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Acts of Nutrition

A California senator pushes for a “sin tax” on junk foods, the latest battle in the war to define what Americans should—and shouldn’t—eat

Are you ready to pay a “sin” tax on that can of Coke or Pepsi? It is not as far-fetched as junk-food addicts might think. Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Calif.) has proposed a two-cent tax on soda pop to fund education programs to combat the growing epidemic of childhood obesity and related diseases, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Coke and Pepsico, and their friends in the junk-food business, will likely crush the initiative supported by parents and public health officials. Yet it is a sign of things to come as parents are already complaining about the exclusive “pouring” contracts that Coke and Pepsi are battling over to sell their sugar-laden drinks to schoolchildren.

In California, the state Legislature has already banned the sale of junk food in elementary and middle schools by 2004, and other states such as Ohio, Minnesota and New Mexico are debating whether to regulate the new fast-food-heavy “food courts” that are popping up in many middle and high schools.

This new movement to put a sin tax on junk food is just the latest battle in the 30-year war to define what is “healthy” to eat. Food producers and marketers such as Kraft, (owned by Philip Morris), Unilever, Pepsico, Groupe Danone and General Mills have quelled critics and dominated the debate over government nutrition standards. The food marketers have stopped the government from sending out clear nutritional guidelines about what is healthy to eat and what types of food should be avoided.

The fundamental problem is that affluent Americans consume too many calories munching on sweets, fast food and sugar-based soft drinks. The data are quite startling. Americans on average eat 500 more calories in food than we did 30 years ago. We are drinking less milk, but our thirst for soft drinks has doubled. And consumption of fat has also nearly doubled, as evidenced by our expanding waistlines.

As a result, Americans have turned the famed food pyramid on its head. We eat more sweets and fats than fruit and vegetables, and do not get enough bread, pasta, milk and cheese.

The food industry is not helping matters. In 1998, two-thirds of all new food products introduced were snacks, candies, baked goods, soft drinks and dairy products, including ice cream. And, hoping to profit on Americans’ guilt for eating the wrong foods, marketers introduced a slew of “nutritionally enhanced” foods, such as lowfat cookies, vitamin-enhanced cereals and calcium-enriched juice drinks.

New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle finds little to cheer about regarding the current state of the food industry. Nestle, a veteran of the 1990s nutrition battles, portrays an industry out of control and easily able to manipulate federal regulators and nutritionists alike in her new book, Food Politics.

When Nestle was hired in the mid-1980s by the U.S. Public Health Service to help edit the Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health, she was given some practical political advice: No matter what the research on saturated fat, salt and cholesterol suggested, never recommend that Americans should “eat less meat” as a way to reduce saturated fat and prevent such chronic health problems as heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

In the business-friendly Reagan era, it was best not to irritate food producers who could make a lot of noise in Congress and squash the report. In the final report in 1988, Nestle inserted the less offensive “eat lean meats” and suggested limits on sugar for people with dental cavities.

In the late ’70s, liberal icon Sen. George McGovern, head of the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, set off a firestorm by suggesting that mainstream Americans simply eat too much—period. At the time, doctors were first discovering an epidemic of heart disease; the American Heart Association advised people to reduce fat intake, to limit saturated fats to 10 percent of all calories and to cut cholesterol.

In 1977, McGovern released a groundbreaking report that called for “eating less” to battle obesity, diabetes and other “killer diseases.” The report, Dietary Goals for the United States, called for Americans to eat more fruit, vegetables, whole grains, poultry and fish. The South Dakota liberal encouraged Americans to cut back on eating meat, eggs, butterfat, sugar and salt. McGovern also urged American consumers to switch from whole milk to skim milk.

The food producers, especially cattle ranchers and dairy processors, revolted. They were extremely upset that their foods might be “bad for you.” Cattle ranchers from McGovern’s home wanted the report to be tabled. Meat and egg producers got a new hearing to express their fury. And former Sen. Bob Dole, a member of the committee, offered Wray Finney, president of the National Cattlemen’s Association, an alternative to the suggestion to “decrease consumption of meat.” Dole proposed the now popular notion of “increasing consumption of lean meats.”

Finney replied: “Decrease is a bad word, senator.”

McGovern relented to the pressure and issued a revised version of the dietary report a few months later. It beefed up advice on obesity and alcohol consumption but allowed increased consumption of salt and substituted the “eat less” meat recommendation with the more political “choose meats, poultry and fish, which will reduce saturated fat intake.”

McGovern also praised a McDonald’s fast food meal as “a nutritious addition to a balanced diet.” Still, the committee issued its report, but there was a heavy political cost as McGovern’s committee was later merged with the Agriculture Committee and the senator was defeated in his 1980 campaign for reelection.

That was the last time the U.S. government ever stated that American should eat less. Over the last decade, the food industry has spent a considerable amount of money and clout to restore its public image and tone up its political muscles on Capitol Hill.

By the late-1990s, the milk-processing industry launched its famous “milk mustache” campaign to boost milk consumption. Three years ago, the $130 million ad campaign, funded in part by a government food-marketing program, helped spike sagging milk sales by .7 percent, mostly through sales of chocolate milk.

The “milk mustache” pitch featured many well-known celebrities. It also drew criticism from animal rights activists and people who cannot digest milk. To dispel the controversy of its ad campaign, the milk industry demonstrated its clout by featuring then-Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala in a full-page ad in The New York Times and other newspapers.

The pitch was for the health benefits of lowfat milk. The ad declared, “So what’s the best way to load up on calcium? Drink low-fat or fat-free milk. We always keep a thermos in the cabinet.”

Although Shalala was not paid for the ad, there is a clear conflict of interest at play. At the time, Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture were in the process of naming an advisory panel for the 2000 Dietary Guidelines report.

And the Dairy Council was lobbying hard for a looser standard of “high fat” and opposed inclusion of soy products into the dairy category. The pressure campaign worked. The report did not mix dairy and soy products on the food pyramid, and the Dairy Council cheered.

Nestle provides ample accounts of food industry influence in Washington. But it does not end there. The food industry is deeply tied to nutrition research and in dispensing sensible advice on food choices.

For example, Kraft Foods underwrites a popular Web site run by the Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy. The site (Tufts Navigator) rates other nutrition Web sites for scientific accuracy, context, balance and the depth of coverage of nutrition topics. It gave high ratings to the American Dietetic Association, the National Pork Producers Council, Campbell’s Soup and the American Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

The corporately funded Tufts site had few kind words for public-interest voices. The site run by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, derided by critics as “the food police,” got a mediocre grade. The Tufts graders did not find a problem with the accuracy of the CSPI information but instead took issue with the nonprofit’s “sensationalist and alarmist tone.” CSPI rebutted the ranking, noting that Kraft is a big marketer of such unhealthy fare as hot dogs, margarine and processed cheese.

But what can be done to rein in the food industry? Nestle, an academic, provides few answers other than to patronize farmers markets and buy more organic produce. What’s needed is nothing short of a new “eat less” movement that will get the American government to establish clear dietary guidelines based on health standards that have been recognized for decades. It’s really a matter of forcing politicians to have the backbone to stand up to the food and snack companies. The parents and public health officials in California pushing for a sin tax on soda or “liquid candy” are off to a good start.

—Robert Nixon

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