A transitional phase
New York's ban on trans fats shows how politics has gone from changing the world to changing our lifestyles.
Hardly a day goes by without another major story on what is bad for us in the contemporary diet. (1) This is as true in Europe as it is in the US. For instance, a casual glance at the last few weeks’ reporting could leave us confused and worried just trying to unpick what we should digest or not. Cholesterol, for instance, the concern of so many in the western world, is coming under further scrutiny, with some researchers arguing that the latest health guidelines on cutting cholesterol levels actually go too far (2).
The latest dietary villain appears to be trans fats. This is what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says about trans fats: ‘Trans fat is made when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil, a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation increases the shelf life and flavor stability of foods containing these fats…Trans fat, like saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, raises the LDL cholesterol that increases your risk for coronary heart disease.’
New York City’s Board of Health voted unanimously recently to proceed with plans to ban the majority of trans fats from restaurants in the city (3). Bureaucratic-minded politicians and legislators increasingly want to interfere in matters that once were considered up to the discretion of us as autonomous and rational citizens. There is increasing scepticism that ordinary people can be trusted to be discerning and make the ‘right’ decisions for themselves.
There seems to be a new climate of morality that is being pursued that seeks to re-create notions of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ people in a modern setting. Quite aside from the fact there are competing scientific views as to what extent trans fats cause heart disease (4), there is a broader concern here it seems to me. Once, the debate about health was to do with how we could provide more and better resources for society, improve technology and provision for all sections in the community - and the best way to organise such a task. With the low horizons of modern political life, however, we seem to be headed toward a situation where we can play out a morality tale of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people – based on how they eat, drink, smoke, shop, and have sex in an age where we don’t seem to agree upon very much else.
So what? A large part of where one stands on this debate depends on how we view people. If we think that they are all addiction-prone dim-wits that just want to eat rubbish (and live rubbish lifestyles) then perhaps banning certain things would be a good idea. Many have argued for bans and other interventions based on a cost-benefit analysis of healthcare, arguing that the ‘nasty corporates’ are preying on us and our kids (5).
It does indeed take the sugar-coated biscuit, when Bill Clinton, a ‘self-confessed overeater’ tells us that we all need to slim down and pundits make comments like ‘It’s not our dependence on foreign oil that’s killing us. It’s our dependence on vegetable oil.’ (6)
This debate has come to represent our low regard for the decision-making faculties of adults, as well as the low point of political discourse. It is far easier to create a bit of a moral panic around food and encourage us to engage in anxiety-ridden label-reading while we shop than discuss the impasse we seem to be at politically in society.
We end up being somewhat predisposed to think of ourselves as ‘at risk’ from all quarters. But are we a Fast Food Nation gulping obsessively too many calories or is the problem, as the New York Times Magazine put it recently that we have a ‘Vegetable-Industrial Complex’? Or are we just slightly overwhelmed with all this competing and somewhat banal information that is being discussed in shrill voices? This constant preoccupation with what we ingest is only mildly less infuriating than the fact that we are being treated like children by those that would know best’ (7).
And nowhere can the emotions be manipulated and heightened more than on the subject of children. There is increasing pressure on companies not to co-brand and market their characters with certain food and drinks. Disney is now promising to take the lead in promoting their merchandise ‘responsibly’, which means no more licensing their characters on waffles and pop tarts or burgers (8).
However, while we had a raging debate about political correctness, the food correctness ‘debate’ looks as though it is being accepted with only limited critical consideration. Anyone that questions it is presumed to have some corporate interest or ulterior motives. In the spirit of our age, a public confession here: I remember a period I went through while at school when I enjoyed a lunchtime diet of two chocolate bars, a bag crisps and a can of coke. Silly teenage years perhaps. But it was, as adults used to like to tell us in the days that they believed they knew better, just a phase.
However, far more silly – and worrying – is that in an age where we find so little to agree about, in terms of who we are as a society, where we are going, that the big vision future should be a culture of clamping down, bans and legislating behaviour – all promoted in the name of making us healthier subjects. It is enough to make you sick.
Alan Miller is director of the NY Salon which has sponsored the debate Reassessing liberty – is John Stuart Mill still relevant today? at the Battle of Ideas and has produced a series of public forums on the subject of risk with The Wolfson Center, The New School.
(1) New York Times editorial, 19 October 2006
(2) Value of Cholesterol Targets is Disputed, New York Times, 17 Oct 2006
(3) New York City plans limits on restaurants’ use of trans fats, New York Times, 27 Sep 2006
(4) For example, read Elizabeth Whelan, ASCH.org and Denise Mann, Web MD.
(5) Sponge Bob Square Pants Health Risk, Nation, 31 Jan 2006
(6) Goodbye, war on smoking, Hello war on Fat, Slate, 15 April 2006
(7) Ban Trans Fats? That Takes the Cake, LA Times, 3 Oct 2006
(8) Disney says it will link marketing to nutrition, New York Times, 17 Oct 2006