Food/Nutrition Columnist
Should The Government Tell Us What To Eat?
Sep 27, 2010 - 6:05:00 AM

( - I applaud Mrs. Obama’s challenge to restaurants to offer healthy menu options and her continued commitment to lower the risk for childhood obesity. But I have reservations when the medical health care reform bill mandates that restaurants post nutrition information and many states are considering a sin tax on soda and candy. Legislating what people put in their mouths is not the best approach. Mandating healthy choices could backfire because health advice evolves and changes.

Recommendations are far better than regulations and legislation. We recommended that people eat more fiber and whole grain foods. That’s wise. As the nutrition information evolved, first we suggested more fiber, then we suggested an emphasis on whole grain foods which contain fiber. So far in 2010 over 650 whole grain foods have been introduced. As consumers buy more whole grain foods, manufacturers produce more. As science evolves, nutrition, which interprets science into the foods you eat, offers advice based on the latest findings. We’ve gotten the message that whole grain foods are good for us and we eat more.

If we turn our recommendations into law, the advice becomes more static and will not change with the evolution of scientific evidence. Case in point, the nutrition facts panel that appears on every food label that is bigger than a Lifesaver package, is a law. The values used for the label are based on Recommended Dietary Allowances which have been replaced with updated Dietary Reference Intakes. The food label uses 60 milligrams of vitamin C as the adult daily requirement. Today, the adult daily vitamin C requirement is 90 milligrams. Why don’t they change the label you ask? Because it is a law and requires an act of Congress.

The labeling law was modified to include trans fat values in 2006. Most manufacturers were already removing trans fat from their products because of new scientific findings about its role in heart disease. So today, most trans fat values on labels are zero. Yet this value must be listed even though it provides little useful information to consumers. You might argue that food manufacturers removed trans fat from products because of the impending legislation. It’s possible. But, most manufacturers follow trends that move far quicker than legislation. These trends drive product development to meet consumer demands such as the current increase in whole grain foods and the reduction of sodium in brands. If consumers do not buy new products, food manufacturers do not make a profit, and the products quickly disappear from the shelf.

Many legislators have become convinced that candy, soda and sweet snacks are driving the obesity epidemic in this country. San Francisco’s mayor has banned the sale of sugar-sweetened drinks in city buildings. Boston is considering a similar ban. They believe if they tax these foods, less of them will be consumed. It is a valid hypothesis but there is little evidence to prove it is true. Food taxes are added at checkout. They are not displayed on the grocery shelf. Many argue that the shopper will not be aware of the taxes and therefore they may not affect consumption. If the tax goes through, and we find in the future that taxing these foods did not change obesity patterns, it is unlikely the taxes will be repealed.

But the issue gets even more complicated. If you are going to tax candy, the taxing authorities must define candy. What, exactly, is candy? The Streamlined Sales Tax Governing Board is trying to figure that out right now. They are a group that helps states enforce uniform sales taxes.

The board has defined candy as a preparation of sugar, honey or other natural or artificial sweeteners in combination with fruits, nuts, or other flavoring ingredients to form bars, drops or pieces. Candy cannot contain flour and does not require refrigeration. Under this definition, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Three Musketeers are considered candy, but Kit Kat and Milky Way, because they contain flour, are exempt from the tax. Laws and regulations require specific definitions. If all that is needed is a little flour to help a basic candy recipe circumvent the new proposed taxes, you have to wonder how often that may happen if the candy law goes into effect.

One of the lesser known provisions of the health care reform act is the Menu Labeling Provisions Section 4205. This will require retail food chains with more than 20 locations nationwide to provide calorie information on menus or food displays as well as more detailed written nutrition information available upon request. Many chain restaurants have provided extensive nutrition information to consumers for more than 20 years. Today, it is posted on websites and often available in pamphlets in the stores. The law makes this voluntary information mandatory.

As with the problem defining candy, there are many exemptions to the menu labeling rule. Seasonal offerings and specials do not need to be nutrition labeled. If companies operate under different names, they are exempt. Restaurants with less than 19 locations are exempt. Local restaurants are exempt. You get the picture. Because of the need to define legislation precisely, it leads to built in loopholes and ways around the requirements, often making the intent of the legislation more complicated to enforce and eventually less effective.

Using taxes on foods and bans on ingredients is a complicated undertaking with many unknowns. Some earnestly believe that government intervention is the only way we will get people to make better food choices. Others do not. Is good health and healthy eating better served through recommendation or regulations? That question is yet to be answered.

© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and the author of the nutrition counter series for Pocket Books with 12 current titles and sales in excess of 8 million books. The books are widely available at your local or on-line bookseller.
Current titles include:
The Calorie Counter, 5th Ed., 2010
The Ultimate Carbohydrate Counter, 3rd Ed., 2010
The Complete Food Counter, 3rd ed., 2009
The Fat Counter, 7th ed., 2009
The Healthy Wholefoods Counter, 2008
The Cholesterol Counter, 7th Ed., 2008
The Diabetes Carbohydrate and Calorie Counter, 3rd Ed., 2007
For more information on Jo-Ann and her books, go to the newly updated website The Nutrition Experts

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