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Knowledge is Power in Fighting Obesity

Americans are fat, and getting fatter. According to the American Heart Association, 78 million adults and 13 million children in the United States are obese. This crisis is being attacked by public officials like Michelle Obama, who has made addressing childhood obesity her area of focus during her tenure as First Lady. She started the Let’s Move campaign and enlisted celebrities like Beyoncé in an attempt to glamorize physical fitness and healthier lifestyles.

But while campaigns that educate the public on healthy lifestyles are generally not controversial, attempts to grant Americans access to information that could help them make healthier choices via policy have been a battle. Hardly anyone will be opposed to campaigns that vaguely tell Americans that they should move more and eat better, but plans to give them the information they actually need to do so are vastly more contested, and in some cases downright blocked. Due largely to powerful food lobbyists, information that could lead Americans to make healthier choices is systematically withheld in many cases.

The issue of calorie labeling, for instance, is a salient pore in the US’s food and health apparatus. The Food and Drug Administration announced in November 2014 that starting in December of 2015, all chain restaurants, movie theaters and pizza parlors in the United States would be required to label all menu items’ calorie information. This was to include food sold in vending machines, at amusement parks, certain pre-prepared food sold in supermarkets, and any chain restaurant with at least twenty outlets. While some congressmen opposed the initiative on the grounds that it would impose onerous costs on businesses and harm the economy, the health benefits of the law seem to clearly outweigh these costs. New York City successfully implemented a similar regulation in 2006, and 18 other states and cities followed suit.

Letting Americans know the calorie content of what they eat seems like a wise step in cultivating a more nutritionally literature populace. According to the FDA, as much as a third of calories that Americans consume come from restaurants and other sources outside the home, and increasingly large portion sizes are a major contributor to the growing obesity epidemic. Furthermore, this type of law seems innocuous; it would not make any choices for Americans, or even create incentives for Americans to make better choices for themselves, like Mayor Bloomberg’s wildly unpopular oversized-soda tax a few years ago. It would only supply them with information they could use to inform their decisions or ignore as they wish.

However, it does seem likely such a law would help Americans make healthier choices on their own. Empirical data shows that access to that information does affect the choices consumers make: A 2008 Stanford study of Starbucks in New York showed that after the chain started labeling calories, the average customer bought six percent fewer calories in each transaction. The calorie consumption of people who averaged over 250 per transaction fell by 26 percent. After posting the calorie counts, Starbucks’ profits did not fall, and its consumers made healthier choices. This seems to suggest that when Americans do not have access to calorie information, they are consuming more than they realize. Giving Americans access to that information nationally seems integral to moving the country in a healthier direction.

But December 2015 has passed and it hasn’t happened yet. After persistent lobbying from restaurants and food companies, the FDA extended the deadline another year: the requirement is now to go into effect December 2016. While some argue that the deadline extension only gave businesses a chance to comply with the new regulation, others fear that it will never go into effect at all. Calorie labeling was originally made into law in 2010 as part of the Affordable Care Act, after all, but its implementation was delayed in part due to food lobbying. Marion Nestle, a professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, labeled the setback as a “victory” for food lobbyists. According to Nestle, “Food companies must be hoping that if they can delay menu labeling long enough, it will just go away.”

Indeed, food lobbyists wield immense power over the dissemination of and access to information. In a similar case, the nutritional information on prepackaged food includes the recommended percentage of daily intake for an item’s total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and vitamins, but sugar has been mysteriously absent. While Americans are warned in general terms to “avoid consuming too much sugar,” it can be hard to conceptualize what is too much. This is why the FDA has proposed a new rule to add this information to nutrition labels. This would help Americans put into perspective how much sugar the sixty-five grams found in a twenty-liter bottle of Coca Cola really adds to their diets (130 percent of daily recommended intake).

But why has this not been done before? It’s the same reason that has stopped restaurants from labeling calories on menus: Food lobbyists such as the Sugar Association have been working to diminish the propagation of information about sugar’s negative health effects, and have been fairly successful. Dana Milbank, an opinions writer for the Washington Post, likens the sugar lobbyists’ “old-school approach of denial” to that of the 1960s tobacco industry.

The fact that lobbyists are desperate to stymie Americans’ access to information about what they are eating shows exactly why it is important that such information is accessible. Without knowing what one is putting in her body, it is hard to make an informed choice about it. There are many factors that contribute to America’s obesity problem, and providing Americans with the information needed to make healthy choices will not solve all of them. But it is certainly an important step.


About the Author

Emma Axelrod '18 is a senior staff writer for the Brown Political Review.