpensiveness of most junk food) to buy something that is bad for you. Some people don’t need any incentive other than wanting to preserve their own health and be there for their kids. Others might need a bit more prodding. Certainly kids and teenagers would, because they don’t yet have a sense of their own mortality. I have a picture in my head of a kid with a dollar in his pocket. If candy bars cost $2 and a piece of fruit cost 50 cents, the candy bar would still taste better, but he would have to buy the fruit instead. Or, better yet, there would be fewer bad choices than good ones (if you put all of the onus on the manufacturers).

    I don’t believe by any stretch in legislating EVERYTHING. And I think that this issue inspires that “everything” reaction because people don’t consider food a serious public health issue the way we do smoking or drugs. Obviously there are differences, but food really does have an impact on health. Michael is right to bring up the public health costs of poor eating habits. Plus, when it is the parents who are eating poorly, they are affecting someone else — their kids, who are both being taught bad eating habits themselves and have parents who won’t be around for them as long or as well.

    But the way that sounds — all finger-wagging and condescending — is exactly why I think there should be some government-imposed solutions to begin with. There is this whole moral dimension to food that I think, based on my experience and what I’ve read, does us no good at all. All the shame and moral judgment associated with making bad food choices (which of course we all do sometimes) is there precisely because there is so much choice, but it’s choice that is loaded against eating healthy. McDonald’s is easier for parents because (at least in some cases) it is cheap and it is fast, and for people who work a lot of hours and are struggling to fit everything into their day, something has to give and if there’s no counterincentive, then you end up at McDonald’s. I guess it comes down to this — I’d rather blame McDonald’s for serving junk to begin with and marketing it the way they do than blame individual parents. They are all doing something that is not unique to them, but is a society-wide pattern that is now being replicated in other countries. It just seems more logical to place the responsibility for making change on the institutions that can more easily effect it than on the individual.

  12. juvenal_urbino Says:

    As for legislating only when it adversely effects others — didn’t the article say obesity related health problems cost tax payers $64 Billion a year (sounds absurd, so maybe I’m misremembering). That would qualify as an adverse effect to me.

    Precisely, Mikey.

    Returning to Whitney’s seatbelt analogy, seatbelts are required by law because not wearing them DOESN’T just affect that one person. People who don’t wear their seatbelts tend to wind up needing a lot of very expensive medical care, sometimes for the rest of their lives. We all pay for that, either through higher insurance premiums or, if the driver had no insurance, through other mechanisms. (There’s also the cost to society of that person’s lost productivity, but lets stick to the hard, monetary costs.)

    The poor diet issue is the same. Poor diet leads to a host of very expensive medical problems — for one example, the sudden rise in adult diabetes (which then leads to a host of other expensive, long-term medical problems). We all wind up paying for that, not just the poor eater.

    When society has a stake — in this case, an economic stake — in individual behavior, should it not be allowed to exert influence on the individual?

  13. Joe Longhorn Says:


    I think you hit on the key point in your last post. I don’t believe for one second that it’s the cost of food that is driving poor food choices. As a percentage of disposable income, the amount that people spend on food is very small. I think the prime drivers behind people’s food choices are:
    a) convenience
    b) taste

    People buy convenient, good tasting food. Why? Because it’s easier than cooking a meal and it’s a heck of a lot easier to get a kid to eat tater tots than brussel sprouts.

    Another angle to look at here…

    Do you think that, just maybe, the increase in single-parent families and the decrease in stay at home parents might play a role in the “obesity epidemic.” Both of these situations lead people to make convenient food choices instead of the smarter, more time-consuming choices.

    And doesn’t it follow that, since single-parent homes are more common among the lower class, there might be a higher prevalence of obesity in the lower class?

    Let’s face it. Americans are LAZY. We take the easy road. That means buying processed, pre-prepared food that our kids will eat without a fuss.

    It is NOT because buying a bag of potato chips is cheaper than a head of broccoli.

  14. Joe Longhorn Says:

    Let me also just say that asking the government to get involved here and create legislation to manage society’s food choices is an exercise in arrogance and futility. Our food supply is a complex system. Extremely complex. Believing that we can tweak the output by fiddling with the supply and demand knobs is overly simplistic. It’s too hard to know what affect government actions will have.

    There are a myriad of complex systems that govern our lives that big government types want to tinker with. We’ve got to keep the economy running at top speed We’ve got to slow the effects of global warming. We’ve got to bring peace to the middle east. All of these systems have elements of complexity and chaos theory that we can’t begin to understand. It’s ridiculous to think we can control the output. The best we can do is manage the output

    The crazy thing is that the smarter some people get, the more they think they can manage these systems.

  15. Whitney Says:

    I buy that WAY more than I buy the idea that as individuals we aren’t responsible for controlling what we eat because french fries are dangled in our face and we don’t have the ability to say “no”.

    I do see the long term, overarching implications. And I’m not opposed to any-and-all government action. But when do we start holding individuals responsible? And I mean perpetrators? I understand that holding companies responsible is just cleaner and easier, so that’s what happens. Kind of like stopping at Burger King on the way home instead of spending the 10 minutes it takes to steam some carrots and cook some chicken on the Foreman grill is easier and cleaner. πŸ™‚ Joe’s right, we’re LAZY.

    Aside, do any of the rest of you have trouble getting real work done b/c you spend so much time here? Signing off for a while…WF

  16. Michael Lasley Says:

    Your right, Joe, that food production / consumption issues are very complicated. I didn’t read what Sandi was saying as trying to force people to eat certain ways (or control the system) as much as trying to manage the system better by: a) holding businesses accountable in some way and b) making sure people are able to make more informed decisions about their eating habits and c) somehow make it as economically feasible to eat healthy as to eat unhealthy.

    Innocent question, Joe. Do you think that taste is something that can be socially manipulated in some way? Like, if we see hamburgers all the time and people are happy eating them, we might be inclined to eat them too? Fast food hamburgers haven’t always been so tasty, I don’t think. My family used to shun fast food hamburgers because they weren’t as good as what we made at home. But now, my dad is wont to buy two or three Whoppers at a time. He developed a taste for them.

    Also just curious why some people, like myself, put more faith in governmental control than in the hands of businesses. I realize that’s a philisophical issue, but I’ve been asking myself that a lot lately, and I’m not sure I have a great answer for it just yet. Other than my aforementioned inherent distrust of businesses doing anything that isn’t immediately profitable.

  17. Michael Lasley Says:

    Whitney — I work in the “Humanities,” so, umm…, I don’t have too much real work to do. Mostly just getting coffee with students and trying to look smart and stuff. Although I am *just* keeping myself busy enough to not write an actual post, like I’m sposed to each week about books. I have about four or five articles started though. Maybe I’ll try to finish one of those this afternoon.

  18. Sandi Says:

    This discussion proves again to me the point that I’ve been making for years (mostly to myself): the primary difference between a progressive worldview and a conservative worldview is that conservatives just prefer to blame the individual for everything. That sounds harsh, what I really mean is that conservatives don’t really believe in applying sociology or looking at things from a macro perspective when it comes to social policy. I do believe in those things. We are individuals, but we live our lives within structural constraints and incentives. Change the constraints and incentives, and individual behavior changes to match. That just seems like a really simple proposition to me.

    So, of course there are elements of choice in most things we do — but like Mikey was saying with regard to food, and like I said in my original post, our choices are not wholly free. They are in some measure either manipulated or limited by factors and forces beyond our individual control.

    Which gets me to Joe’s single-parent, stay-at-home-parent song and dance. Joe, I have to hand it to you. If I am a caricature of a liberal, you are a caricature of a conservative, and I say that with affection because I like you and what you bring to the blog. To begin with: Not all single parents are single by choice. Not all working parents are working by choice. But in addition, I think that workweeks and commute times are too long, and that that goes a long way toward contributing to some people eating convenience foods.

    Is some of the rise in convenience foods attributable to laziness? Sure. But it’s so much more complicated than that. Sometimes it’s about lack of education, sometimes about feelings of hopelessness or loneliness. Maybe people’s perception that they don’t have time to cook is incorrect; but let’s address why they have the perception. It’s not necessarily because they’re lazy, bad people.

    And I do think that cost is a factor (not the only one, but one) driving food choices. The kids interviewed for the McDonald’s article, as well as the company spokesperson, said as much.

    Oh, and finally, yes, Whitney, I do have a hard time getting work done because I spend time here. But I guess that’s my free choice. πŸ™‚ LOL. It’s worth it.

  19. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I think you’re probably right, Sandi, that the more conservative one is, the less stock one tends to put in the efficacy of macro level efforts. In the language of the Right, that sort of thing is deprecated as “social engineering.” It’s a difference in outlook between the Left and the Right, and I doubt there’ll ever be enough objective data on the subject to convince either side they’re wrong.

    What I find interesting is comparing these views of Society to views of the Corporation. No one in this country seems to have any trouble with the notion that a Corporation — which is a collective organized for coordinated action, much like a Society — can have interests of its own that differ from those of any person or persons within that Corporation, and that the Corporation has the right to protect its interests, even against the interests of any individual person(s) in it. A Corporation can, for example, declare a collective goal and exert force on its members to behave in such a way that they advance the Corporation’s goal, rather than their own goals.

    Yet ISTM the Right, generally speaking, continues to deny that a Society is similarly situated. It is somehow out-of-bounds for a Society to set collective goals and use the mechanisms at its disposal to bring its members’ behavior into line with those goals.

    I may have that entirely wrong. I’ll admit I’m a little fuzzy on it, to tell the truth. It doesn’t quite make sense to me, and I’ve never been able to quite get a clear enough explanation of American conservatism’s view of collective action to resolve the fuzziness.

    Also, I’ll stipulate that I think it’s true that, for practical reasons, a Society ought not to force its members into too many behaviors they find distasteful, shouldn’t use any more force (i.e., influence) than is necessary, and that all such exercises of social power require justification. Still it seems to me the Right has some unresolved conflicts between its view of the Corporation and its view of a Society. Somehow, for reasons I’m not clear on, they seem to think Corporations are less suspect than Societies. I would think things would be just the opposite.

    (BTW, I said nobody seemed to have a problem with our modern notion of the Corporation. I should ‘fess up and say I have BIG problem with it, but I’m just me.)

    I’m rambling.

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