The American Heart Association has declared this coming Wednesday, November 5th National Healthy Eating Day. On this day you are supposed to we encourage eat only foods and beverages that are high in nutrients and low in sugar, sodium and saturated and trans fats. And it’s good timing for a day like this if you are only planning on having only one. Thanksgiving is just around the corner and the twelve days of Christmas Cookies will soon follow. That gives you a minimum of 13 National Crappy Eating Days, all sanctioned and promoted by community, religion and our food and beverage industry.
Of course, as the American Heart Association points out, if you eat healthy all, or at least most of the time, you might have a shot at good cardiovascular health and thus a shot at living a good long life devoid of many forms of painful chronic illness that are exacerbated by poor diet choices. By choosing a healthy diet, you will have a better than average chance to avoid having your last 10 years be, as comedian Dennis Leary calls them, “the ten worst years, the ones at the end; the wheelchair, adult diaper, kidney dialysis years.” By the way, Leary’s quote comes from a routine about how much he loves smoking, so he is not exactly the poster boy for good health (but he is damn funny and the routine is HERE—heads up: extreme swearing if you’re the sensitive type).
But people, and by people I mean me and everyone else I know, love their sugar, their soda, their little treats. While the occasional person really lives a life without sugar, wheat, inorganic foods and (most likely) joy, most people feel that life isn’t worth living without the occasional Coca Cola or Cheese Doodles or chocolate bar, or whatever their drug of choice may be.
We have just come off the nationally sanctioned holiday of Halloween where, for one day, we literally encourage kids to take candy from strangers, no doubt confusing them for life since we spend every other day of the year telling them the opposite. And between Halloween and all of the other days of the year, the average American eats 22 teaspoons of sugar a day, or around 75 pounds a year. “According to one neuroscientist, that sugar has effects on our brains that are in some ways similar to the effects of cocaine, “as noted by comedian and social commentator, John Oliver, in a recent segment he did on the topic. This segment is about 11 minutes, so kind of long, but very funny and informative and fascinating and well worth watching.
In his segment, Oliver notes that despite independent scientific findings drawing a clear link between sugar and obesity, sugar/soda beverage industry-funded researchers tend to find inconclusive results. Oh the irony! In addition, he reports that, “the American Beverage Association in a letter to the FDA argued that added sugars should be listed in grams, not teaspoons, as the latter may (inexplicably) have an “unfair negative connotation that undermines the factual nature of nutrition information”” In other words, the soda people, if forced to report how much sugar they have added to their product to make it palatable, are forced to report that in teaspoons instead of using a metric system measurement that no one understands (grams), people everywhere will drop their soda cans and run for the restroom to regurgitate what they have imbibed. It might be a rational fear on industry’s part.
And in related news, the city of Berkeley has decided that despite no municipality or state success anywhere else in the nation, it is that city’s human rights destiny to take on the soda industry. On Election Day, Berkeley voters will vote on whether they should have the right to tax sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages. In Berkeley, the purpose of the beverage tax is to fund community gardens that advance children’s comfort and familiarity with fresh vegetables and fruits.
While many public policy analysts view the soda taxes as hurting minority and low income communities the most, Berkeley has taken a different stance, actively engaging those very communities in lobbying for the bill and gaining great success in doing so. Their rationale? Obesity and poor health are disproportionately hurting minority and low income communities also, and thus the soda tax is their friend, not their enemy. It’s interesting to see this approach here, as other communities where the soda tax has failed, such as New York and Richmond, CA went exactly the other way, leaving the soda industry to recruit minority and low income communities to talk about how they would be hurt by the regressive tax.
Seems to me that the minority and low income communities are being used either way, but they can choose which way they want to be used: for good health or for the right to do whatever they want to forfeit good health. The public policy question is, of course: who pays for freedom? If we are free to acquire poor health, should we have the right to expect the government not to intervene and to pay for our poor health decisions later through Medicare, Medicaid, etc? It is a very interesting public policy question in the alleged land of the free, where we regulate and tax other safety issues all the time in the name of public health and public expense (seatbelt and helmet laws anyone?).
The Berkeley soda tax is labeled under the moniker “Measure D,” which I am sure is a coincidence of it being the 4th measure on the ballot, but the “D” may as well stand for Diabetes, Type 2, as that is really what the fight is about. Do we let people have the right to eat and drink their way to poor health at the expense of themselves and the community (economically, socially) or not? It’s a good question. The country has answered it pretty resoundingly on the cigarette question, putting strict limitations on access to the product and fining the hell out of the cigarette industry to fund early children’s healthcare programs like California First Five, among others.
If you look at many recent reports, soda has become one of the leading causes of obesity and poor health in the United States. While I really understand that we should, as a nation, not always be telling everyone how to live their lives and regulate every little thing, the public health and national economic ramifications of sugar make me question my own libertarian beliefs. If we can make people wear seat belts in the public interest, maybe it’s not so bad to tax soda so inner city school children can find out what vegetables look like.
John Oliver, in his video segment, offered a great idea that could advance the efforts of political consultants who are working to pass the soda tax. Oliver suggested that we force food and beverage manufacturers to express each product’s sugar content on its label in the measure of candy circus peanuts. Each of these nasty little candies has 5 grams and, in addition to listing the sugar-to-candy circus peanut equivalency measure, the product should actually have to show a picture of the number of said peanuts that are, effectively, included in the package. For instance, one can of Coke with its 39 grams of added sugar has the equivalent of 8 candy circus peanuts, so the Coke can would have to show those 8 bad boys on the label, alongside your and my personal names on the can, as they are now doing.
Oliver has also recommended that regular people en masse take to Twitter and use the hashtag #ShowUsYourPeanuts to get food and beverage manufacturers to tell the truth about what goes into their foods in terms that real people understand. If you go to Twitter, and I recommend you do it right now, and look up that hashtag, which is pretty hilarious in and of itself, you will see an avalanche of responses asking for the real added sugar content of a variety of foods.
I’m betting that the Berkeley people wish they had thought of this, but it’s not too late! Hand out those circus peanuts to people on their way into the voting booth….in fact give them each 8 circus peanuts since Coke is clearly America’s beverage and thus perfect for Election Day! I am not sure I know anyone who would knowingly eat 8 of those nasty candies, so it might just work.