Food and Free Will

April 29, 2022

People know what they should eat – except when food companies make bad food taste too good.

People know what they should eat – except when food companies make bad food taste too good.

That is a crude description of the conclusions to be drawn from a new study about food preferences that seems to be getting a fair amount of attention. The study, from the University of Bristol in the UK, explored the nutritional wisdom of the food choices people make.

Researchers showed subjects pictures of different foods and asked them to choose which ones they would like to eat together. The subjects showed remarkable subtlety when it came to putting together meals with the nutrients they needed; they chose combinations that turned out to have a sophisticated balance of micronutrients.

However, one of the study’s authors says that if human beings do in fact use flavor cues to determine vitamins and other needed nutrients, it leaves an opening for the food industry to give “a false ‘sheen’ of nutrition” by adding flavorings. His interpretation: “In other words, the food industry may be turning our nutritional wisdom against us, making us eat food we would normally avoid and thus contributing to the obesity epidemic."

Well, the particulars may be new, but this is not a novel argument. For decades, food companies have been accused of loading certain products with fat, salt, sugar, etc. in an effort to appeal to the “pleasure centers of the brain” or some such thing. Using flavorings to give a “sheen of nutrition” to food loaded with fat etc. is a variation on that strategy.

If it even can be called a strategy. You could also describe it as simply making the food taste good. Can doing that fairly be described as “making us eat food we would normally avoid”?

“Making” is the key verb here. Normally I’m suspicious of anyone who drags philosophical abstractions into a debate over policy, but this gets unavoidably into the question of free will vs. determinism. To what extent should consumers be expected to eat nothing but foods that are good for them? How much resistance should they be expected to put up to foods that are nutritionally terrible but taste great – even irresistible?

My own inclination has always been to come down on the side of free will, which I see as the social construct that enables civilization to exist. Until we understand a lot more about human behavior and its motivations, we’ll have to continue mostly holding people responsible for their actions.

But if food companies want to load their products with fat or sugar to make them more appealing – or use flavorings to heighten the appeal of such products – they should at least tell consumers what they’re doing. That’s why I wouldn’t mind seeing a strong front-of-package symbol system, like the one Chile uses, to warn consumers when they’re about to buy something especially unhealthy.

If we’re going to hold consumers responsible for their food choices, we should at least make companies tell them exactly what they’re choosing.

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