Food policy: Check the ingredient list

May 22nd, 2009  |  Published in Stumpblog  |  7 Comments

From the USDA Economic Research Service:

Policies designed to improve the diet quality and health of Americans are likely to have only marginal effects on consumers’ food choices. However, policies targeted directly at consumers such as nutrition information and education programs, along with labeling regulations, can spur the reformulation of products with healthier ingredients by stimulating competition among food manufacturers to offer products that appeal to health-conscious consumers. Manufacturers’ responsiveness to food policy provides policymakers with a lever to affect diet quality for large numbers of consumers. Effective use of this lever can help stimulate a chain reaction leading to healthy food reformulations and a more nutritious food supply.

Full report

I’m not totally convinced by this argument. For one thing, relying on consumer choice can bring us grotesque satires of nutritious food such as the Cherry 7-Up with antioxidants. Most consumers are not educated enough to make the best choices, especially in the face of very powerful and compelling marketing campaigns. People who really want to do the right thing still end up buying fat-free cookies and sugary granola bars, because they’re “healthier”. And just look at the hideous mimesis of food that is epitomized by protein bars. You can figure out how to eat well, especially if you focus on whole foods, but it’s challenging.

In addition, “the market fixes everything” hasn’t worked out so great lately. Research suggests that consumers are not as responsive to small changes in food prices. Making healthy food cheaper or unhealthy food more expensive doesn’t work if the difference is only slight. Nobody really cares about a 20-cent difference, just as people didn’t really start rethinking SUVs until they felt gas was exorbitantly overpriced. (And compared to elsewhere in the world, North Americans get off really easy.)

On the other hand, policies that act directly at the manufacturer’s level can definitely affect what is produced. Producers are sensitive to small variations in the cost of raw materials, especially in the food production industry where profit margins can be relatively slight.

This can be bad — for example, as the cost of high fructose corn syrup decreased and the cost of raw sugar increased, manufacturers started jamming HFCS into everything.

It can (in theory) also be good. If the price of crap increases, perhaps producers may have to turn to making decent stuff. We can only hope.


  1. Trishy says:

    May 22nd, 2009at 6:39 pm(#)

    I am personally all for a tax on sugary drinks, which is a proposal that is described here:

    Of course it is not going to fix the obesity epidemic, but it may at least help reduce some people’s soda intake. This is purely anecdotal, but I know a few people who quit smoking when cigarettes became ridiculously expensive.

    Just like the federal tax incentive for renewable energy technologies is a worthy investment because it forces us in a better direction, I think a similar line of reasoning can be used to justify forcing companies to make healthier food by either eliminating or taxing crappy ingredients (like trans fatty acids, high fructose corn syrup, etc.).

  2. julie says:

    May 22nd, 2009at 10:56 pm(#)

    I agree, I don’t think consumer choice is going to be enough. People can preach until the cows come home, but money talks. Look at how many people quit smoking every time there’s a price hike. I think it’s pollyannish to think people will give up yummy cheap convenient food for healthy stuff without a hit to the wallet to encourage them. I also believe that “the obesity epidemic” isn’t going to improve so long as everything boils down to personal responsibility, without any assistance from the food industry.

  3. Kas says:

    May 23rd, 2009at 11:27 am(#)

    People will continue eating crappy foods until either they’re unavailable, or they know better. I know which route I prefer.

  4. Liz says:

    May 26th, 2009at 8:12 am(#)

    I’m a fan of the soda tax, but I’m disappointed that it won’t apply to so-called “diet” drinks, which I also feel are unhealthy. Just saw a new product – 100% juice with DHA for brain development. Great. Now parents will be convinced the juice is “healthy” for Junior and have them suck it down instead of having a glass of water and a nice piece of fresh fruit.

    I did a blog post about the tricks food companies play with the nutritional information table. They add all sorts of artificial ingredients, knowing that most consumers check the nutritional table, not the ingredients. So you end up with artificial sweeteners, isolated fiber, partially hydrogenated oils (but not enough to be .5g per serving), and a littany of chemicals designed to trigger all of our body’s normal responses to sweet and salty foods (cravings).


    No wonder I do the majority of my shopping in the produce aisle.

  5. Victoria says:

    May 28th, 2009at 4:17 am(#)

    As a former 2 pack a day smoker, I have to say that it was certainly not the price of cigarettes that made me quit (and I was paying 5+ euros a pack at the time).

    THE main reason for my decision had to do with convenience. After France passed a law last year making it illegal to smoke inside anywhere, smoking became inconvenient and even downright unpleasant. I could no longer have my aperitif and a smoke at the bar or resto, or a coffee and a smoke at a cafe or sit at my desk and write and smoke. If I could still do those things, I would still be smoking even if cigarettes were 10+ euros a pack. And all the education in the world from grade school up didn’t do a damn thing to get me to stop. When it was pleasurable and easy to do, I did it. When it became hard to do and meant real inconvenience on my part, I quit.

    Are soda drinkers like cigarette smokers? I have no idea since I don’t indulge :-) But could we think of ways that would make soda drinking inconvenient and nudge people toward better choices?

  6. Kelly says:

    May 28th, 2009at 7:24 am(#)

    You know, I really have to disagree with any sort of tax on foods whether they are unhealthy or not. For that matter, I find it wrong that the smoking tax was imposed. We dont need to let the government have any more power, especially to legislate what we eat or put in our bodies. Who knows what these idiots would end up doing? Besides, a lot of the problem of unhealthy diets has to do with people being unable to get healthiier foods regularly. Try living in a poor neighborhood with no car and only a corner store. The sugary, fatty foods are also highly addictive. I could swear they put crack in them! Outlawing the use of hydrogenated fats and high fructose corn syrup would be the best thing. You cant force someone to eat the way YOU want because they are NOT YOU! Everyone should take care of themselves and their family and not worry so much about what another person does. We cannot protect other adults from themselves; they are grownups after all.

  7. Trishy says:

    May 28th, 2009at 11:31 am(#)

    The problem is, these are not just individual problems. You can say that John Doe is allowed to be fat and unhealthy, and that’s his problem, it doesn’t affect me … but that is not really true. The tremendous burden being put on the health care system right now due to skyrocketing obesity, diabetes, heart problems, and subsequent medication abuse (just to name a few) makes it harder for me to afford health insurance for my family. That certainly does affect me. It’s a similar issue that I have with smokers: you can kill yourself with cigarettes as fast as you want — that is absolutely the right of the individual — just keep it away from me. You do NOT have the right to harm me by smoking two feet away from me.

    Furthermore, the government already legislates what we eat and put in our bodies, and for the most part, that’s a good thing. The government passes and enforces the regulations that put strict limits on the amount of foreign contaminants that can be present in foods. There are food quality standards that producers must meet in order to market their food. You cannot rely on the manufacturer having the individual’s best interests in mind when they are producing and marketing a new product, because a manufacturer’s best interest is the bottom line. Most of the companies that supply our food, cosmetics, cleaning products, and everything else we use in our daily lives will do anything legal to cut costs without sacrificing too much quality (for example, replacing sugar with HFCS). If you don’t want them to do this, the government has to make it illegal or not cost-effective, which may involve taxing the crap out of the item or one of its precursors.

    I agree that the financial burden should lie mostly on the manufacturer, not the consumer, but high cost is a generally effective deterrent. Just look at the drop in car use that occurred last summer when gas rose above $4 a gallon in the States (I know, we’re spoiled).

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