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The Food Police: Why You Might Want to Rethink Your Views on Organic, Local, GMOs and More

tFS: What do you make of Salt, Sugar, Fat? Are they really as addictive and are we really as brainwashed by corporate giants as the book makes it seem?

JL: For all the talk of scientific bliss points and allusions to companies powerfully manipulating our taste buds, Moss’ book inadvertently reveals how little power food companies actually have. They spend hundreds of millions on advertising and promotion to try to convince us to buy their wares. Yet, all the flashy signs, well-crafted brand images, and corporate logos reveal another truth. Without all this stuff, we’d probably just ignore them and their scientifically optimized foods.

Despite their supposed prowess in food science and advertising, Moss barely alludes to the fact that food companies normally fail. Yet, his own statistics, offered in passing, reveal that two-thirds of all new food products fail to survive on the market after the first few months. But, this isn’t a sideline fact. It is key evidence against his argument that food companies are foisting anything they want on gullible consumers. Narcotic-like, addiction, hooked. These are words that appear repeatedly in Moss’ book. However, calling salt, sugar and fat addictive is stretching the science to fit an agenda. Is it really surprising to learn that sugar activates reward centers of our brain? Or that ice cream makes us happy? Using the studies cited to claim sugar, salt and fat are addictive comes dangerously close to being able to call anything pleasurable addictive. If reading a good book or playing baseball with the kids activates a brain reward center, they too, following this line of reasoning, are addictive. The argument is tantamount to demonizing pleasure. It is modern day Puritanism. And it is demeaning to those who suffer from legitimate addictions.

tFS: What are your thoughts on the rise of obesity and what we can do about it?

JL: Obesity is a complex, complicated problem. Anybody who proposes a single explanation or a “quick fix” is almost certainly a charlatan. Over the time obesity rates were rising, many positive developments were happening: Americans were smoking less, found less strenuous jobs and more air conditioning, and were gaining access to cheaper, more convenient food. Women found work outside the home and technologies made cooking and cleaning easier. All those changes had positive aspects but they also helped contribute to a rise in obesity. So, first we need to have some perspective and see the “bad” in light of the “good.” We also need to avoid hyperbole. The rise in the prevalence of obesity has dramatically slowed and there has not been a significant rise in obesity rates of women in over a decade and the same is true among men in the last five years or so. While the excessively obese do indeed die sooner than “normal” weight folk, overweight and slightly obese actually live a bit longer than people who fall in the “normal” range of body weight. Being overly thin is actually much more likely to lead to death than being overweight. What steps can help reduce the problems of obesity? Don’t subsidize it through public health policy; make people pay at least a portion of the cost of overweightness. Don’t forget the role of economic development. Many of the problems of obesity are tied up with the problems of poverty. If people believe investments in their education and health will pay off in the future, they will have an incentive to consider their future health.

tFS: Do you think the advances in farming techniques are helping or hurting us?

JL: No doubt technology is helping. We accept and promote technology in every other aspect of our lives (iPad or heated seats anyone?). We needn’t fear it in food and farming.

tFS: You have some bones to pick with those who push a "local" agenda. Can you explain?

JL:  Local food can be tastier in certain seasons. But, that aesthetic preference has been promoted as a political agenda and a savior of the food system. I don’t have any qualms with people buying local food. I object when people advocate public policies promoting or subsidizing local. I also abhor the moralizing that is associated with local food – that somehow you’re morally defunct if you don’t buy local. The reason is that many of the claims advanced to promote local – that they’re better for the environment or better for health or better for the environment or better for the economy – are fallacies. In The Food Police, I take on each of these issues. One of the things that makes life so enjoyable is interacting with people and places that are unlike us. Why would we want to trade that richness and diversity for a form of nativism when it comes to food? I suspect many of your readers would balk at the idea that they should only buy clothes or jewelry from people who happen to live near them. What is good about foreign fashion is good about foreign food.

tFS: Can you talk to us a little bit about your diet and where you shop for food?

JL: I am a sucker for good BBQ, and I enjoy spending a Saturday afternoon smoking Brisket. Alas, I’d gain 100 pounds if I ate BBQ every day, so I try to limit my indulgence. I’m blessed to have a rather indiscriminating palate: I can enjoy eating almost anything. My wife is a pickier eater, and as a result, she does most of the meal planning in our house. I probably do about 25% of the cooking for our family and she does the rest. We live in a small town with four grocery stores, two of which are Wal-Mart’s. I’d bet 90% of our at-home food budget is spent at Wal-Mart. People complain about Wal-Mart but I think it is absolutely amazing that we’ve reached a point in human history, you can walk into Wal-Mart any time of day, any day of the week, and be mad if they don’t have jalapenos, avocados, limes, coffee, whole wheat pasta, and even lobster. I think that says something about how much we take for granted.

tFS: Have you heard from Pollan, Moss or Bittman or one of the other authors or members of the "food police" you've criticized in your book?

JL: I did a debate about various food issues with Michael Moss on Michael Medved’s radio show. We had a civil, productive exchange. I’m sure Moss would disagree, but I think I won the debate. Pollan and Bittman have been quiet, but I do hear from many of their acolytes, particularly when visiting college campuses where Pollan’s books have been required readings. While I’m accustomed to having my perspective challenged all the time, I find the reverse isn’t always true. I relish the opportunity to let people know that there are alternative logical, acceptable, even moral ways to think about food.

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