Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Sugar, Food and the Nanny State

That seems to be the gist of this argument in support of regulating sugar:
When Ronda Storms, a Republican state senator in Florida, is accused of nanny-state-ism for her efforts on behalf of a sane diet, it’s worth noting. When she introduced a bill to prevent people in Florida from spending food stamps on unhealthy items like candy, chips and soda, she broke ranks: few of her party have taken on Big Food....

To some, dictating what recipients of benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program can eat seems unfair. But when the program began in 1939 it aimed both to feed the unemployed and to aid farm recovery. Participants received $1.50 in stamps for every cash dollar spent, 50 cents of which was designated for purchase of agricultural surplus. That’s already a directive on spending, but perhaps more important is that nearly three-quarters of a century ago almost the only thing you could buy — with or without regulation — was real food. Since then Big Food has moved our diet in the wrong direction, and now we have a surplus of empty calories.

The argument for limiting the use of food stamps to actual food is consistent with established policy. They’re already disallowed for tobacco, alcohol,vitamins, pet foods, household supplies and (with some exceptions) food meant to be eaten on premises. Payments have been based on the cost of a “nutritionally adequate diet.”
First, most products include sugar. How do you create a meaningful regulation? Sugar is okay as long as the food isn't "too sweet" by some arbitrary measure? Raisins are okay, but not chocolate-covered raisins - even if the chocolate is less sweet than the raisins? No "craisins" or other dried fruits that have sugar added? What about sugar substitutes, some of which may be no more healthy than sugar and some of which may pose other health consequences? Also, if we're trying to ban "unhealthy foods", aren't we opening the door to a non-fallacious slippery slope argument: what about foods that are too fatty? What about foods that contain tropical oils? Salt? Nitrates?

The author cites a study that is particularly critical of fructose:
The authors specifically target “any sweetener containing the molecule fructose (which makes sugar sweet) that is added to food in processing” as the key problem in our current diet, and correlate the rise in consumption of sugar with a rise in disease, listing the many ways in which sugar’s effects on the body are similar to those of alcohol.
The authors also distinguish naturally occurring fructose from the addition of processed fructose to food products - a distinction that appears t be supported by science but again complicates the issue of regulation. You can't buy product X because it's sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, but you can buy product Y because it's sweetened with white grape juice?

Also, isn't it a bit simplistic to say that fructose "makes sugar sweet" when we also sweeten with glucose (high fructose corn syrup is about 55% fructose and about 42% glucose) or sucrose (in which the fructose is bound to glucose at a molecular level, rather than being free)? If the problem is an excess of fructose, and fructose is markedly worse for the health than other sugars, why not work on reducing the food industry's reliance on high fructose corn syrup instead of targeting sugars that are, well, less unhealthy?

Fundamentally, though, I think the idea of trying to regulate poor people in this fashion is ill-considered. It's fairly described as nanny-statism becuase tht's exactly what it is. If I had my druthers, although an initial lump sum would be included on a newly issued card, we would charge EBT cards by an equal increment each day (so nobody could completely run out of food money for more than a day) but otherwise let individual recipients decide how to use that money. I don't see much point to creating a context in which some recipients trade their EBT card for a cash payment of half of its value, or buy groceries that they intend to trade for what they really want. Let people make mistakes, let people learn from those mistakes. (I would extend this to other aid for which the recipient doesn't want bills to be vendored - if you want a cash allotment to pay your heating bill and you choose to spend it on something else, you should face the consequences of that choice and can subsequently either manage the money properly, have the bill vendored, or again deal with the consequences of a possible shutoff when you don't pay your bill).

I find it interesting that the author makes no argument that sugar poses a special or unique risk to the poor, or that the poor eat a disproportionate number of desserts or candy bars as compared to other groups. Just that poor people don't need sweet foods and we should feel free to try to regulate the poor into eating healthier diets. We also overestimate the effects of the interference - money is fungible, after all, and if you provide two sources of cash aid, one with strings and one without, you don't stop somebody from purchasing cigarettes or alcohol even as you pat yourself on the back for not letting them buy it with their EBT money. There are better ways to approach this issue, and ways that should be far more effective than trying to impede the poor from buying sweetened foods. I know the poor are easy targets, easily vilified, easily treated as some form of the "undeserving other", but you would think that present times would teach us that we "responsible folk" aren't necessarily as far removed from being on food assistance as we would like to believe.

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