Monday, September 12, 2016

Food Politics

Food Politics is a dense academic book that describes the key role that politics place in the food we eat. On one side, we have the government (USDA and FDA) attempting to regulate everything with a strict science-based approach. On the other side, we have food and supplement producers wanting to sell the most of their product. The loser? the American public. The FDA has noble intentions. However, it tends to rely on an overly reductionist approach to policy making. At times it does actually get things right. (It proposed a label for vitamins indicating that a balanced diet could provide the nutrients that we need.) However, it more often had the nasty habit of nitpicking labeling requests, thus giving the industry excuses to demand fewer regulations. Armed raids also don't help the matter. The industry also takes advantage of differences among scientists to help push its agenda. The end result is that we get a lot of marketing spiel with very little worthwhile information on our food labels.

The author had worked with the government and sat on some of the committees. She obviously favors the "science" approach to nutrition as opposed to the "feelings" approach advocated by many in the industry. In spite of this, she does not paint the FDA in a great light. Nutrition is an extremely complicated subject. There are some simple conditions with simple treatments (eliminate scurvy with fruit.) However, we have pretty much nipped all of these "easy" nutrition problems. Now, most of our problems are those of excess. We are concerned about the complex interaction among the many different components that make up the food we eat. However, many studies try to isolate one particular component of a food to study in a traditional study. Alas, this does not work well, because people don't eat that vitamin or mineral in isolation, they eat the entire fruit. And even if a particular food is studied, the nutritional profile of that food may differ depending on where it is grown, how it is prepared, and who consumes it. Food companies love this confusion and lobby to have their product "favored" based ona positive study, while fighting to prevent their product from being condemned after an unfavorable one. They even fight against labeling that might reduce the consumer's preference for their product. (However, if the public quickly turns on something, they are quick to "reformulate" to build market share. (e.g. "low carb", "low fat", "trans fat free")

What do we get out of this food politic mess? Not a whole lot. We often get fooled by "healthy" junk food that is really not healthy. And we get food that is excessively fortified to look good on labels. If anything, the confusion helps us to spend lots of money and get fat. I guess somebody is succeeding.

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