The Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) announced that it will step up its efforts to help reduce the amounts of sugar and salt in the American diet as part of the new health care reform and its emphasis on preventive health care measures. Specifically, the F.D.A. is calling on food manufacturers to voluntarily cut back on sodium and sugar content in processed foods. There are no immediate plans for binding regulations; however, the industry is being urged to take decisive action to reduce the excessively high level of these ingredients commonly used in many food products.
So far, two separate reports have been issued concluding that “sugar and salt are damaging the health of Americans by raising blood pressure and cholesterol – and regulation may be the only way to help…” (Source: Reuters 4/20/2010) The high concentration of sugar in processed foods and beverages is widely considered a significant contributor to the national obesity epidemic and other nutrition-related diseases, like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke and cancer.
The states of New York and California have already introduced legislation to help reduce salt and sugar consumption. Unfortunately, attempts to influence consumer behavior through warnings, educational efforts and other incentives have mostly failed and are no longer seen as fit to deal effectively with the ever worsening health crisis. The consensus is that some level of cooperation from the food industry is necessary. In other words, since people themselves don’t know or don’t care enough about the quality of the food they’re eating, the government should step in and protect them by regulating what food manufacturers can and cannot put into their products.
Predictably, opponents of new regulations are on high alert, ready to fight “this latest government intrusion” every bit of the way. So far, the food and restaurant industry has been advocating “self-regulation,” but it is unclear what that should exactly entail. Most of these “voluntary” measures have lead to little more than window dressing in the past. Other regulatory initiatives, such as raising taxes on sodas to curb consumption, continue to be fiercely (and so far successfully) resisted.
It is evident that the food industry could do a lot more to help improve the nutritional quality of many food products. Raising more health awareness in the general population is also needed. But these efforts will remain futile if the conditions under which most people live are stacked against them. Healthy food is expensive and often unavailable in low-income neighborhoods, where chronic nutrition- and lifestyle-related diseases are the most prevalent.
Health education of the public must continue and should be made mandatory in all schools. Too many kids grow up with unhealthy eating habits. Too many school lunches serve exactly the kind of low-quality food items we want our kids to stay away from. In too many places children are seduced into eating junk from vending machines and fast food outlets, which should be banned from doing business on or near campuses.
If we are to have any hope at all that we can change things for the better, we need everyone to pitch in – consumers, government, the media as well as industry to do their part for the common good.