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Recently a panel of experts was convened by the FDA to re-examine whether artificial food coloring causes hyperactivity in children. They concluded that evidence did not show a link between the two, stating the following:
Based on our review of the data from published literature, FDA concludes that a causal relationship between exposure to color additives and hyperactivity in children in the general population has not been established
Marion Nestle, a frequently quoted expert on food policy and Professor of Public Health and Sociology at NYU, wrote about the issue on her blog and at The Atlantic. It was unclear to me from what she wrote whether or not Dr. Nestle agreed with the panel’s decision to not ban these products, so I emailed her to see if she would answer a few questions for me, and she kindly complied. I think the exchange is illustrative of two very different ways of thinking about regulation, and what regulators should consider. Below is a lightly edited version of our email exchange:
AO: I’ve been reading what you’ve written on food coloring, it’s not clear to me whether you’d support a ban on food coloring or not. I was hoping you could tell me what your position on the policy is.
MN: Since they are unnecessary and deceptive, I can’t see any reason to do anything to protect their use.
AO: You say that food coloring is “unnecessary and deceptive “. But couldn’t you say the same thing of essentially any garnish or cooking technique designed to make food appear more appealing without physically modifying the flavor?
MN: The issue is artificial. Food garnishes and cooking techniques are usually not.
AO: You say that food additives aren’t “needed” but there are many ingredients and foods which aren’t “needed” given the variety of substitutes and choices we have. If you’re looking at how much a product is worth to consumers, and trying to understand how consumers will be harmed by banning it, isn’t “valued” a more appropriate criteria than “needed”? Shouldn’t that be what regulators consider?
MN: Valued by whom? Industry, certainly. Food is fine as it is. It doesn’t need artificial enhancements. Foods that “need” artificial dyes are not really food. They are “food-like objects.”
AO: You imply in your blog post that if this food coloring is banned, people will eat less of the unhealthy foods that use it. Why would people eat less of these foods when artificial coloring is taken out if they didn’t value that coloring? Doesn’t it have to be the case that they like it less, or that prices go up? And in either case don’t consumers have less of something they value?
MN: Surely, artificial food dyes can be replaced by something better.
AO: If a parent wants to know whether a food contains coloring, can they find out that information today?
MN: To some extent, but the labeling rules leave lots of room for loopholes.
AO: In your blog you also say that parents of hyperactive kids can easily do their own experiments. Are the available labels sufficient for this? Or are clearer labels needed?
MN: My advice to everyone (only slightly facetious) is not to buy foods from the center aisles of supermarkets, and to avoid buying anything with more than five ingredients, anything they can’t pronounce, anything artificial, and anything with a cartoon on the package. That should take care of most problems.
Urged on by government warnings about saturated fat, Americans have been moving toward low-fat milk for decades, leaving a surplus of whole milk and milk fat. Yet the government, through Dairy Management, is engaged in an effort to find ways to get dairy back into Americans’ diets, primarily through cheese….
…Dairy Management, whose annual budget approaches $140 million, is largely financed by a government-mandated fee on the dairy industry. But it also receives several million dollars a year from the Agriculture Department, which appoints some of its board members, approves its marketing campaigns and major contracts and periodically reports to Congress on its work.
The organization’s activities, revealed through interviews and records, provide a stark example of inherent conflicts in the Agriculture Department’s historical roles as both marketer of agriculture products and America’s nutrition police.
Read the whole article, it’s in turn depressing and hilarious. The fact that government in this day in age still considers it important to “bolster farmers” is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about when I worry about industrial policy’s inability to cease once it’s outlived it’s usefulness. Bad subsidies really seem to have a hard time going away.
TV chef Anthony Bourdain has had some choice words, and also words of praise, for slow food maven Alice Waters, who I’ve also criticized, and praised, here and here. Here he is agreeing with the substance of my criticism of the slow food movement and it’s impracticality for low income people:
I am suspicious of wealthy suburbanites who preach “back to the soil” philosophies—as if most—or even many—could start digging subsistence gardens in their back yards or afford expensive organic or locavore lifestyles.
This summary of part of Bourdain and Water’s interaction at a recent food panel sums up their disagreements well:
According to Alice, we should “provide breakfast, lunch and a snack FOR FREE to every child in America,” even if it cost billions. “How could it not be worth it?” she defended, “these children are our future.” Then she mentioned a bumper sticker she saw that said, “If you are what you eat, I’m fast, cheap and easy” — and the shame in it. After that she went on and on till Bourdain said – “I put literacy above that as a priority” and everyone clapped.
It’s not just Anthony Bourdain that’s backing me up either; here’s is Alice Waters in an interview with Leslis Stahl on slow food as a luxury:
Waters told Stahl she rarely goes into a regular supermarket. “I’m looking for food that’s just been picked. And so, I know when I go the farmer’s market that you know, they just brought it in that day.”
“I have to say, it’s just a luxury to be able to do that,” Stahl remarked.
“In a sense it is a luxury,” Waters agreed.