Evils of ‘Craving Engineering’

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America is a decidedly liberal (in the sense of being tolerant) nation comprised of people with different­—often competing­—worldviews. As a culture, we value the ability to determine for ourselves what makes for a good life more than assurances that the life we choose to lead is, in fact, good. This unwavering American individualism is why we tend to reject overt attempts to control or restrain our choices. It is for this reason that we ought to be weary of public health advocates who aspire to engineer the food cravings of individuals for the sake of some nutritional good.

In yet another study used to demonize the world’s most popular artificial sweetener, researchers from the University of Sussex launched an attack against the methodologies of several dozen experiments which concluded that aspartame is safe for human consumption. The existence of such a study alone is cause for concern given the numerous studies that have confirmed aspartame’s relative safety even while under significant scrutiny. Furthermore, the zero-calorie sweetener has great potential for helping overweight or obese individuals comply with weight loss regimes by helping curb sugar cravings.

What’s worse yet is the fact that public health activists are using studies like these to attack not only aspartame, but the fact that human beings have sugar cravings to begin with. Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at the City University of London, said:

The global health advice is to reduce sugar intake, yet much of the food industry—especially soft drinks—maintains the sweetness by substituting artificial sweeteners. Millstone and Dawson help expose that strategy for what it is, a continued sweetening of the world’s diet. The healthy strategy is surely to tackle the cultural reinforcement of sweetness and to encourage less sweet foods and drinks, full stop.

Surely, there is nothing wrong with informing people about the importance of balanced diets. But it is disturbing, to say the least, to suggest that a craving for sweetness is a problem that ought to be altered or engineered. Sugars are necessary for human life and they are integral to a balanced, healthy diet. Studies have also shown that people, regardless of whether they have disordered eating habits, have cravings for sugar. It is clearly normal (and healthy) to have cravings for sugar and sweetness so it seems illogical to blame these cravings for unhealthiness.

Unfortunately, there have been calls to regulate sugar the same way that substances like tobacco and alcohol are regulated. With sentiments like those made by Dr. Lang, it doesn’t seem far off to expect public health activists to want to soon regulate sweetness more generally. Some may rejoice because we will unlearn our cravings for an arguably lethal substance, but it is more appropriate to be disturbed at the fact that people are complicit in the social engineering of something as complex and individuated as a food craving.

Food cravings are biological and psychological, and should for this reason not be treated as something that can be shaped and engineered by public policy. Moreover, having a craving for sugar or sweetness is not dangerous in the way that having a drug craving is—sugar and sugar substitutes are safe to consume. Just because there is fear mongering in pop science publications about the dangers of sugar, it does not follow that these alarmist claims are true or grounded in actual science

Just as we seek to preserve our ability to determine for ourselves what constitutes the good life, we should seek to preserve our ability to determine for ourselves what constitutes the good meal. Granted, eating sweet treats in lieu of balanced meals during every mealtime is not the healthiest thing to do. But it doesn’t take government intervention or social engineering for individuals to come to that understanding. Like most things in life, finding the right diet is a process of trial and error. When activists demonize certain food groups in hopes of eventually regulating them, people are unable to engage in these necessary trials and are hindered from developing their own optimal relationship with food.