There is a movement afoot focused, rightly so, on reducing rates of childhood obesity, eradicating hunger, and improving overall nutrient quality of the American diet.
We've seen a drumbeat of actions including a series of reports from the Institute of Medicine laying groundwork to guide policymakers on key issues like childhood obesity, sodium reduction strategies, and front-of-package labeling. Earlier this year, President Obama established the Task Force on Childhood Obesity and the First Lady launched the "Let's Move!" campaign to end obesity in a generation.
In tandem, a steady increase in regulatory and legislative efforts have arisen, both at the federal and local levels and impacting access to certain foods in select settings like schools and in restaurants.
Actions such as New York City's National Sodium Reduction Initiative, the city's request of USDA to prohibit Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamp, benefits for purchasing sugar sweetened beverages, the Food and Drug Administration clamping down on food labeling claims, and the Federal Trade Commission establishing nutrition standards as guideposts for marketing products to kids are illustrations of government efforts to assert control of the food environment.
Without a doubt, this is all well-intentioned. Ultimately everyone wants to do the right thing for consumers. Who doesn't want to help kids get healthier?
But on closer inspection, there seems to be a tug-of-war in the works. Are these efforts creating a new food landscape to make it easier for consumers to choose healthier foods or creating an era of food temperance and restricting access to foods people love?
We may be experiencing a cultural shift in philosophy from a society where information is provided, industry self-regulates, and consumers exercise personal responsibility and choose for themselves, to one where regulation and controls are being considered to regulate the consumption of certain foods deemed to be less healthy.
The question becomes: can we anticipate improved eating behaviors and diet quality, and reductions in obesity? Or a consumer backlash that manifests itself in the rise in consumption of “black market foods” leading to ever-increasing public health issues? Time will tell.
Susan Pitman is a partner at FoodMinds.