Can the Government Make Us Eat Better?

More cities and states are passing proposals aimed at improving our diets, but not without controversy

How far will the government go to change the way Americans eat? First, trans fats came under fire. Then state and local governments demanded restaurants provide calorie counts on the menu board. These days, city officials in New York are trying to get merchants there to reduce salt in foods, while state legislators in New York, Kansas and 13 other states and municipalities are talking about taxing soda and other sugary drinks.

Public health advocates say it’s high time the government reduced illness by promoting healthy eating. “What we are seeing is a result of a changing view of health and in particular, in health as it relates to obesity,” says Yale University professor Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, which supports a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. “The public–and key legislators–understand that we don’t just need to treat obesity but to prevent it.”

But critics say the new laws and regulations are inserting government where it doesn’t belong: in our kitchen. The new laws “are aimed at changing our behaviors,” says J. Justin Wilson, senior research analyst for the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit group funded in part by food and beverage companies. That group has dubbed the measures “Nanny Laws” since they are aimed at protecting people from their own behavior. “It’s a questionable role for government. What we are seeing around the country borders on social engineering. Instead of creating more laws, we need to respect people’s choices,” says Wilson. Above all, food choices, says Wilson, should continue to be deregulated.

The government already has more of a role in helping you determine what foods you place in your grocery cart than you might realize. Which foods are cheapest and most readily available have long been strongly affected by intense government intervention. Since World War II, the federal government has been underwriting the production of cheap sweeteners (like high-fructose corn syrup) found in many kinds of junk food and soda by providing corn and soybean growers with lucrative farm subsidies. In the last 12 years, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit public interest organization, the federal government has spent $56 billion keeping the price of corn low—which in turn keeps soda and junk food prices low, and consumption high.

These so-called “Nanny Laws,” says scientist and food activist Marion Nestle, Ph.D., a professor at New York University, are an attempt to make some government intervention work on behalf of consumers’ health instead of Big Business’s bottom line.

“Our food system already is government-regulated as can be,” says Nestle “These kinds of actions (banning trans fats, posting calories, imposing tax on junk foods) are just tweaking existing policy, in this case to promote better health.”

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