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Too Much of a Good Thing

July 2, 2017

I just read an article about warning symbols on food products.  According to this article, the government is considering adding new symbols to food products that are high in sugar, fat, or salt.  This would be a departure from their usual requirements.  The Canadian Food Inspection Agency currently only considers acute conditions caused by contaminants, poisons, toxins, or noxious organisms present in our foods.  They issue recalls for these products.  Most recently, they’ve recalled food products for possible E. coli contamination.  They’ve never issued recalls or warnings for foods high in sugar, fat, or salt, even though these foods may contribute to chronic conditions like obesity or heart disease.  These components are nutrients generally.  They enhance the flavour and appeal of foods.  They are only a problem when you eat too much of them.

The government does require a nutrient list on all food products.  This list does show how much sugar, fat, or salt the foods contain.  It does take a small calculation to determine how much you are eating, of course.  In specific terms, the proposal is to add warning symbols to product labels, so that people will be more aware of how much of these components they are eating.

There certainly is popular support for these labels.  We must exercise caution, though.  I recall eating lunch in the student cafeteria before I retired.  Every year the Food Services department would announce a new healthy food selection for that year.  The problem was that not all of the students wanted that type of food.  A group of them did want to eat healthy food, of course.  Another group wanted restaurant-style food, like hamburgers and french fries.  Yet another group wanted other people to eat only healthy food.  One policy doesn’t work for all people.

Why pick on a few products that are high in sugar, fat, or salt?  It’s really your entire diet that matters.  This question seems familiar.  Didn’t US President Trump pick on a few countries that had high exports to the US?  Didn’t economists say that Trump didn’t understand international trade, and that only the total exports to the US mattered?  Trump was right in this instance.  Reducing imports from those countries would improve the US trade imbalance.  Likewise, reducing the amount of those food products that people eat would improve their health.

The important principle is that people need choices when it comes to food.  Most people already know what they want when they go shopping at the grocery store.  Most people already know what foods are healthy and good for them.  The new symbols might help people choose, but they won’t make a big difference.  In fact, some food companies may want to reduce the amount of sugar in their products as a way to avoid the new warning symbols, but keep the sweetness the same by substituting other ingredients that are perceived as natural.  Some people believe that natural food is always healthy.

Even the meaning of what is healthy has changed with time.  It’s hard to imagine now, but smoking was once seen as a healthy activity.  Sugar used to be healthy.  Now it’s not.  Saturated fat used to be the cause of heart disease.  Now it’s okay when eaten along with other types of fat.  It’s easy to see how people can be wrong about what is healthy unless they keep up with all these changes.

Having a choice is very important.  Even competition, normally a good thing for consumers, can reduce choice.  Food companies and restaurants can provide exactly the same foods at exactly the same prices.  Consumers can only buy what’s available to them.  In the worst case, they have no choice at all but to buy or not buy.  With real competition, the worst case should never happen.  Yes, the new symbols will help people choose, if there is a choice for them.


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