May 4th, 2011

Mark Bittman: Junk Food ‘Guidelines’ Won’t Help

The New York Times

Imagine your child’s teacher was distributing twice daily snacks, before and after lunch — maybe Snickers and PopTarts in the morning, Mountain Dew and fries in the afternoon. Now let’s pretend you complain to the principal, who tells the teacher, “Could you please stop doing that? You have until … five years from Tuesday.”

Would you allow that?

Yet that’s pretty much what the Federal Trade Commission and other government agencies did last week when they announced food marketing guidelines. The agencies would like Big Food to refrain from marketing to children foods with more than 15 percent saturated fat, 210 milligrams of sodium or 13 grams of added sugar per serving or any trans fat at all.

But instead of announcing, “We have guidelines you must follow, and we’ll give you until January 2012 to comply,” the F.T.C. said, in effect, “We have voluntary guidelines we hope you’ll follow — they’re voluntary, you understand — and in five years we’d like you to voluntarily comply with these voluntary guidelines.”

We need legal action, not voluntary guidelines. The federal agencies that are involved with the F.T.C. in this request for less marketing to children — the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and the Agriculture Department — deserve credit for acknowledging marketing’s impact. If their suggested rules were followed, food advertising would be drastically different. “There’d be a large number of products they’d no longer be advertising,” says Marion Nestle, a New York University professor of nutrition and public health and the author of the book “What to Eat.”

But five more years, and then it’s voluntary? Five more years of allowing children to think that a diet of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, PopTarts, Doritos, 7UP and Chicken McNuggets is normal? By then, your five-year-old is 10; your newborn is five, and his or her eating patterns are set. Five more years — at least — of America bulking up? Who will pay for all that diabetes?

The F.T.C. is endorsing food that contributes to a healthful diet, but it’s mandating nothing, simply requesting voluntary compliance from a blame-the-victim industry that pushes ultra-processed, unhealthful junk. From fast food to cookies, snacks and breakfast cereals (many with the same nutritional profile as cookies) and worst of all, sugar-sweetened beverages, many of these products have these things in common: their slim “benefits,” if any, often come from chemically added nutrients, and they contain multiple forms of sugar, highly refined carbohydrates, chemically extracted fats and mystery ingredients only a food scientist or profiteer could love.

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