Food Forum: Preparing for the next phase of the obesity debate

Healthy food options at retail are not enough for some activist groups looking to increase regulations even more.

By Richard Berman, executive director, Center for Consumer Freedom

The last few years have been a struggle for businesses to restore lost sales and to change product lines to adjust to evolving consumer demands. One trend has been the production of “better-for-you” rbermanproducts, which a Hudson Institute study found provided 70% of the sales growth for the 15 companies surveyed.

You would think health advocates and obesity activists would cheer these developments. They have not. Instead of accepting increased consumer choice that can drive a food company’s earnings growth, groups like the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale are demanding ever-more-intrusive regulations. While restaurants and soda companies might be first on the hit list, grocers and packaged food companies are not immune from the regulators’ pen or activist angst. Beware, the gum and candy aisle may soon become a thing of the past.

Food companies across the sector think that adding “better-for-you” options—think low- and no-calorie soft drinks, whole-grain pastas, reduced-fat milk and low-salt soups—will appeal to health-conscious consumers and ease the pressure from activists. That is half-true: Consumers are pleased by the increased offerings, but activists do not see things that way. They believe that improving consumer choices does not do enough to reduce obesity, so heavy-handed measures are required.

Consumers aren’t on board. A recent Associated Press-NORC poll found that 59% of Americans oppose a sin tax on bad food or soft drinks. More intrusive measures poll even worse.

Predictably, activists are unbowed by popular opinion. They seek to break down the current public consensus that people should make their own decisions and are individually responsible for the consequences. To do that, the Rudd Center has devised a stratagem: Convince people that foods are addictive like drugs and alcohol. If successful, this would nullify the notion of choice, leaving heavy regulation as the logical next step.

The “addiction” hypothesis comes from findings that foods activate the pleasure centers of the human brain. Based on this, activists claim people are hopelessly unable to resist the drive to eat foods high in fat, sugar and salt. It is not a scientifically strong idea: Researchers from Cambridge University found that “criteria for substance dependence translate poorly to food-related behaviors.”

First Lady Michelle Obama and locally based healthy food groups may think that grocers are a key part of the solution to obesity by increasing healthy food options. However, these new-breed activists are not so sure. The researchers wrote, “Restrictions on unhealthy foods are more promising than promotion of healthy foods in controlling obesity.” Fast-food may be first in line, but they are coming for the snack aisles and prepared foods too.

Manufacturers fare worse. Robert Lustig, an endocrinologist who calls sugar “toxic” in addition to addictive, wants bans on youth purchases of products with added sugar and FDA regulations to restrict the amount of sugar in products.

Not long ago, activists might be pleased that grocery manufacturers were adding front-of-package labels. Now, activist groups demand that the products be regulated or taken off the market.

How are companies responding? By saying “We offer choices.”

Options are not enough to get activists to lay off food and beverage providers and they are not enough to get activists to leave grocery store layouts and prices alone. There is no appeasing them. No matter how many whole-grain items you sell, no matter how big or prominent your produce section is, and no matter how well you promote healthy living, until the ice cream is out of the frozen food section, the soda is out of the drinks aisle, and the potato chips are purged from the snack aisles, the activists will not be satisfied.

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