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Our broken food policy can be fixed by basing it on science

If Americans ate just one more serving of fruits or vegetables per day, we would save more than 30,000 lives and $5 billion in medical costs each year. 

Something strange is happening in America around food. We now know from science that many of our most debilitating health problems — from heart disease to diabetes — are caused by the food we put into our bodies. Yet as a nation we seem powerless to do anything about it. We hear prescriptions that we should exercise more, but is a lack of exercise really what’s making us sick and tired?

Shawn Lawrence Otto

Americans eat far too few fruits and vegetables, and far too much sugar, salt and other commodity ingredients that are not particularly healthy for people to eat, but are hidden in foods filling the grocery-store aisles. These ingredients can have profound impacts on our health and well-being.

A recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists calculated that the medical cost of treating just one of these diet-driven killers — heart disease and stroke — was as much as $94 billion in 2010, and was expected to triple by 2030. Clearly, the economics of our national food policy — which heavily subsidizes ingredients that go into processed food — are becoming untenable.

People need access to good food

Andrew Rosenberg

Science is pointing toward a solution for Americans to reverse this problem and live longer, healthier, more satisfying and more productive lives, but to do that we need ready, normal, commodity-like access to the kinds of foods that will help achieve this goal. For example, if Americans ate just one more serving of fruits or vegetables per day, we would save more than 30,000 lives and $5 billion in medical costs each year

So why is it that our federal food policy isn’t taking that science into account and encouraging farmers and the food industry to foster a system that makes better food more plentiful and promotes healthier eating, instead of making us sick with processed foods? The answers are as old as lobbying itself.

From dietary guidelines to agricultural subsidy programs, from government purchasing to community planning, policies that are important to creating the food environment we live in are too often driven by the desire to sell more food, instead of healthier food.

The result? The other night one of us had a friend over. We grilled packaged hamburgers. They were the best-tasting burgers the friend had ever had. Later we looked at the ingredients: ground beef, and high-fructose corn syrup, added to make you want more.

Community networks

So what would a healthier food environment look like if we did use the knowledge we derive from science? The Minnesota Food Charter is one example. It opens up the decision-making process to citizens, creating community networks so that all of us can shape the policies that bring food to our tables, instead of relying on agribusiness and a failed federal food policy to determine our diets.

Another solution lies in sharing what works. Over the next few days, the Union of Concerned Scientists is collaborating with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health to bring top food scientists from around the country together with community activists, policymakers and other thought leaders to examine the policy changes that can be made at local, state, and federal levels to make our food environment healthier. A free public forum, scheduled from 4:30 to 7 p.m. on May 6 at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, will allow engaged citizens to hear these experts’ concerns, ask them questions and exchange ideas for change. 

We don’t have to be getting sick, fat and tired from our food, and if the federal policies are stuck, we can work locally to make things better.  We can change our policies to meet the challenges we face — and make more accessible, more affordable and healthier food and food policy available to nourish not only our children, but all of us. The prize is longer, more productive, healthier lives, and lower costs.

Don Shelby to moderate

To be a part of this national discussion, we encourage you to attend the forum, moderated by former TV news anchor Don Shelby. If you cannot attend in person, we encourage you to join more than 1,200 people who have already signed up for the webcast. By bringing top public health and nutrition scientists together with activists, journalists and the public, we hope to foster a national discussion that can begin to find new solutions to the problem of basing our broken food policy back on science. Your voice is important to that conversation.

Shawn Lawrence Otto is the producer of the U.S. presidential science debates. His book “Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America won the 2012 Minnesota Book Award. Andrew Rosenberg is the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/02/2014 - 06:57 pm.

    Policies

    I read the entire article twice and still didn’t understand what those wrong federal food policies are. I thought that federal government hasn’t gotten into business of telling me what to eat. It tries to make what I eat safer which is great but does not try to limit what I eat (except ill attempts to limit soda in New York and foie gras in Chicago, I believe). There is no shortage of healthy food, fruits and vegetables in the stores so anyone who wants to eat healthy can do it. But until hamburger without corn syrup tastes the same as the one with it, people will be buying the unhealthy but tasty foods …

  2. Submitted by Steve Rose on 05/03/2014 - 04:02 pm.

    Is access really the issue?

    “Science is pointing toward a solution for Americans to reverse this problem and live longer, healthier, more satisfying and more productive lives, but to do that we need ready, normal, commodity-like access to the kinds of foods that will help achieve this goal. For example, if Americans ate just one more serving of fruits or vegetables per day, we would save more than 30,000 lives and $5 billion in medical costs each year.”

    If you visited the Minneapolis grocer I frequent, the first thing you would encounter inside the door is a large produce department stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables. If I wanted to added a a daily serving of produce to my diet, who would stop me?

    The advice that you failed to include is that the extra serving of fruits or vegetables should replace a serving of something else. Most Americans are already eating enough calories.

  3. Submitted by DENNIS SCHMINKE on 05/04/2014 - 09:44 pm.

    Food

    I am calling ‘B.S.’ on this article. I want to see the label on this ‘supposed’ product. I worked nearly 40 years in the meat industry. I WORKED in a plant that made every ground beef patty imaginable. I have NEVER, EVER heard of anyone adding high fructose corn syrup to a hamburger patty. From a meat science standpoint, I cannot see any reason why you would want to. For lots of reasons sugars ARE added to various sausages (taste, in the case of a cured/smoked sausage; for processing–sugars are added to various dry sausages to help the lactobacilli cultures ‘do their thing’,,,etc.), But to a fresh ground beef patty–WHY??? If you don’t want to deal with what you see on the label then just buy fresh tray-pack ground beef at the store and make your own patties. They are better anyway. And I don’t wanna hear a bunch of c**ap about ‘pink slime’.

    Also–HINT–if you want them to be REALLY GOOD–then go no leaner than 80% lean. You are gonna cook most of the fat out on the grill anyway.

    In addition, I just wanna say…so what is the real complaint here? It’s not like there is any shortage of fresh produce at ANY U.S. grocery store. You wanna have a public health campaign…have at it. We all learned in 5th grade health class that it is a Good Thing TO BRUSH OUR TEETH 2-3 times a day. Do the same thing with fruits and veggies. Last thing we need is to have the govt involved from a regulatory standpoint. What do you want…a hall-monitor at head of every check-out line, inquiring as to your family size, and making sure you have enough in the cart to meet the govt-mandated allotment of ‘fresh’ every day for a week???

    As Joe S. would say–‘B. as in B; S. as in S.

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 05/05/2014 - 10:06 am.

      In a word …

      … Fascism.

      Fascism is a system of government that seeks the unification and control of all aspects of life: social, economic, political, and personal – including food. Casualties of fascism are freedom and autonomy.

      Now that the federal government has their hand in healthcare, it follows that they will need a policy to dictate the diets of their subjects, formerly known as citizens.

  4. Submitted by Eric Snyder on 05/05/2014 - 10:40 am.

    In a phrase

    You don’t what the word “fascism” means or how to apply it.

    Fascism isn’t defined as an open and democratic public conversation about solutions to better health outcomes through more intelligently health-oriented food systems, leading to a statement of vision that will guide public and democratic decision-making.

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 05/05/2014 - 02:56 pm.

      I defined the word.

      What does your phrase mean?

      How will fixing the federal food policy put an additional serving of fruits/vegetables per day into each American?

      Like learning the importance of dental hygiene, most of us were taught taught in elementary school about the food pyramid.

      If you were to interview morbidly obese people about why they are 100+ pounds overweight, what would you expect to learn? Would they be mystified, without a clue? I expect that most of them will understand that they have made unhealthy choices, choices that they are their’s to make.

      Let’s disabuse ourselves of the notion that we will all becoming together in a unified food “vision”.

      • Submitted by Eric Snyder on 05/05/2014 - 04:12 pm.

        What’s needed is understanding

        You may or may not be aware of it, but there has been serious thought by others put into what fascism actually means—academic and theoretical work that attempts to identify various constitutive features of this very much overused word.

        Your definition of fascism it isn’t accurate, for starters. On your definition there’s no way to tell if you’re referring to various types of communism or, actually, fascism. Secondly, the idea that an open and democratic process of public comment…etc., constitutes fascism, is, simply not credible.

        You ask, “How will fixing the federal food policy put an additional serving of fruits/vegetables per day into each American?”

        If the extent of your interest in food and agricultural policy as it relates to public health in the US comes down to “If the government is doing it, it must be fascism,” then there’s a reasonable chance you won’t be able to make any useful contribution to solving this problem, even though you could very well do so if you wanted to.

        If you do actually have interest in this topic, there are a great many resources available in books, videos and documentaries, and online—articles, websites, and journal articles.

        You wrote, “Like learning the importance of dental hygiene, most of us were taught taught in elementary school about the food pyramid.” Surely it has occurred to you that learning, lifelong habits, values, and behaviors relative to eating and health might come about through more complex mechanisms than simply a class on the food pyramid (which itself has changed over time).

        Other people, like those who are actually interested in helping to solve the food-health problem, will no doubt be asking the kinds of questions that might actually get us somewhere in solving some of the problems related to the food system and health:

        What exactly do people learn in school with regard to food and health in general?
        Are programs and instruction adequate?
        Do we need more teacher training?
        If we think that young people are getting the information they need, and yet they don’t make healthy choices, then why is this? What are the significant contributing factors?
        What role does the quality of food provided in schools have to do with either encouraging or discouraging better eating choices?
        What role does family environment play?
        What is the role of so-called “food deserts” in preventing healthier choices?
        How much do farmer’s markets encourage sociality and therefore possibly better food selection?
        Do foods containing residues of pesticides contribute to health problems? If so, how much?

        Solving complex social problems often requires considerable investigation and the inclusion of perspectives from many sectors of society. *That’s how problems like this can and must be solved in the world we live in.*

        • Submitted by Steve Rose on 05/05/2014 - 06:09 pm.

          Really?

          You may or may not be aware of it, but I have put serious thought into what fascism actually means. And while you can make condescending commentary on what what fascism is not, you offer no definition of what it is. And, no it is not communism.

          One of the reasons smoking appeals to young people is that authorities teach and preach against it. Yet, the government persists in spending billions on anti-smoking information and education.

          Good luck with transforming America with a wise food vision.

  5. Submitted by Steve Rose on 05/08/2014 - 04:54 pm.

    Strictly Kale?

    A little help here; a little author support for this column would be nice. Whichever one of you had a friend over needs to back up your claim of corn syrup ground beef.

    “The result? The other night one of us had a friend over. We grilled packaged hamburgers. They were the best-tasting burgers the friend had ever had. Later we looked at the ingredients: ground beef, and high-fructose corn syrup, added to make you want more.”

    So, the food was so good that you wanted more? That does sound like a problem that the federal government should address with a policy. No more tasty food, a strictly kale diet is good for you, and you are unlikely to want more.

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