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Obesity: is the government making worse?(25 posts)

Obesity: is the government making worse?dr hoo
Dec 9, 2003 9:44 AM
I watched ABC's special last night, expecting to hear a bunch of rehashed stuff on obesity and advertising. But I did hear something I had never thought of before, much less heard on TV. The issue of farm subsidies.

Start of subsidies material:

Basically, the argument is this. We get more of what we subsidize. Duh! But when it comes to food, we subsidize corn (lowers the cost of sweets from corn sweetners, lowers the cost of meat and dairy from lowered feed costs) and soybeans (soy oil is the largest source of fat in the american diet) heavily. However, we have almost NO subsidies for vegetables, and none for fruit. So government subsidy programs lower the cost of unhealthy foods, while doing nothing for the cost of healty foods.

What do you think of this argument about how the government interfers with the economy of food? I liked that it added a macroeconomic argument to something that is normally seen as a psychological/advertising one. It gave me something to think about. can decide not to stuff it down your pie holeColnagoFE
Dec 9, 2003 9:49 AM
though i agree that things like corn sweeteners and soybean products are on the upswing because the profit margin is higher if these are used.
I thought it was interesting,TJeanloz
Dec 9, 2003 10:07 AM
I saw the program, and, as with most media stories, it left me with more questions than answers. I'm generally not a fan of any sort of subsidy, including these. But this discussion is far more complex than ABC plays it out to be. But here are my views:

1. Soy and corn are not inherently unhealthy. In fact, they are of critical importance to any healthy diet. Soy is widely considered healthy - high in protein, low in fat - tofu, which I refuse to eat, is soy curd.

2. There have, in the past, been differences of opinion about how healthy things are. Transfats, the current stigmatized group, were introduced as a replacement to tropical oils when it was decided that tropical oils were bad for you. We've actually changed our minds, and decided that tropical oils are not bad for you, but now transfats (which were an improvement on t.o.) are bad for you.

3. There is a world market for the products that we subsidize. Not to get all weepy-eyed liberal on you, but raising prices on soy in the US means raising prices on soy in Latin America, Africa, and other famine-stricken areas. All things equal, this isn't good. Would I prefer a zero-subsidy situation? Yes. Would that make most people in the world better off? Probably not.

4. Subsidizing soy and corn farmers is not intended to increase production - it is intended to make farming a viable commercial endeavor. Logistically, I'm pretty sure you can't grow fruits and vegetables with the same efficiency in Nebraska that you can corn and soy. So the purpose of the subsidy - to keep farms in business - is destroyed, because Nebraska farmers can't grow oranges. Also, you can't feed cows oranges, so there goes the beef subsidy.

5. I also wonder, if roles were reversed, whether we would be hearing about the horrors of fructose (fruit-based sugar) and vegetable oils. People would probably be saying: "we could be subsidizing corn, which is a healthy alternative". Just my suspician. We don't know as much about what's healthy and what's not as we like to pretend we do.

Bottom line is that I'm not convinced that fatty foods, not lack of exercise are to blame for the obesity epidemic. I'm sure it is not the Government's place to subsidize farmers, but as long as they do, it might as well be corn (which we can export and feed the world with). Peter Jennings was less than persuasive - he seemed too sure of the causality, which I think is tenuous at best.
Good points, TJ. My take on this issue.Dale Brigham
Dec 9, 2003 12:31 PM
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that I am more than an interested bystander in the issue of how public policy affects obesity in the U.S. I currently work in a CDC-funded obesity prevention program, which will be addressing both physical activity and healthy eating, in hopes that we can make headway against this epidemic (wish me luck, boys!).

I thought the program raised several interesting points, although I found it was not without flaws, several of which you pointed out, TJ. If you don't mind, I'd like to add to or address some of the points you made.

1) I toe the old nutrition line that there are no bad foods, just improper quantities of same. You are correct that soy and corn are fine foods for people to eat. However, the ABC program was pointing out that it is how we use by-products of those foods that is adding to the problem of obesity. Most of U.S. soy production goes into making oil (which we eat) and soy meal, the byproduct of oil extraction (which pigs and chickens eat). Most of U.S. corn production likewise is used as animal feedstuff (for pigs, chickens, cows, farmed catfish, etc.). Bottom line is that we don't eat much tofu here; we feed the soy meal to a chicken, fry the chicken in soy oil, and eat it on a stick. Lots of calories in a small bite (high caloric density) means it's easy to eat lots of calories (and get fat, to boot).

2) Quite correct you are that nutritional science constantly evolves, making for lots of head scratching among the public (and shouting matches among scientists at meetings). It's sort of like Sec. Rumsfeld's known-knowns, known-unknowns, unknown-knowns, etc. -- we have learned much, but much is still to be learned. Regardless, we know more than ever what constitutes an adequate diet and how to achieve it. For instance, increasing fruit and vegetable consumption is a key public health goal because it a) increases intakes of protective nutrients, and b) decreases caloric intake by displacing high caloric density foods from the diet.

BTW, trans fats are not thought to be any worse than tropical oils in leading to heart disease. Trans fats are a by-product of the process of hydrogenating vegetable oils, which is done to make the oils semi-solid at room temp (think margarine, Crisco, or peanut butter), which in turn makes them suitable for baking, spreading, etc.

3) I'm out of my league on this one, TJ. You are the money and trade guy. I thought that our subsidies and export programs tended to undercut domestic food production in underdeveloped countries. Can you set me straight here?

4) I looked this one up on the USDA website, and you have it absolutely correct. The price support programs are intended to control (limit, in most cases) production and stabilize prices for farmers and comsumers, which helps keep food (and fiber) production predictable and stable in the U.S. There are several categorical programs that ABC lumped into "farm subsidies," and it's more complicated than some would like you to believe.

As for me, I'm not convinced that ag subsidy programs are a major villain in why we (Americans) are so fat. Across the pond, ag subsidy programs are even more extensive and entrenched in Europe than in the U.S., and most Euros are much less chubby than we are. There are, of course, lots of differences between the U.S. and Europe. Still, I think this comparison weakens the case for ag subsidies leading to obesity.

5) As I propose above, we do know quite a bit about what constitutes a healty diet. What we don't have a clue about is how to get a majority of the public to make better choices in their diet. I believe the food industry will actually help in this battle, as the Kraft executive on the show said, due to a) fear of lawsuits, b) growing consumer preference, and c) corporate responsibility (yes, I am a crazy optimist!). Decreasing portion size and reducing caloric density is g
Even more of my mindless babble, cont.Dale Brigham
Dec 9, 2003 12:34 PM
Decreasing portion size and reducing caloric density is going to help us eat fewer calories; Kraft and other food manufacturers are working on that right now.

I'm totally with you, TJ, on the exercise (physical activity, as we call it in the biz) thing. More recreational physical activity, less TV/Computer time for kids (and adults), more walking and biking to school and work -- all of these are key goals in the battle against obesity. Still it all comes down to caloric balance, and we need for most Americans (not you, of course!) to both expend more and take in fewer calories.


P.S. Advertising foods to young kids is a whole 'nother can o'worms. I'd like to see government work with industry to establish standards they both can live with. DB
Advertising to kids,TJeanloz
Dec 9, 2003 12:45 PM
As previously disclaimed, I think the obesity / subsidy link is far more complicated than ABC portrayed, and I don't really think it can be solved easily.

The advertising to kids segment of the program bothered me a lot. Maybe things have changed since I was 7 years old (18 years ago), but I didn't do a lot of grocery shopping. I mean, I went to the grocery store and rode around on the front of the cart (and took turns driving it) but I wasn't making the purchasing decisions. I know that we used to make all kinds of demands for foods - I used to really want Fruit [or is it Froot?] Loops, but my mother wouldn't have it. As far as I'm concerned, the onus is on the parent to say no. When we were a little older, we were allowed to pick ONE thing at the grocery store - provided its first listed ingredient was not sugar or corn syrup. Kids want all kinds of things. It's a parent's JOB to deprive their children of these things. Anybody who can't refuse to buy their 6 year old kids Cheese and Macaroni is going to have some real issues 10 years down the road.

I don't really see why company's shouldn't be advertising to children. If children can sway their parents purchasing habits, o.k. - but the burden is on the parent, not the Government to make purchasing decisions for their kids.
Advertising to kids really happens, thoughshawndoggy
Dec 9, 2003 2:38 PM
The first "word" either of my kids could read (both at about 2 1/2) was McDonalds -- the golden arches.

I eat at McDonalds about twice a year so it wasn't because we went so often.

Advertising works by 10000 little nibbles at your psyche, and sticking those subconscious nibbles into kids brains at a young age obviously works.
Advertising to kids,Duane Gran
Dec 10, 2003 9:24 AM
You bring up some good points, but I disagree. In Sweden it is illegal to market or advertise to children under the age of 12. I happen to think it is a good idea in spite of my capitalist leanings for the following reasons:

* Children haven't developed the maturity to effectively discriminate the difference between advice and marketing pressure. It is not fair or appropriate for a company to take advantage of this fact.

* Although it is the job of the parent to say no, it is evident that advertisers are doing everything they can to make the parent's job more difficult. Parents are in an arms race of sorts to deflect market penetration into ever younger children.

* Children should not be viewed as a surrogate nagging device to extract money from the wallets of adults. It is demeaning to child and adult alike.

I'm not a parent, but I'm incensed over this issue. I have friends who ardently restrict market exposure of their children, yet the kids still somehow recognize iconic figures in the grocery store before they can read. I sense a feeling of hopelessness as parents try to shield their kids from marketing.

Recently I read about a new term called "tween" that refers to children of the age 10-12, who are not considered teens, but then not quite children. Advertisers have come up with a new word to depict this demographic. Frankly, it makes me sick and I want to shout at them that children are not their commodities.

Sorry for the rant, but this is a hot button issue for me. No respect intended toward you personally.
I'll take the other side on this...TJeanloz
Dec 10, 2003 9:43 AM
I'm going to postulate that the advertising industry is doing parents a FAVOR: it's giving them the opportunity to teach their kids an important lesson about not getting what you want.

One of the things that bothers me the most about modern parenting is the coddling that goes on. Parents treat their kids like they're each the Second Coming, and can't refuse to buy their kids anything. I really don't see how challenging it is for parents to tell their children that they can't have something. What's happening is that we've decided that parents aren't good at being parents, so we should regulate an industry to make the parents' jobs easier? Why not let parents decide for themselves how to raise their children?
I'll take the other side on this...Duane Gran
Dec 11, 2003 7:31 AM
I wouldn't go so far as to call it a favor, since the results are clearly in the favor of the advertising industry if the parents fail to resist, however I do see what you mean. I too would like for more parents to get a backbone and stop letting children run the household. I suppose if parents were more effective at dictating purchasing decisions then advertisers would lay off of children. I just find it aggravating that it requires a profit motive, rather than a moral conclusion, to do so.
very educational read, thanks!dr hoo
Dec 9, 2003 12:49 PM
I learned something today. I have a feeling if you go on I will learn more.

I do know about behavioral level intervention on health issues, more than I care to think about in fact (theory of reasoned action anyone?). But the macro level policy stuff I just don't think about much. That's probably why the ABC story got me thinking about it.

The biggest change I see with kids today is in activity that is built into their days. Kids don't walk to school anymore. It's too dangerous (not really) and too far (for many it is). Gym classes are cut. Kids don't go outside to play as much, certainly not in terms of unstructured play time, but instead have "activities". That's part of it.

Cities and towns are designed so that walking is near impossible (no sidewalks), and walking to DO something, like down to the corner store, can't happen because there is no corner store. People used to walk and talk to neighbors on the front porch, but now we live on the back deck.

We used to get our food from local growers. I still love my farmer's market. Now we get our bread from wonder and our tomatoes out of a can.

My number one solution though, when asked by my students what THEY should do for THEIR kids is this: turn off the tv and send their kids out to play.

Thankfully, around here people still do that. Well, not the tv part, but they do send the kids out to play. And they make the walk to school too!
Oh yeah, I can go on and on and...Dale Brigham
Dec 9, 2003 1:27 PM
Our great little discussion here has hit on many of the quandries that face experts (and wannabe experts like me) in the obesity issue. In particular, how much of the problem is personal responsibility, and how much is societal responsibility?

If society has a role, should we subsidize fruit and vegetable growers, end subsidies of grains/feedstuffs, and limit advertising targeted to young kids? Or do these policies unfairly interfere with businesses lawfully selling their wares?

Is it all the parents' responsibility to help their kids eat healthy and be physically active, or do business, schools, and government have a role to play in helping parents help their kids? If we say it's all personal responsibility, then should we not have sidewalks or parks in neighborhoods or nutrition lessons and physical activity in schools?

Looking at tobacco use as an example, what about cigarette ads in kids' magazines or cigarette vending machines in high schools? Should we allow those if we truly believe public health is all about personal responsibility?

I don't have the answers, but my point is that there are both personal and societal factors that contribute to the obesity problem. Recognizing appropriate areas of responsibility and working on strategies that create an environment wherein parents can help their kids will help solve the problem. I'm actually optimistic that because the problem is getting so evident and so bad, that parents, kids, business, government, and darn near everybody is willing to help.

re: It sounds like the free marketjrm
Dec 9, 2003 10:18 AM
hasnt found a final product benefit from veggies and fruit other than in juice form being more convienent. But it should also be mentioned that the time from pick to market and its cost are why they arent subsidized in the first place.
It obviously has something to do with ....Live Steam
Dec 9, 2003 12:06 PM
the transportability and preservation qualities of these commodities as well as their varying uses. I don't think it's the vast conspiracy you are alluding to. Equity markets trade in corn futures not broccoli futures! LOL!!!
do you see conspiracies everywhere?dr hoo
Dec 9, 2003 12:31 PM
I don't think there is any conspiracy involved. Rather this seems to be the outcome of a lot of long term political decisions. Corn growers have good lobbyists (Look up how much ADM contributes to politicians, for example).

Do you deny that subsidies lower prices? Why wouldn't subsidies lower fruit and vegetable prices? Ah, but that would be government hand outs right? And you are against them, right?

Would the conservative in you want to eliminate all farm subsidies? If the obesity argument is right, that should work to reduce obesity by making fat/sugar foods more expensive. Can you see any way it would make our obesity "epidemic" worse?

I think this is a good example of you NOT engaging an idea, even when it might go along with your principles. Or are you NOT for free markets?
You must be kidding or drinkingLive Steam
Dec 9, 2003 12:44 PM
You believe that if the broccoli farmers coalition were stronger they would get subsidies like the corn growers or wheat growers or soy bean growers? Yup, you're drinking.

Corn, grains and legumes transport much more easily than bananas, red peppers or tangerines. They have better preservation qualities and are easily transported without refrigeration. They have multiple applications and uses. They are World commodities because of it. We produce most of what the World consumes of these commodities. They feed starving people because the US subsidizes the farmer to make it economically feasible for him to continue to produce.

Now you would prefer that the US stop subsidizing the farmer because there are people who lack self control? Hey it's not my conspiracy theory. You brought it up.
What political universe do you live in?dr hoo
Dec 9, 2003 1:00 PM
"You believe that if the broccoli farmers coalition were stronger they would get subsidies like the corn growers or wheat growers or soy bean growers?"

I think that if you give enough politicians enough money you can get a GREAT deal in return. So yes, if the broccoli industry put as much money in the politicians pockets as corn and soy, they WOULD get as much in return.

Gosh, I wish I lived in your world where political contributions have nothing to do with social policy.

"Now you would prefer that the US stop subsidizing the farmer because there are people who lack self control? "

Actually, I did not say one way or another if I was for or against subsidies, much less give any REASON. Self control was not part of the argument. I specifically laid things out in macroeconomic terms.

I also said that if YOU are for free markets, then YOU should be for stopping subsidies. And IF there is a connection to obesity, YOU would not only get your principled outcome, but also a side benefit of less obesity.
Republicans are for markets that are free as in beer. . .czardonic
Dec 9, 2003 2:18 PM
. . .not free as in speech. They aren't too hot on free speech either these days.
I was wrong. There is a conspiracy!Live Steam
Dec 9, 2003 5:06 PM
George Bush Senior hates broccoli. He must be putting pressure on Junior to keep broccoli prices higher so no one will want to buy it :O
Drinking? That's OldEd! He's peppy this morning though...No_sprint
Dec 10, 2003 9:40 AM
wait until the first few go down, it won't be long, he'll slow.
I don't think ADM grows any corn - just a processorTJeanloz
Dec 9, 2003 12:55 PM
The industry is far more complicated than ABC made it out to be. I've spent the last six months up to my neck in soybeans for a client (btw, a barge full of soybeans is one of the most mind-blowing demonstrations of the scale of the agri-economy), and it never ceases to amaze me the complexity of farming.

Subsidies could undoubtedly lower the price of fruits and vegetables. But are the price of fruits and vegetables the reason that people don't buy them? I think it's too simplistic to say that people substitute beef for vegetables because subsidized beef is cheaper. I don't cook at home, so I really have no idea how much things cost, but I can't imagine that people are substituting things based entirely on cost. I think the prices would have to change significantly before processed foods became vegetable based, if that were even possible.

For the record, I do want to eliminate all farm subsidies.
They must BUY to process, so price matters.dr hoo
Dec 9, 2003 1:06 PM
Price is a major factor in food purchases. A small change in price makes a huge difference in sales, just ask a produce manager. Or ask a meat department manager how much volume changes when they move hamburger prices $.10 (hint, it's a LOT).

Farming is very complicated, and you are right that people don't understand that. I doubt many think of the corn farmer sitting in a combine (a $100-200k machine) looking at a satelite uplink analyzing his beans for where to add herbicide, and at the same time watching world commodity prices in order to lock in the best price for his harvest whether that is in Moline or Moscow.
Nope its called "locational" theoryjrm
Dec 10, 2003 2:59 PM
or what later bacame the gravitational/retail modal.
N.E.S.T.L.E.S ...Nestles makes the very best, chocalate!!!bic
Dec 9, 2003 5:43 PM
On the first page alone I saw all I need to see, this is a bogus story

"I don't think that you can talk about giving the public what the public wants without discussing the $33 billion a year that the food industry spends to try to promote that kind of want," said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.
Nestle family hasn't owned any of Nestle S.A. since 1874 (nm)TJeanloz
Dec 10, 2003 6:20 AM