July 27 2011

Mark Bittman Should Stick to Cooking

Julie Gunlock

Mark Bittman is known for cooking simple food, and his opinion pieces in the New York Times tend to be equally simple. In his Sunday piece, Bittman applies his "less is more" theory of cooking to obesity, taking out all the complexities of the condition and prescribing a blanket solution for all the world's food troubles: tax it! 

Bittman wants the government to "tax things like soda, French fries, doughnuts and hyperprocessed snacks" as a way to begin "fulfilling its role as an agent of the public good and establishing a bold national fix." He says taxing food is "fun" and inspiring."

But while Bittman might cite the standard foodie bad boys like doughnuts and French fries, the government sees what many of us would consider health food as deserving targets for onerous regulations and, who knows, why not taxes too.

Consider the actions of the Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Food Marketed to Children - a government task force made up of four powerful federal agencies: the Federal Trade Commission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The IWG seeks to "guide the [food] industry in determining which foods would be appropriate and desirable to market to children to encourage a healthful diet and which foods industry should voluntarily refrain from marketing to children."

 Let's take a look at what foods the IWG sees as a barrier to children developing a "healthful diet."

  • All cereals
  • Pretzels, nuts, popcorn, snack bars, and crackers
  • Milk, yogurt, yogurt drinks, and cheese
  • Bread, rolls, bagels, breadsticks, and buns
  • Fruit and vegetable juices, tea drinks, and bottled water
  • Canned soups and pastas
  • Sherbet, sorbet, popsicles, and frozen yogurt


I'm sure most reasonable people would be shocked to see nuts, milk, yogurt, pretzels, and bottled water on the list of foods about which the government is concerned. But there they are, listed in footnote number 17 on page seven of the IWG report. (You know, up front and easy to find.)

It is easy for Bittman to target big, bad sugary sodas and scary, awful fried and "hyperprocessed" snack foods, even though there exists exactly zero evidence that taxing these foods helps to, in any way, shrink people's waistlines (see the latest study from Northwestern University on why soda taxes don't work). He seems oblivious to just how far the government wants to go in regulating what people eat. In fact, most of the ingredients in Bittman's own food columns would be barred from food advertising.

Bittman means well and like so many people who see no harm in nudging people to eat better, fails to see the real economic impact of his policy recommendations. Food prices simply will rise if the government begins arbitrarily taxing foods it deems unhealthy. To many Americans already struggling with the bottom line, this is yet another cost that must be absorbed.

Last year, Bittman wrote a sweet story about his mother's preference to eat a (gasp!) frozen dinner in her room at the retirement home rather than the food offered in her home's dining facility. [Correction: This story, "Eating with My Mother," appeared on Bittman's site but was authored by John Thorne; you can find it here.] When visiting, he said he opted for two frozen dinners as a way to hedge his bets by having two different kinds of meals.

 While Bittman may enjoy the luxury of being able to afford two dinners, the rest of America will struggle to make ends meet as food prices soar.

- Julie Gunlock is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum.

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