Is capitalism making you fat?

I wouldn't eat it, but I get it.

I wouldn’t eat it, but I get it.

Is capitalism making you fat, or are you making you fat?  The degree to which you believe either of these statements helps define how you feel about legislative reforms directed at your health, and more specifically, at obesity.

While adults can freely choose what they eat, it’s more than hunger that drives us.  Appetite as well as hunger, boredom, anxiety and visual stimuli direct us toward foods we consume.  Brian Wansink, at the Cornell Brand Lab, experiments with this sort of thing.  In his book Mindless Eating, he details an experiment during which secretaries are gifted candy dishes to place on their desk.  They are the only candy consumers during the experiment.  The subjects consumed more candy from a clear dish than an opaque one.  They consumed even less when the dish experimenters placed the dish three feet away.  The secretaries consumed the least candy when it was placed into a drawer.

Which of these accounts for breakfast sales soaring to about $47 billion in 2013 (up from 25.5 b. in 2011)?  If you live anywhere near a city, the commuter routes are jammed with signs pointing you toward food.  Perhaps after a hectic morning shepherding kids, you headed for Starbucks, starving, and realized: They have oatmeal!  Oatmeal is healthy!  And you had that.  And the next day, too.  And pretty soon that’s your morning.  According to QSR Magazine, once you choose a restaurant where you pick up breakfast, it becomes part of your routine.  In other words, customers stay loyal, probably owing to the hasty morning commute.

Oatmeal is good for you, but with the raisins and nuts and sugar the little bown can run 350 calories or so.  That’s before the drink, usually coffee, that is truly key (along with congealed hashed browns, Frappuccinos with extra caramel, and the like).  It’s more likely, though, that you’re headed for work and dropped into McDonald’s to grab a McMuffin (breakfast accounts for ¼ of total sales at U.S. McDonald’s, and the McMuffin is the best seller).  Dunkin’ Donuts has 150-calorie wraps filled with egg whites, but they also have egg and bacon sandwiched between a glazed doughnut.  Taco Bell started feeling like an ugly stepchild, so they’re rolling out some vile-looking breakfast selections aimed at the 18-49-year-old gents.  Watch your backs, or you’ll be watching your fronts before long.

Gentleman, back away from the waffle-thing.  And run.

Gentleman, back away from the waffle-thing. And run.

This all sounds very negative, so let’s turn to the part where both you and capitalism benefit equally: When you change your habits, companies change with you.  They have to change with you or they will no longer profit.  This has actually happened.

Beginning in the 1990s, organic foods began increasing in popularity.  Organic products were (and are) more expensive, but held the promise that they contained no pesticides, natural or artificial flavors or colors, antibiotics, synthetic hormones, or genetic engineering.  Consumers decided it was worth the money and they began buying these products.  According to the Organic Trade Association, in 1997 sales of organic food, clothing, and household cleaners accounted for just 0.8% of the total market for these goods.  By 2006, that number rose to 2.8% of the market – a category worth $17.7 billion in sales.  By 2010 – after a huge U.S. recession! – organic products yielded $26.7 billion in sales.  These kinds of trends tend to wake up food and product producers.  A trend you created when you decided that you wanted your food, clothing and cleaners to be untainted.  This is the upside of an open market.

The people behind crops grown using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) worry about the positive reception organic food has gotten.  They (correctly) think that if foods grown using GMOs were labeled as such, they would sell poorly.  That is why they are spending so much money to defeat legislation aimed at labeling foods containing GMOs.  Proponents say the food grown this way is safe.  If it’s safe, label it so the free market can decide whether they agree.

Or don’t label GMOs, also at your peril.  When you don’t label foods containing GMOs, and you fight legislation, I am inclined to believe that you are lying about the safety of these foods anyway, and so is the general public.  The first time this legislation went to vote in California, most people didn’t have any idea what it was about, so it was easily defeated.  But the backlash that has followed has been enormous, and I believe eventually a proposition will pass.  No one (heaven forbid) is trying to pass regulatory legislation (that I know of) regarding the use of GMO crops.

Legislation is the moderator.  Where it can help us become informed, it’s incredibly helpful.  Yesterday the White House and the FDA proposed changes for the new Nutrition Facts panel.  These changes are long (long!) overdue.   There will be a couple of years of wrangling, but this type of information legislation is very powerful and necessary for the consumer.  The food label needs to be made more understandable, and the changes will help.  If you understand the label, but choose to ignore it,that is all right.  But don’t think for a minute that loads of money won’t be spent by sugar lobbyists to try to prevent you from noticing how much of the stuff is added to…everything.

I am in favor of regulatory legislation where children are concerned.  Children have the willpower of a puppy.  They can’t vote, have their own apartment, drive a car, or drink alcohol because we are aware that they are not yet competent to make choices for themselves.  So why do we allow crappy food for them?  Vending machines at school should not be stocked with garbage, and cafeterias should serve basic, healthy foods.

Ultimately, capitalism gives us freedom to choose.  Businesses want to make money, and who can blame them?  Regulations keep them in line to a point, legislation can help you be informed – and you vote every day with your dollar(s).  Make your food choices carefully, be aware of the pitfalls, avoid anything that looks like an IHOP Grand Slam sandwiched in a waffle or doughnut, and you’ll be the one in the driver’s seat.

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