This Week’s Column: Food Is The New Tobacco

Americans love to eat. I love to eat, and chances are, so do you. We love food so much, in fact, that our collective waistline is expanding to near-catastrophic proportions. Regardless of your opinion of the mainstream press’ breathless reporting on the obesity “epidemic” plaguing this country, the simple fact of the matter is that Americans are increasingly overweight and/or obese to the point of illness. Fortunately, the power to change is within each of us; unfortunately, there are some who are more than willing to “help” us along, by force if necessary. Like tobacco a decade ago, we’re on the verge of a war on food.



The evolution of tobacco from a quaint habit of the American Indians to subject of modern scorn is long and winding. From Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man to a glut of anti-smoking public service announcements, the use of tobacco has occupied both extremes of social acceptability in the span of little more than fifty years. Through a concerted effort to both demonize the tobacco companies and stigmatize the actual act of smoking cigarettes or chewing tobacco, the Federal government and various non-government organizations completely redefined the public perception of this once ubiquitous habit. That process began with the simple determination that smoking is bad for your health, and ergo, bad for society as a whole.



Similarly today, the federal government and various think-tanks, commentators, and academics tell us that the expansion of our collective midsection is bad for our health, and ergo bad for society as a whole. The facts and figures, unlike other crises of the day (global warming, for example), are fairly well unassailable. Over the last 30 years, the proportion of Americans who are overweight skyrocketed. The reasons why are varied and each contribute to the overall problem in different ways, but the end result is clear: Americans are packing on the pounds, and it’s slowly killing us.



Former FDA Commissioner David Kessler explains this situation in-depth in his book “The End of Overeating.” Dr. Kessler, a self-described pediatrician by trade, spent several years studying the changes in our lifestyle, as well as the evolution of food processing and marketing over the last half-century. Coupled with an understanding of the neurology of addiction and our internal reward system, he clearly explains how we arrived at the present state of affairs.



Unlike other books tackling the “obesity epidemic,” Kessler’s tome doesn’t level the blame at the farmer for producing foods laden with calories. This isn’t a Michael Pollan rant about the evils of “Big Food,” although Kessler does use that phrase to describe the industry, and he does explain processors’ and marketers’ complicity in enabling our own natural tendencies. In the end, however, Kessler explains that, like alcoholics progressing through an AA program, the responsibility for ending our addiction to over-consuming foods that are higher in sugar, salt, and fat content lies with each individual.



For farmers and agribusiness professionals, this is an important book. It’s easy to dismiss radicals like Pollan, or to scoff at propaganda like “Food, Inc.” or “King Corn.” Kessler’s work, on the other hand, is an accurate and relatively objective dissection of the relationship between humans and food. The implications of his book are serious, particularly as he outlines steps needed to curtail the unhealthy changes happening in our culture.



Like “Big Tobacco” before, “Big Food” is in the crosshairs. As an industry, it’s important that we understand the problem, and understand our role in its solution. Taking proactive steps to help “end overeating” is vital for both consumers, and food producers. It’s critically important to take ownership and control of the situation ourselves, before the government and its own radical enablers offer to do the job for us.