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Still, the majority of food manufacturers are "appalled" by the prospect of fat taxes, evenly if they don't publicly admit it, according to Dr. Marion Nestle, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University and author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. "A food tax , any kind of a food tax , puts them on a slippery slope," says Nestle, who isn't a huge supporter of fat taxes, though not for the reasons one might expect. "No one wants to talk about calorie intake, which is the real problem. All of the talk about fats or sugars only serves to confuse the issue , and the consumer."
According to Nestle, who in the mid 1980s worked for the Public Health Service to create the Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health, Americans aren't eating too much fat and sugar; they are eating too much, period. If food companies and restaurants think that puts the ball back in the consumer's court, they're wrong. It's these very companies, Nestle contends, that are actively promoting overeating. All one needs to do is the math, she adds. "According to the Department of Agriculture, our food supply provides an average of 3,900 calories per day for every man, woman and child in this country, about 600 calories more than was available just a few years ago and roughly twice what the average person needs."
Nestle says this tremendous surplus of food, itself the result of falling commodity prices, as well as government subsidies for the production of the basic components of fast food and soft drinks, such as corn, soy beans, wheat and sugar, has made the food industry extremely competitive. "So it becomes the job of the industry to either get people to eat their products, or to get people to eat more in general." The result, she says, has been the super-sizing of every day items such as muffins and bagels, both of which have ballooned from two ounces to six ounces in recent years.
Earl agrees that food has become available in a variety of sizes and formats, but that larger or jumbo-sized prepared foods still carry recommended serving sizes , along with other nutritional information -- on their labels. The rest is up to the consumer.
"Most of larger-size formats feature high-calorie fare because those foods happen to be cheaper to manufacture," Nestle counters. "Manufacturers can price those items more cheaply and still make a profit. And what is the consumer going to do? You feel like an idiot when you buy less if you can get more at a bargain."
She acknowledges that changing social norms, too, have created a culture conducive to grazing thoughtlessly from morning to night , at book stores and shore stores, hair salons, convenience marts and vending machines. At work, microwaves are just a few feet away, and microwave snacks just seconds. If the food industry hasn't engineered these mores, and Nestle isn't so sure they haven't, then they have certainly reaped their rewards, she contends.
NFPA's Earl has a different vision of the nation's altered landscape, one characterized by increasing work pressures, decreasing recreation time and new technologies that promote sedentary lifestyles, all of which have resulted in a 60 percent decline in physical activity in recent years, he says.
Nestle says she can produce Centers for Disease Control (CDC) studies indicating there has been no real declines in physical activity among Americans in the past few decades. Television in some cases has merely been supplanted by computers, though the total time spent in front either "hasn't changed," she says. "If it has changed, it's been a small change. So, people must be eating more."
Nonetheless, many food industry members understandably have chosen to emphasize exercise and fitness as a means of combating obesity. Coca-Cola's Step With It! campaign, which the soft drink maker developed in conjunction with the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), challenges students ages 10 to 14 to maintain good health by taking a minimum of 10,000 steps per day. McDonald's Restaurants and others have since followed suit. "Their whole spiel is about making sure kids get enough exercise, but these companies never mention the concept of moderation in their ads to consumers," says CSPI's Cronin. "It's all about super sizes and consumption."
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