Celebrate Food Freedom this 4th of July

“If people let the government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.” –Thomas Jefferson

By 1939, most Americans realized that national alcohol prohibition was a complete disaster. The “noble experiment” intended to solve societal harms linked with alcohol consumption was an utter failure and would foster in Americans a permanent distrust of food or drink bans “for our own good.” Modern self-styled public health advocates have learned from prohibitionists' mistakes: if you eliminate food choices slowly, people are less likely to protest.

By passing laws and implementing regulations, health advocates have been able to increase the cost, limit availability, and removed the choice of consuming certain foods or ingredients they deem “unhealthy.” While the methods may differ, the intent and the results are largely the same. Health advocates want to engineer a world in which we can only make the choices they have decided are the best for us. The result is a loss of freedom and independence by baby steps.

Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration announced its plan to revoke the “Generally Recognized As Safe” designation for partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), which would create a de facto ban on the additive commonly used in foods such as pie crust, pastries, shortening, and fried foods (among other things). Despite the fact that PHOs have been used by Americans for over a hundred years, the FDA asserts that artificial trans fats (contained in PHOs) can increase the risk of heart disease.

As I wrote in November 2013, this is a sea change for the FDA. Rather than protecting people from unknowingly consuming foods that are likely to cause harm, the FDA has now turned to protecting consumers from the cumulative harms of poor dietary choices over the course of a lifetime—something they are already aware of (nobody believes a lifelong diet of fried chicken and cherry pies will allow them to live to 120 years old!).

As the FDA itself admitted, Americans have already virtually eliminated trans fats from their diet, from an average of 4.6 grams per day in 2003 to about 1 gram per day in 2012. And as I noted in my comments to the FDA, while there are studies showing a slight increase in heart disease risk at the higher levels of consumption, there’s no scientific basis for assuming there are risks at the very low levels Americans are currently consuming trans fats and no reason to assume further reductions will result in any health benefits. Of course, the FDA’s decision is less about science than it is about politics.

As evidence from the drop in trans fat consumption, Americans have already been convinced that PHOs should be avoided, for the most part. FDA knows that there isn’t likely to be much public backlash against a ban. However, banning the ingredient because it is unhealthy not harmful sets the stage for the agency to target other ingredients traditionally outside of its purview, such as sugar, salt, and caffeine.

Sugar is the current devil du jour for many health researchers and advocates. They believe it, and more specifically, soda consumption is a driving force behind the rates of diabetes and obesity (for a more thorough and wonderfully “geeky” discussion of the scientific community’s debate on sugar, see Trevor Butterworth’s “Sugar Warsarticle). These advocates have found a number of celebrity advocates for their cause, most famously New York City’s former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who in 2012 attempted to limit sugar-sweetened drinks to containers under 16 ounces.

If it had been upheld, there’s little reason to believe that the ban would have had any impact at all (apart from causing businesses grief) since consumers could purchase as many drinks under 16 ounces as they wanted and the ban didn’t apply to grocery stores. Furthermore, as Baylen Linneken pointed out, the proposal was based on fabricated science—even if it affected New Yorkers’ soda consumption, there was little hope it would affect obesity rates in the city.

Luckily, three courts, including the state’s highest, rejected the proposal as a violation of the state constitution. But the “war on sugary drinks” isn’t limited to NYC. Health advocates in states such as Illinois, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Washington, and New York, and at least a dozen cities, have attempted to place special taxes on soda, hoping that “[i]f the shelf price of the sugary drink you regularly buy goes up, you may think twice about buying it.” However, these attempts have largely been unsuccessful as voters have correctly identified the proposals as regressive taxes on poor and middle class families that won’t accomplish anything other than raising money for governments.

Those of us fighting for food freedom are often accused of hyperbole. For example, it isn’t necessarily true that the FDA’s trans fat ban was setting the stage for increasing regulation on other “unhealthy,” but not dangerous, foods or ingredients such as sugar, caffeine, and salt, as I asserted in November 2013… right? Well, last month the FDA announced plans to phase in “voluntary” reduction in the level of sodium in foods produced by manufacturers and served in restaurants. Making something appear voluntary is another way savvy public health advocates avoid the pitfalls of prohibition. As I noted in a previous post on this issue, “pressure from an agency that could make it impossible for a business to stay in business is about as voluntary as putting a gun to someone’s head.”

Since the 1980s, the FDA has been warning Americans that they are consuming sodium at “higher than recommended” levels, putting them at risk for a host of problems, including high blood pressure and strokes. However, the level of sodium consumption hasn’t changed—remaining stable at 3,700 milligrams per day since the 1950s. In fact, the rate of sodium consumption has remained stable throughout the world. A 2009 University of California-Davis study which analyzed urine samples from nearly 20,000 people in 33 countries over a 24-year period found that average daily sodium intake was 3,726 milligrams a day, even across diverse populations and diets, and with no evidence of change over time. This level of consistency speaks to a biologically determined need for sodium that people unconsciously select foods to meet and clinical studies have found that even extreme interventions in people’s diets does little to change their consumption of sodium.

Yet, according to the FDA, it is the whole of humanity that is wrong because we’re consuming more than their recommended limit of 2,300 milligrams a day (something even the CDC was recently forced to admit it was wrong on).

There is seemingly no end to the ways in which public health advocates would like to control our food and drink choices. But whether they are university professors, billionaire politicians, or celebrities, they think they know what’s best for us. It is hard to fault someone for wanting to help their fellow man (news media don’tt help by portraying the obesity rate as the greatest threat to America), but we should not allow them to force their ideas of health onto everyone else. After all, any food—if consumed in great enough quantity—can become hazardous to one’s health.

It is up to individuals to make decisions about what constitutes the best diet for them and when they get to indulge. You may not care about soda or trans fat, but soon they might come for your favorite food or drink.  So, this Independence Day, throw some genetically modified corn and salty hot dogs on the barbecue and raise a beer in defense of consumer freedom.