On Wednesday, the White House held the first conference on hunger and nutrition in America since the Nixon presidency. The long-overdue summit was a chance to take a long, hard look at American food and health policy and decide what changes have to be made for a healthier future.
Before the conference, the Biden administration announced that they were going to propose placing nutrition labeling on the front of food packaging. Instead of using numbers to list calories, sugar content and carbs, a star rating system or a green light-yellow light-red light system was proposed, aimed at simplifying complicated nutritional information. The White House claimed that this policy chance was intended “to help consumers, particularly those with lower nutrition literacy, quickly and easily identify foods that are part of a healthy eating pattern.”
And there is some evidence that this kind of labeling works, particularly when unhealthy products are labeled clearly. Marion Nestle, long-time food policy expert, told USA Today that she supports this proposal, but the issue is that “the burden of healthy choices is still being placed on individuals.”
We all want autonomy, and ultimately, we should all be able to make our own choices about the kinds of food we want to eat—healthy or not. But what many don’t realize is the fact that food companies have worked to make their unhealthy products so addictive that we keep coming back for more. The aim of author Michael Moss’ book Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions is to “lay out all that companies have done to exploit our addiction to food.” Yes—these products are literally framed as addictive because they are pumped full of the salt, sugar and fat that humans, biologically, do not generally have the resistance to refuse. It goes against our survival instinct to do so. In his book, Moss claims that there has been a “concerted effort to reach the primeval zones of our brain where we act by instinct rather than rationalization.”
He goes on to explain that not only do food companies produce products that are essentially addictive, they then use their immense lobbying power to ensure that these foods remain accessible on the market. Who really wants the food they feed to their children to be pumped full of sugar and salt, causing myriad health concerns? It is in nobody’s best interest for our food policy to be shaped by these massive corporations apart from the corporations’ themselves. And yet, our politicians are beholden to these lobbyists because lobbyists can hold massive sums of campaign money over our politicians’ heads.
Those who are privileged with enough time and money to avoid fat-packed, inexpensive and convenient food products can often avoid the negative health impacts the poorest people in our communities tend to face. But for someone working 50 hours a week at a minimum-wage job, processed foods are typically the easiest, fastest, least expensive and most shelf-stable way to feed themselves. How many of these people are wholly ignorant that their frozen pizza rolls aren’t nutritious? Probably some. But many are very aware that what they’re eating isn’t ideal. They just don’t have any other choice.
The Biden administration’s proposal to add more nutrition info on the front of food packaging isn’t a terrible idea. There are many who are likely to benefit from this policy, if enacted. But like so many other of the administration’s proposed solutions, it’s nothing more than a comically small Band-Aid on a problem caused by unfettered capitalism and the flow of corporate money into the American political system. Once again, responsibility is pushed onto the individual while the government ignores the obvious, glaring problem they are tasked with protecting their citizens from.
I love the idea of better labelling food packaging to help health-conscious consumers make smarter decisions. But “better nutrition labels” are far, far down the list of actions the government needs to take to ensure its citizens are eating healthier food. Like, how about ensuring that people make enough money to actually buy fruits and vegetables so they’re not forced to choose between a single raw bell pepper and a fast food meal for dinner? Or not letting food corporations advertise sugary cereals to young children in the hopes that they’ll develop a sugar addiction before they can ever read? Or, you know, making it impossible for corporations to exchange campaign money for the right to shorten the lives of countless poverty-stricken communities around the world?
Our government tells us that we just need to make healthier choices while refusing to provide those healthier choices for so many. Our government tells us that we just need to make healthier choices while actively working with the corporations that entice us to make poorer food decisions. Our government tells us that we just need to make healthier choices and then pays their bills with money from those who are profiting off of our unhealthy choices.
Perhaps the healthiest choice this country could make is refusing to support politicians who, time and time again, refuse to acknowledge the real problems this country is grappling with and continue to uphold the current paradigm of power with their stupidly simplistic solutions. Maybe instead of making new nutrition labels, we could put lists of the food companies that have made campaign contributions to these politicians on the fronts of their podiums so we know who to blame for the nutrition problems in this country. I bet we’d see a lot of red lights.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.