Menu

FOOD DRINK

Soft drinks are the whipping boy of anti-obesity campaigns

iStock

Statistics show that obesity and diabetes are on a trajectory to be to today’s kids what a house and white-picket fence were to the previous generation.

No surprise then that governments “solutions” crop up like kudzu, the latest being New York City’s proposed ban on soft drinks 16 ounces and up.

We fault our politicians because they lack the courage to deal with difficult problems in a meaningful way. So, it's refreshing to have a politician like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg actually try to solve what seems like an intractable problem. Only, it’s not the right solution.

The problem is too many calories going in and not enough going out. Those calories come from everywhere, not just soft drinks. Soft drinks are simply the easiest target to demagogue.

A liter of Coca-Cola has 400 calories and 108 grams of sugar. A Haagen-Dazs Belgian Chocolate Shake has 1,260 calories and 102 grams of sugar plus 79 grams of fat, 47 of them, saturated. No one’s talking about banning, limiting or taxing ice cream.

Soft drinks have unfairly become the whipping boy of most anti-obesity campaigns. Maybe friends shouldn’t give friends Big Gulps, but to my knowledge, no one’s ever been forced to buy and drink one. People who want sweet drinks will find and consume them, regardless.

There’s an element of personal responsibility and control that this law and others like it don’t even attempt to address. At the end of the day you end up with a well-intentioned law that oversimplifies the problem and provides a correspondingly oversimplified solution.

No one’s denying that that we’re in the middle of an epidemic. Twenty-five percent of applicants are deemed too fat to serve in the Armed Forces. The implications for the defense of the country as well as for the future competitiveness of the American workforce are catastrophic.

But taxing, limiting and legislating soft drinks will not solve this crisis. Our history of isolating, demonizing and replacing ingredients in a quest for health proves that. 

It was sugar in the 60s and 70s, fat in the 90s (remember the fat substitute Olestra), carbohydrates in 2000 and high-fructose corn syrup in 2010. The more we remove, the more we substitute, the heavier we get. The numbers bear this out. Ingredients don’t make people fat. Over-consumption does.

Do we persecute French chefs who make Hollandaise sauce (1097 calories in one cup, 1050 from fat—at least it’s high fructose corn syrup-free)? Chefs and cooks generally, don't believe in substitutions. There are lots cookbooks, for example, based around substitutions but that's filling a market niche. And if they worked, we'd be a thinner nation. Substitutions ruin the flavor and texture of food which, if you're a chef or write cookbooks, is what you care about.

And if you're an eater, which all of us, the food is unsatisfying and you end up looking for more stuff to eat.

Americans are becoming increasingly aware that one-in-three children will be overweight or obese, and that we spend billions of dollars treating entirely preventable diseases. As that awareness grows, Americans are becoming more active. They’re making different choices and manufacturers are creating new markets.

Deciding what foods we want to put inside our bodies is one of the most personal freedoms we have. And that includes the right to make bad choices.

Government isn’t the answer. What’s to stop the government from pushing additional food-based legislation?  Could there possibly be body-mass index (BMI) laws allowing thin people to eat more? Think about whether you really want the government, the one that can’t fill plough streets or that takes years to re-do a playground, determining not just what, but how much, you should eat.

Awareness and moderation are central to solving obesity, which is perhaps what Bloomberg really intends by introducing a law that seems patently unenforceable: How do you stop someone from walking into three different stores and buying three separate12-ounce soft drinks, or penalize a retailer for offering a two-for-one sale?

Rather than penalize, incentivize. Senators John Cornyn’s (R-TX) and Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) Workforce Health Improvement Program (WHIP) Act introduced in October would help provide tax incentives to small businesses that encourage healthy lifestyles. Making gym memberships tax-deductible would be another good step.

Increasing activity, especially in schools, one obvious solution, is rarely addressed. But First Lady Michelle Obama did just that just this past Wednesday as was doing the rounds for her new book, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Gardens and Gardens Across America (Crown).

“Activity,” Mrs. Obama said to The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, “is being eliminated from our schools in many ways.” 

Soda bans, limits and taxes imply that feel-good government fixes will solve obesity. They won’t. 

You could even argue that the government caused the obesity crisis in the first place by subsidizing commodities that are the foundation of many less-healthy foods.

You can take a look at subsidies, at how technology and entertainment have exploded over the past decade decreasing childrens’ activity levels, at how busy families rely on take-out and prepared meals rather than cooking with the attendant loss of calorie-control and try to find meaningful solutions.

Or you can ban large sodas.

Elena Ferretti is a Fox Foddie columnist and resident of New York City.