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 Mark Bittman in today’s NYT writes, that the government must frame policy that regulates what we choose to eat. I agree and I’ll explain why.

A society is a communal organization. Its success requires its members to live, behave and eat responsibly in a way that fuels both, their own personal growth as well as that of the community. When self-regulation and self-discipline falter, it always has a larger impact than the self and at some point a ripple effect will be set in motion. The people who today say that they don’t want to be told what to eat, must also understand that they will fall sick someday and then, other people will not want to pay for their health. Personal responsibility with lifestyle is acutely tied to health care costs. I am not saying that we must become ascetics; I only ask that we exercise some measure of control and balance in our eating choices. The right of choice is not absolute. It comes equally balanced with the responsibility of making the right choice. Without that active process of considered decision-making, we stare at the face of ruin.  Frank Herbert, the author of ‘Dune’, says it better: “Seek freedom and become captive of your desires. Seek discipline and find your liberty”.

The risk from a bad diet to disease and overall health is far greater than that from tobacco or alcohol. That fact cannot be ignored any more, simply because packaged food is ubiquitous and has invaded kitchens. Things strewn in happy, warm fuzzy places, like kitchen shelves and brightly lit grocery aisles, autosuggest good wellbeing. It is a very hard exercise to whip up enough worry to make this sort of food taboo. After all, unlike tobacco or alcohol, they don’t sit in designated areas in a supermarket; they occupy shelves in every aisle. 

Paul Cezzane: Still life; Bavarian State Picture Museum, Munich

Our eating and buying patterns are ingrained and changing them is akin to a huge tectonic shift in lifestyle and the task in indeed a formidable one. Yet, in the face of increasingly worrying information about food related health disorders, obesity and diabetic epidemics, change is not a choice anymore. 

But, how do we change? Most will agree that most of the fun in grocery shopping is in the mindless browsing of shelves cluttered with bewildering but delectable choice. We love indulging our curiosity with new products and in the warm feeling of guiltless pleasure in knowing that we are both, doing a ‘job’ and enjoying it at the same time. However, the actual business of buying rarely takes much time because we usually buy the same tried and tested products in the comforting sense of familiarity that marketing folk call, ‘brand loyalty’. To move away from the comfort zone of the products we know and like to the uncertain one of products we want to buy, but don’t know enough about, we need information. How reasonable is it to expect people to change eating practices, to make an informed decision on what they eat, when the subject of food and diet is littered with confusing jargon, poorly understood directives, improper classification and a lack of easily digestible information about ‘what to buy’ in the supermarket. 

The effort with changing what we eat is confronted with a problem at the outset itself – the definition of ‘food’. The word ‘food’, automatically connotes a good vibe of sustenance, nutrition and wellbeing. And that is also how it is defined. “Food” (or “foodstuff”) means any substance or product, whether processed, partially processed or unprocessed, intended to be, or reasonably expected to be ingested by humans. For a more detailed definition, click here. Quite clearly, this blanket definition runs the gamut of all and everything edible and makes no distinction between, a)harmful b)harmless but low in nutrition and c)high nutrition varieties. ‘Processed food’ is yet another ambiguous term. Processing means altering food from its natural state for purposes of storage, nutrition or taste. Not all processed food is harmful. Bread made with whole grain, for example, is good nutrition. As is, fortified whole grain flour. On the other hand, sugared cereal and refined flour are not. Unfortunately, not all food distinctions are this easy. 

Current information on the ‘content’ of food is hard to assimilate. Food pyramids and Food plates, while useful, offer little real help with ‘products’ on the shelf. A consumer’s health interests are better served when a product’s packaging has its glycemic index, gluten content, protein and fat content emblazoned in a sharply designed standardized format that is in one defined place on the box. The current nutrition labels detail, in tiny impossible to read print, complicated information on serving size and percentages of recommended daily intake. This information is extensive and hard to assimilate.

In recognition of the difficulty with putting the food pyramid to practical use, My plate was developed as a more consumer friendly alternative. While that is indeed a welcome step forward; a tandem evolution in food labeling in step with My plate, would have not only increased the visibility of this public health exercise, but also converted it into information that consumers could readily use while making their food choices in a grocery store. 

A more specific labeling system for itemized everyday products like milk, juice, cheese, cereal, frozen food, processed grain etc., needs to be created.  This new system will link products directly to My plate in order that a consumer doesn’t have to make calculations anymore. The new chart should have already predetermined the My plate daily requirement to an absolute number. All labels will now have a value that is a percentage of that number. The brilliant design of My plate’s icon has five food essentials on display in five colors. Food labels can be simplified to display the contents of these same five nutrients in the same five color codes. The color can be graded based on how the percentage content of the box’s My plate requirements. The new labeling system might look something like this:

A quick look at the USDA site, reveals an extraordinary amount of excellent information that is however hard to pare down to needs. A lot of the information on My plate can be condensed and designed to fit into handy download-able charts. These charts should become ubiquitous from the home to the stores. They can be stuck to grocery carts and hung in the aisles. Grocery store employees must be trained in their use. And trained staff must ensure that they be distributed along with food stamps along with verbal instructions on their use.

Harmful processed food is marketed as grab-n-go convenience, sold in attractive packaging and labeled as ‘food’. Rather than the current nutrition labels that few read and fewer understand, parents and activists should lobby for marketing change to ensure that sodas, refined and processed food, etc have health hazard labels that link possible contents to FSIS/USDA alerts and labels that detail the connect between preventable disease and health care costs. While we, as the public, can be rightfully expected to be more responsible in our food choices, it is imperative that academics, scientists, ministries of health and international organizations start engaging in a collective exercise to standardize food terminology and nutrition charts that are easily comprehensible and acceptable to the public.

De keukenmeid

Johannes Vermeer: The Kitchen Maid; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

When dealing with the issue of regulating or rationing food to people who use and need government food welfare programs, policy can become predicament. It is hard to make a reasoned for case issuing food stamps that are used to purchase harmful food. Regulating what is purchased on food stamps curtails the choice of a consumer. But, the government cannot be expected to accept responsibility for the exercising of unhealthy choice. That is under the ambit of individual responsibility. On the other hand, any plan that targets the poor’s choices while giving the rich a free berth is obviously improper and partisan. One way of balancing this, might be to disincentivize purchase of harmful food by the public as a whole, by simply making the cost of harmful foodstuff prohibitive.  So, while their purchase is restrained by restricting access on food stamps; in general retail too, high costs will serve as an effective deterrent. This method has recorded success with tobacco and cigarettes. Of course, there are limits to how high prices can be raised and the margins might not make a dent with the wealthy. Yet, while it still doesn’t level the playing field; a change for the better, and the knowledge that our families are eating healthier, will be a satisfying emollient.

We need to start talking this subject, more heatedly, within our families and communities. After all, if desire is always going to trump discipline, policy must take over and enforce it.