The Currency of Conscious Eating

Fig 1: The waistlines of silhouette dudes has grown steadily over the past three dudes.

Last night I posted a link to my facebook page about how eating and drinking sugary foods and beverages causes obesity.  My comment to that link, like most of my other facebook comments on news and current events, inculpated the government in yet another of society’s problems—this time the obesity epidemic:

It doesn’t surprise me that bad government policies, programs, and advice are at the heart of the obesity epidemic. Yet for some reason, I don’t expect this observation to sway people from advocating more government participation in health care. Please prove me wrong.

I knew the moment I clicked ‘share’ that this might have been a mistake. While I believe that most of my anti-government comments do a fairly decent job of at least connecting government activity with its unforeseen and unfortunate side-effects, this comment, by contrast, essentially scapegoated without providing the necessary causal link.  The article was primarily about the harms associated with eating too much sugar, and featured a half-hour excerpt from a 90-minute lecture by University of California Medical Professor Robert H. Lustig on the subject.  The Lustig’s comments on government policy did not appear until near the end of the excerpt:

To hear the Lusitg’s full comments on the effects of government policy on obesity, the interested listener had to have sought out the remainder of the lecture on YouTube.  Because, on the face of it, this was admittedly the most tenuous link between government actions and society’s problems that I have yet suggested, I felt that perhaps I should expound upon and my claim and defend it.

First, I must say that with this post, I’m fairly well out of my element.  Because I know absolutely nothing about nutrition, I can neither confirm nor deny the scientific correctness of anything Dr. Lustig says on the issue.  Fortunately, the bulk of my defense does not rest heavily on understanding the science of nutrition.

Next, notice how carefully I chose the words.  I deliberately avoided the word “caused” when framing the government’s role in the obesity epidemic.  Many factors cause obesity, from the health choices of the individual, to economics of food production, to the whims of the processed food industry, to the government’s health policy.  It would be unfair indeed to suggest that government is the sole cause of the obesity epidemic.  I chose the words “at the heart of” to convey a sense of how important the government’s role is in each step of the food production and consumption processes.

Now lets examine Dr. Lustig’s claims about government policy’s influence on the obesity epidemic.  In parts three and four of the lecture, he argues that in the early 1980s, Americas “low-fat” craze followed AMA and USDA claims that, to improve their health, Americans should reduce their consumption of fat.  This advice inspired what Lustig believes to be Americans’ disastrous mass migration from fatty foods to more dangerous sugary foods.  In parts eight and nine, Lustig argues that, for political and economic reasons, the USDA has failed admit its mistake and propagate similar warnings about the dangers of eating too much sugar.

Scientists may wrangle over the cause of obesity, but nobody can plausibly deny the the effect that government policy has over people’s food decisions.

It might be objected that people are individually responsible for what they put into their bodies, and that therefore government can not take the blame for people’s poor dietary habits .  Herein lies the great paradox of libertarianism:  Q: When are individually-responsible citizens not individually-responsible for their actions? A: When centralized authorities influence those actions through coercive rules, regulations, and perverse incentives. As I put it to one of my esteemed facebook colleagues: “I agree with you that the informed consumer should assume some responsibility to detect and avert government sabotage, but I don’t believe that this fact should absolve the saboteurs.

Fig. 2: Everything you need to know about Mac & Cheese in one government-mandated information panel. ...or is it?

The federal government became a major player in the dietary consultation business when it passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. This law amended the then-existing food misbranding law, 21 U.S.C. §343. Misbranded Food,  to mandate that producers marketing food for human consumption list certain standardized information about the food they package.  That information is set forth, as concisely as we can expect a federal regulation to be, at the e-Code-of-Federal-Regulations: 21 C.F.R. §101.9. Nutrition labeling of food.  The regulation mandates that the information listed, and only the information listed (§101.9(c)), be included on the nutrition facts label.  Among the required items is a listing of the government’s Recommended Daily Intake of each of the vitamins and minerals on the list, as dictated under §101.9(c)(8)(iv).  Since then, presumably, it should have been easy for each of us to take control of our health by controlling our diet.  All one should have to do is read the government-mandated information from the government-mandated label that the government mandated to be printed on the packages of the vast majority of processed food offered for sale for human consumption in the United States. Easy, right?  So what happened?

Peter Schiff said in relation to banking and the financial crisis that we would all be doing a lot more of our own diligence if we didn’t think the government was doing it for us.  The term he used to describe this phenomenon was ‘moral hazard’.  I posit that by mandating a government-selected set of nutritional information to be printed on most of the food we consume, the government has created yet another moral hazard.  Those who blame reckless consumers, greedy bankers, and the unbridled, deregulated “free-market” for our economic woes generally fail to recognize the immense influence that government and quasi-government agencies like the FDIC and the Federal Reserve have on how we perceive the value of money and credit, and what we therefore do with our money and credit.  Similarly, those who blame careless consumers and predatory food manufacturers for our obesity woes fail to recognize the immense influence that USDA statistics, recommendations, and labeling mandates have on the food choices we make every day.  The Nutritional Facts mandated to be written on just about every single piece of processed food offered for sale for human consumption in this country are essentially the fiat currency of conscious eating.  The government controls it, and when we follow it, it is usually without question.

Fig 3: The USDA's food pyramid goes Mayan with the addition of a staricase on the west face. The architecture is stunning, but is it enough to reverse the obesity epidemic?

Add this to some the other examples Dr. Lustig mentioned about how government influences the way we eat, including food that government-run public schools offer our children,  food offered to women, infants, and children under the government’s WIC program, and the USDA’s ever-popular “Food Pyramid” of serving suggestions, and the government’s influence on the way we eat becomes impossible to ignore.

In 1990, the government standardized and mandated its Nutrition Facts label, presumably to help Americans make better food choices.  Twenty years later, in 2010, we are in the middle of a so-called obesity epidemic.  Why?  One possibility is that, all at once, a couple decades ago, vast numbers of Americans decided in striking unison to become voracious gluttons, and that if not for the mandated label to guide us in our gluttony, the American obesity rate would have increased even more than it did.  Based on Dr. Lustig’s  indictment of health policy, I rather doubt this to be the case.  Another possibility is that the government directly caused the obesity epidemic when it mandated the plastering of politicized, faulty, or incomplete nutritional information on almost every food item in the country.  Again, I don’t know enough about nutrition and nutrition history to make such a drastic indictment, but it honestly wouldn’t surprise me.  What I am willing to say on the record is fairly incontrovertible, given that the so-called obesity epidemic is more than hype: There seems to be much room for improvement in the way the government influences our eating habits.

There are two things we can do with this information.  One is to issue even more labeling and other regulations on food producers, pour more government resources into influencing Americans to become better eaters, and hope for a better showing the next time around.  Maybe next time we won’t all explode with gluttony.  The other thing we can do is investigate the possibility that perhaps it isn’t such a good idea to have one central authority dictate an official set of healthy-eating strictures on every item of food produced in this country.  Perhaps it isn’t such a good idea for our nutritional authority, the USDA, to issue premature nutritional advice with potentially unhealthy side-effects on the way we produce and eat food.  Perhaps we should get the government out of the compulsory nutritional information business, and return that business to competing producers and consumer groups whose continued existence and success actually depend on achieving the results that consumers desire.  As a libertarian, my natural tendency is to support the latter option.

Finally, in my facebook comment, I took the liberty of generalizing these observations.  If the government’s performance in “helping” us with our food choices over the past twenty years is any guide, then what can we really expect from greater government participation in the overall health care industry?  I have my suspicions.

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