October 3, 2014

Big Food More Effective Than Big Government in Tackling Obesity

Richard Williams

Senior Affiliated Scholar
Summary

The food industry's most recent accomplishment of helping decrease caloric intake by an average of 99 calories per person (per day) was announced through an independent study by University of North Carolina scholars. Not eating 100 calories per day could result in a 10-pound weight loss in a year. That's the equivalent of climbing stairs for 11 minutes per day, but of course, "big food" can't do that for you.

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Let's all join together and give big business - particularly large packaged food and beverage companies - a round of applause. These are the organizations that employ more than 1 million people to produce some of the safest food in the world for our supermarkets and provide returns to millions of middle-class stockholders trying to fund their retirements. Moreover, a recent pledge by the American Beverage Association to cut calories in sugary drinks by 20 percent over the next decade seems like a commendable and reasonable goal, given the food and beverage industry's recently attained target on cutting calories.

The food industry's most recent accomplishment of helping decrease caloric intake by an average of 99 calories per person (per day) was announced through an independent study by University of North Carolina scholars. Not eating 100 calories per day could result in a 10-pound weight loss in a year. That's the equivalent of climbing stairs for 11 minutes per day, but of course, "big food" can't do that for you.

Some of this caloric reduction was done by reformulation - a challenging task when you consider that they have to ensure you still enjoy the food's texture, appearance, flavor, preservation, price and lack of ice crystals or bad bacteria - from entering or growing in the food. They have to invest a lot in research and development to make that happen - and they didn't have to do this. They could have just said, "Hey, there are plenty of low-calorie choices on the market; let people choose those if they want them." They didn't do that.

This program may have done more to curb obesity than the many millions of dollars spent by the federal government to combat it. Too many people insist, as the Surgeon General did in 2001, that obesity must be a public health priority for government intervention to solve, as opposed to private markets. Yet most people probably never heard of the Food and Drug Administration's Obesity Working Groups, 1 and 2 - not to mention the FDA's "Calories Count" or "Label Man."

If you haven't heard of those programs, it's because they didn't accomplish much. If you have heard of them, you probably work in government. Those campaigns should be distinguished from First Lady Michele Obama's "Let's Move" campaign or the fact that she worked with the food companies to make the "Healthy Weight Commitment." Voluntary action by private actors has been shown to be much more effective than heavy-handed efforts to tax or ban individual foods.

There is a long history of trying to manage nutrition habits by focusing on a single macronutrient like total fat, a single ingredient (e.g., salt), or a single food (e.g., red meat) - and in virtually every instance, there were unintended consequences for obvious reasons. If people stop eating one thing, they will eat another, and most of the time we don't try and figure out what that alternative will be.

When the fat content of red meat was a concern, a U.S. Department of Agriculture study showed that women ages 19 to 50 decreased their meat consumption but their fat consumption remained about the same as they ate more of things like salad dressing and ice cream. Consumers make substitutions as do manufactures, and the researchers at UNC warned about other things like added sugars and solid fats. The failures associated with isolating individual foods or components of foods are not private market failures, they are government failures.

But let's get back to leaders of these large corporations who seem to be continually maligned and blamed. When did we decide that business people were not virtuous and markets forces were somehow bad for us? University of Illinois Distinguished Professor Deidre McCloskey says it was 150 years ago, in the 1840s. The great writers, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Sinclair Lewis began to turn the heroic business people whose hard work and vision employed others - and provided the nation's wealth - into pillars of malfeasance. Products come and go; those that don't work, are dangerous, or are otherwise problematic rapidly disappear from the market. But government programs and agencies virtually never disappear.

None of this is to say that markets are perfect or governments are a source of continual and constant failures. But we do know that markets drive firms to quickly correct problems where governments lack such constant feedback and problems sometimes persist for long periods of time. In this instance, big food manufacturers did something good, and we should thank them for it.