Four questions on food 11/21/2016

What do you think is wrong with the “Just say no” attitude to unhealthy processed food?

“Just say no”, while it sounds simple, denies reality. Unhealthy processed foods are pushed at the public constantly. In the aisles of supermarkets, front-of-package labeling laws allow Froot Loops to infer they might not be as bad a choice as you thought because they contain whole grains and Vitamin D. In schools, baked chips and sugar-laden granola bars are billed as healthy vending options. In our homes and public spaces, unending advertisements span every media avenue and junk food fundraising efforts health-wash Dairy Queen’s Blizzards, Tim Horton’s Cookies, and Pizza Pizza — the list goes on and on.

Personal responsibility–based arguments also deny the realities of many individuals and families for whom processed food represents one of the few pleasures that they can afford to buy, or whose life, medical, financial, or caregiving responsibilities make having the time, ability and/or interest in cooking from fresh whole ingredients an unobtainable luxury.

Many of us working on the frontlines of this issue see systems change — like improving people’s health, bolstering access to good food, and making the food system more equitable — as our ultimate goal. Do you think the general public is starting to recognize the complex forces at play in the fight for healthy food for all? Or are most of us still working at an individual/personal scale?

I do think change is coming. This discussion likely wouldn’t have even taken place 20 or 30 years ago. What people need to do, though, is to take a step back from our short lifespans and recognize that change that takes a few generations to achieve is actually lightning-fast in the grand scheme of things. I’m quite heartened by our pace of change around food and health.

Soda taxes are getting a lot of attention and buy-in right now from governments around the world. Is taxation a good way to reduce the attractiveness of junk food?

Economics 101 teaches that taxes change consumption patterns, and in regard to soda, has the potential to collect staggering amounts of money. Here in Canada some models have suggested that even modest soda taxes could generate $1.5 billion annually. Were those dollars put to use in encouraging or easing health-promoting behaviour change, I suspect the good they might do would greatly exceed their direct impact on junk foods’ consumption.

Jane Philpott, the Minister of Health, recently announced an overhaul of Canada’s Food Guide, which includes new rules for marketing and labeling certain foods aimed at children. Is this the long-awaited national policy health advocates have been seeking?

Time will tell, as we don’t yet know what these changes will look like. Having met with Dr. Philpott to discuss these matters I’m confident in saying that she sees them as important to the health of our nation. That said, politics are a rough and dirty business, and we can’t forget that the views of the Minister herself notwithstanding, Health Canada is an arm of government, and as such will consider the interests of the food industry, agriculture, and of course, the electorate — not in terms of their health, but in terms of their future votes — in all of their final decisions and policies.