There was a time (about 2 years ago) when we’d make references to the food police and laugh. It was classic irony. There weren’t really any food police and those who seemed to think they had police powers often amused us. The closest anyone came to being actual calorie cops were our wives raving about how we should avoid fat because fats increased our cholesterol levels. Before that, our mothers ranted about cleaning our plates; sometimes creating the habit of eating too much. (When I was young, a bit more than 2 years ago, most of the food police were women.)
The first dietary disciplinarian in my life, Mom, used to give me hell when I was 10 or 12 for sneaking a can of smoked oysters or a jar of cornichons out of the pantry and hiding in the storeroom to eat the whole thing. My food crimes were, and still are, pretty much too much of a generally healthy diet. Last night I had red beans and rice with a bit of ham and Andouille mixed in along with a salad and a hunk of sourdough bread I’d baked. My beverage was unsweetened iced tea. A very healthy meal – or would have been if my bowl of beans and rice had been smaller and I’d limited myself to a single piece of bread. Alas, I didn’t.
No, it wasn’t my mother’s fault; beyond having turned me on to so many wonderful foods as a child. She didn’t push me to eat too much, far from it, but she did encourage her children to explore food and the fact that I have three trim and fit siblings demonstrates that I either got the “fat” gene or didn’t quite get her message right. But that’s milk under the high chair, and is my problem.
However, obesity is certainly a general and increasing health problem for this country. And we’re beginning to question, after decades of not caring, where our food comes from.
Sometimes, though, an honest concern bubbles over into plain silliness. A group named Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has written to the Federal Trade Commission asking the agency “to follow the United Kingdom in banning advertisements of fatty cheese and other junk foods on television programs directed at children.”
Sure, childhood obesity is a growing problem (pun intended), and children are even more subject to the blandishments of the advertising industry than men watching NASCAR races. And I agree we should do more to limit marketing to kids in general, but give me a break. Cheese?
I won’t even argue that something like Velveeta or Kraft squares are closer to junk than food. Nevertheless, even these “cheese food products” have some nutritional grace. And cheese is one of humanity’s oldest and most culturally rich and diverse foods. Checking my Encyclopedia of Food Values (Corinne T. Netzer, Dell) I find most cheese is around 100 calories per ounce. So’s a typical slice of bread. As is a two one-ounce slice of ham. Everything (except green vegetables, which I can assure you from personal experience have no calories) has some calories. The real question is does the food provide something in addition to calories. Sugar doesn’t really, pure fat does to some degree, and (in addition to fat) cheese provides protein, calcium, and other nutrients.
The proposed cheese ban is just the latest item in the growing effort to ban certain foods. The first item on the officially-promoted food Gestapo’s list appeared the most supportable: Don’t force feed ducks and geese to produce foie gras. How would you like it if a tube were crammed down your throat and you were forced to ingest a funnel-full of gruel to make your liver fat so you could be killed and eaten? Nope, I wouldn’t like it either. But then, I’m not a goose or a duck, and unlike ducks and geese I have to chew my food.
These animals naturally gorge prior to migration and have evolved to deal with the effects. Additionally, studies have indicated the birds don’t particularly appear to mind the force-feeding as evidenced by a lack of chemicals indicating stress and the fact the animals don’t avoid their feeders. For the most part they lead pretty great lives right up until they’re slaughtered. Far better lives than the chickens most of us eat without a thought.
Nevertheless, California has passed a law outlawing raising birds for foie gras, Chicago has banned serving foie gras in restaurants. New York state is attempting to ban production and some idiot in New Jersey was planning to trying outlaw buying it at all. Pure political posturing.
Then New York City decided to ban trans-fats in foods prepared in the city (and Philadelphia has jumped on the bandwagon). Sure, the evidence so far seems to indicate trans-fats are bad for you. But if you’re eating enough of them to have an effect on your health then you aren’t eating a healthy diet to begin with – transfats are probably the least of your dietary worries. You’re already eating too much fat in general, and probably too much sugar and refined carbohydrates as well.
When it comes to our children there is room, by definition, for paternalism, but the best parents don’t necessarily ban behaviors, they teach better and wiser behaviors. And good parents focus on real issues like the incredibly brutal conditions at factory farms, conditions that produce demonstrably pathological behaviors in the affected animals. They don’t worry about minor issues like whether a duck that is largely pampered it’s entire life objects to a hose slipped down it’s throat.
If the very idea of the state telling people what they could and couldn’t eat hadn’t been so foreign to the thinking of those who founded this country we might have had another amendment in the Bill of Rights reserving our right to choose what we eat. Even my mother only insisted that we try everything when we were growing up — we didn’t have to like it or eat all of it — but if we liked the baba ganoush or Carpaccio then so much the better. That’s why the food police will have to pry my fondue fork from my dead, cheese-flecked lips.