What Now: The junk food diet

Mark Bittman Jan 5, 2012

Tess Vigeland: This week we’re featuring a series of commentaries exploring some of the ideas you might find yourself discussing in 2012. Today, commentator Mark Bittman would like to direct your attention to that plate in front of you and your kids.

Mark Bittman: One major cause of what might be called the food crisis thanks is the prevalence of hyperprocessed food.  Or what we might as well more honestly call junk food. And when it comes to the marketing of those foods, especially to children, we’re going backwards.  Take that old bugaboo: breakfast cereal.

The importance of eating real food in the morning can’t be overstated, and neither can the reluctance of kids bombarded by the marketing of sweets and junk to adopt that practice. My was grandmother one of those desperate caregivers who resorted to the tactic of offering me milk and cookies in the morning, an offer I not only took her up on but forced my parents to continue.

It turns out, though, that many breakfast cereals contain more sugar than cookies, according to a recent report from the Environmental Working Group.  In fact, more than 40 cereals contain more sugar in a cup than three Chips Ahoy cookies. A cup of the most sugary cereal, Kellogg’s Honey Smacks has  more sugar than a Hostess Twinkie.

We suspected as much, but it’s still a cold slap in the face. Child obsesity rates are three times what they were a generation or so ago.  But it appears that there is no government agency that can duke it out with Big Food and win.    

Last year, a federal interagency group created voluntary guidelines for marketing junk food.  And, guess what? The junk food industry spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying against them. Their argument: those guidelines would kill jobs. Even if that were true — which it isn’t — would you rather kill jobs, or children?

Lobbying works so well that the United States is falling behind nearly every other developed country in restricting the marketing of junk to children. No federal agency has enough teeth to regulate junk food pushers.  Which means we’ll fall father behind, and our kids will get fatter and fatter. Pass the cookies, please.

Vigeland: Mark Bittman is a columnist for the New York Times and the author of “How to Cook Everything.” You can pass the plate — and your comments.

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