The Politics of Nutrition

by Benjamin Domenech on 2:07 am April 1, 2010

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The First Lady (they all do this) is on a public relations campaign to end obesity. Chef Jamie Oliver is committed to telling dullwitted Americans, and their pudgy, oafish children, that food makes them fat. Philly and New York City are considering soda taxes, which don’t do anything but raise money.

The nutrition police actually do have a point, of course — many American diets are terrible, their desired portions vast, and their personal restraint hammered into submission. But there are limits to the extent these chidings work. Certain desires exist in the soul of this country, desires for things like the horseshoe sandwich of Springfield, Illinois:

A regular-size horseshoe contains about 1,900 calories, about the same as in nine jelly-filled doughnuts. Most restaurants also offer smaller “pony shoes” that come in at 1,300 calories or so. “It’s only health,” said Jeff Reazer, a razor-thin 42-year-old, as he gobbled one of his three weekly horseshoes at the Dublin Pub one recent evening.

Ah, America, land of the cankle.

I remember eating a half-pound cheeseburger omelet in Pittsburgh before a frigid playoff game against the Jets — there’s something incredibly audacious and American about these heart-clogging things — and no one claims these massive, magnificent “sandwiches” are health food. No one who eats them expects any consequences other than what comes. So why does the government think you’re that stupid?

Let’s say you own a small chain which served these sorts of things — or not that, but cheeseburgers of the artery-stuffing sort Barack Obama orders from Ray’s and Five Guys. Under the new health care reform, you’ll need to put calorie counts next to every item on your menu. The stated aim is information and education — but the reality is that Washington, one of the fittest cities in America, has designs on shaming the rest of these toothless beer and bacon-loving hicks into changing their eating habits. As the AP reports:

A requirement tucked into the nation’s massive health care bill will make calorie counts impossible for thousands of restaurants to hide and difficult for consumers to ignore. More than 200,000 fast food and other chain restaurants will have to include calorie counts on menus, menu boards and even drive-throughs.

Now, there are three things that are going to happen here: first, there will be no significant changes in eating habits among people who are truly obese. Second, the small businesses which must now provide this information (and have it assessed by outside parties, calculated, and printed each time they change a menu item) will be at a distinct disadvantage versus the large chains. As Ed Morrissey rightly notes, this is going to put them in a world of economic hurt:

Under those circumstances, will Davanni’s feel compelled to keep the extra three locations open, or to scale back to 19 to avoid the mandate? Even if they do keep all of their locations, that $200,000 will now get spent on something other than new jobs for teenagers and adults, and customers will pay higher prices for their food. Local and regional chains with 15-19 locations have a big economic disincentive to expand any further. I don’t know much about Davanni’s bottom line, but I’m pretty sure that even though they make some of the best pizza and hoagies in the area, they don’t have $200,000 lying around the pizza sauce to blow on lab analyses this year, or any other.

Needless to say, this will give larger chains — which tend to have lesser quality food products anyway — a leg up on the local competition. But there’s a third thing, too — once bureaucrats don’t achieve the gains they want in terms of nutrition changes, they’re likely to pursue more aggressive regulation of ingredients. We’ve seen this with the sin taxes on various foodstuffs and ingredients, and of course in the form of outright bans.

This isn’t to say that Washington will get in the business of banning unhealthy foodstuffs, but the research shows that unlike shaming data and taxation, banning actually works. People will want the horseshoe sandwich in Springfield all the way up til it gets taken away from them entirely — and then they’ll want it more.

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