Food Policy: “Good Foods” vs “Bad Foods”

Going through school and training to become a Registered Dietitian, I was conditioned never to use the words “good food” or “bad food”, in fear that this might give someone an unhealthy relationship with food (becoming obsessive or orthorexic), and also to emphasize that all food can be incorporated into a healthy diet, so as not to turn people away. But if all food can be incorporated into a healthy diet, why can’t we just call it what it is? Junk food. This part of my schooling always bothered me, and after reading Marion Nestle’s Food Politics, I feel that this “no bad food” ideal permeated from a much higher level than from my instructors. Due to pressure from the food industry, the USDA is also conditioned not to identify “good foods” or “bad foods”, and I argue that this is where some of the dietary confusion in America comes into play.

The US Government attempts to provide the American public with trusted dietary information through the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the new MyPlate (formerly a food pyramid). As a nutrition professional, I think that MyPlate is a great teaching tool, and really opens eyes up to just how important fruits and vegetables are. The only time that I find MyPlate difficult to work with is when explaining breakfast, as vegetables are only easily incorporated into omelets, and don’t go well with other traditional breakfast foods such as cold cereal, pancakes, oatmeal, or fruit and yogurt. Making produce the star of the plate was a bold move by the USDA, and will hopefully change the way that Americans conceptualize their meals. This is a huge shift from the “meat and potatoes” culture of the past.

Marion Nestle points out in Food Politics that what research finds to be “healthy” (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) has not changed much at all over the last 50 years, so the fact that most Americans are confused about what to eat is evidence of a muddled system. It is difficult for the government to advise our obese population to “eat less”, when those are the very words that the industry forbids them from using. Nevertheless, I do think that MyPlate’s emphasis on produce is a step in the right direction.

Other culprits for confusing the American public are the food advertisers. Not only have advertisers taught us that junk foods are not “bad foods”, they succeed in highlighting the trendy nutrients that their products are fortified with, making them appear as healthful choices. Meanwhile, the real healthful choices, fresh fruits and vegetables, are excluded from high budget marketing campaigns and are left labeless on store shelves. In Food Fight, Dan Imhoff argues that this is in part due to the fact that fresh produce is considered a “specialty crop”, and does not receive the subsidies or technological advances that commodity crops such as corn and soy (the building blocks of junk food) are privy to.

Again working against the “eat less” mentality are the manufacturers of snack foods. In a post depression and food ration nation, the idea of going hungry between meals has become not only unpopular, but downright un-American. I agree with Cutler, Glaeser, and Shapiro, that snack foods are a driver in generating obesity. Michelle Obama’s 2009 remarks at the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. Conference were spot on, as she clarified to grocers that “it doesn’t mean is taking out one problematic ingredient, only to replace it with another… This isn’t about finding creative ways to market products as healthy… it’s about producing products that actually are healthy”. What she fails to mention is that the healthiest products have already been “formulated”, and they can be found in produce stands across the nation.

In short, I do not think it is the government’s place to “tell” people what to eat, as “telling” people what to eat implies lack of freedom, something that Americans are quite turned off by. Rather, I think it is the role of the government to provide American citizens with unbiased sources of dietary information based on the latest research, and to create a marketplace where healthy choices are just as easy to make (if not easier) than unhealthy choices.

Images via: Amazon//MyPlate//Amazon//Huffington Post

– Kelly

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