Food Police

Call Off the Food Police

Over the years, a growing group of food activists have proposed a litany of authoritarian proposals to tax, legislate, and litigate away many food and beverage choices.

  • A slew of proposals to tax certain food and ingredients have been pitched to curb obesity. The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s executive director, Michael Jacobson, admitted that “We could envision taxes on butter, potato chips, whole milk, cheeses, [and] meat.” In 2009, New York Governor David Paterson proposed an “obesity tax” of about 15 percent on non-diet drinks.
  •  When food activists fail to enact their preferred policies by democratic procedure, they turn to the courts to try to impose their will. John “Sue the Bastards” Banzhaf, for example, advocates suing doctors who don’t adequately warn patients about obesity. He also urges lawsuits against parents of obese children, saying lawyers should “go after parents with TVs in their [kids’] rooms.”
  • Activists have proposed various forms of regulation on salt, justifying them only with hyperbole. Michael Jacobson has declared that “Salt is the single most dangerous ingredient in the food supply.”
  • Policy makers and activists have unfairly blamed high-fructose corn syrup for numerous evils. Activist-celebrity Michael Pollan even blamed the “footprint of high-fructose corn syrup” for spurring Oceanic dead zones and hermaphrodite frogs.

What does the research show? Countless studies have shown that physical inactivity, not certain foods and ingredients, is responsible for obesity.

  • Researchers at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center found in a 2010 study that only 5 percent of Americans exercise vigorously on any given day. Health experts recommend at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity.
  • In 2005, a Lancet study “suggest[ed] that habitual activity plays an important role in weight gain, with no parallel evidence that energy intake had a similar role … The composite findings from the National Growth and Health Study so far indicate that the drastic decline in habitual activity during adolescence might be a major factor in the doubling of the rate of obesity development in the USA in the past two decades, since no concomitant increase in energy intake was apparent.”
  • Steven Blair of the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research wrote in 2005: “The obesity epidemic is driven, in my view, more by decreases in average daily energy expenditure than by increases in average daily energy intake. Unfortunately we do not have data on average daily energy expenditure or on changes in this variable, and the data we have on average daily energy intake are questionable. Therefore the fundamental cause of the increases in obesity prevalence observed over the past several years cannot be determined.”
  • A 2004 study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology stated: “Contrary to hypotheses, elevated intake of high fat foods, binge eating, and exercise did not predict obesity onset.”
  • “It is often assumed that the increase in pediatric obesity has occurred because of an increase in caloric intake. However, the data do not substantiate this,” wrote researchers in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism in 2004.


What’s the bottom line? A narrow, food-only approach entirely misses the complex causes of obesity, especially physical inactivity.

  • Physical activity has seen a dramatic decline in the last few decades. Only half of American youth regularly participate in vigorous activity. One-quarter report no vigorous activity whatsoever.
  • A 2007 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that regardless of body weight, those who are physically active live longer than those who aren’t.
  • Former FDA commissioner Mark McClellan noted: “In a debate in which foods themselves are being held to be largely responsible for increasing levels of obesity, actual levels of caloric intake among the young haven’t appreciably changed over the last twenty years.”
  • Banning or restricting certain foods makes them forbidden fruits, in effect turning them into an attractive form of rebellion.