Industry must stop 'food addiction' attacks

Berman on Offense

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors and management of Nation’s Restaurant News.

If anti-food-industry activists have their way, “chili cheeseburger” eventually will be synonymous with “crack cocaine.” 

The new theory suggests that a restaurant is little better than a meth dealer, hooking customers on addictive foods — “bet you can’t eat just one” — cooked up by an evil genius in a laboratory. Is your company adding sugar to cereals? You might as well be peddling heroin on the playground.

For the last decade these activists have laid the groundwork needed to convince consumers and legislators that food processors are driving a nationwide “addiction” to food. 

Their attack is twofold.

The first step is to convince the public that personal responsibility is an impossibility in the face of the temptation created by “hyperpalatable” choices on store shelves and restaurant menus. The second step is to convince people this temptation is clinical, thus necessitating government interference to curb it.

Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest laid out the case back in 2004 when she observed that “we’ve got to move beyond personal responsibility.” Kelly Brownell of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity once described personal responsibility as “an experiment that has failed,” adding, “We believe that there is sufficient science to suggest there is something to this [food addiction].” 

News reports breathlessly ask, “Are cupcakes as addictive as cocaine?”

Of course, we laugh at the trial lawyers who sue fast-food outlets for making their clients fat, and respond with outrage when nanny-staters try to take toys out of kids’ meals. But these reactions will become far rarer if we allow activists to create the impression that food addiction is real.

Historically, ideas — even ridiculous or false ones — repeated often enough tend to take on a life of their own. For example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention produced a study a few years back that claimed 400,000 people died each year from obesity — a number you still sometimes see cited. The only problem with that study? It’s bunk. A follow-up published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found the number was only about one-quarter of the original estimate.

But the larger number got repeated over and over again, thanks to the amplification power of a small niche of public health groups. And most in the food industry were slow to rebut the claims. Before you knew it, obesity took the place of tobacco as the current public health crisis.

On the issue of food as addiction, similarly unsound “facts” are being pushed. For example, Yale academics have created a “food addiction scale” that mimics the criteria needed to meet the American Psychiatric Association Manual of Mental Disorders. If a subject meets three of the seven listed criteria, he or she is considered “dependent” on food.
One Yale researcher found 11.4 percent of those she interviewed met the “food dependence” standard, writing that “even if food isn’t addictive, we can all agree that certain foods have more abuse potential; they’re more likely to be used in a problematic way than others.”

The fact that we’re even discussing the consumption of food — something we all do every day to keep from starving to death — as “abuse” signals where this debate is headed. And this is not a path we should allow the discussion to travel on any further. It ends with trial lawyers and warnings.

On the one hand, there’s the rhetorical response: We are no more addicted to food than we are addicted to air or to water. We need these things to survive. It’s time to remind America of its love affair with personal responsibility.

We also must attack the “science” of food addiction. A researcher from Swansea University in Wales found “no evidence from the human literature for the hypothesis that sucrose may be physically addictive.” As one psychiatrist noted in USA Today a few years back, “If lawyers can turn fast food into an addiction and pin liability on restaurants, it won’t be long before adulterers sue Sports Illustrated, claiming its swimsuit issue led them astray.” 

Richard Berman is president of Berman & Co., a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm.