The war on obesity: Do you know what's good for you?

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We have gotten used to menus showing calorie counts in those areas that must display them, and we have braced ourselves for the laws that will expand their reach. This policy has been slow to grow, but is already being proposed by many municipalities across the country.

The reason is obesity, and its tremendous cost to our healthcare system. In light of this, additional restrictions are being considered and tried, such as New York City restricting the amount of salt in prepared restaurant food. So I should not have been surprised by yet another example of the food police striking…but I was. I was surprised because if this stipulation is followed at all, our way of packaging and selling food will dramatically change.

In early August, legislation was proposed in San Francisco that would restrict the inclusion of toys with kids’ meals at fast-food restaurants unless those meals meet certain dietary guidelines. As most kids’ meals stand today at McDonald’s, Burger King and other chains, these accompanying toys would be banned. The ramifications could be small, and remain within California. A similar bill was first passed in Santa Clara, Calif., and is now in effect. But is it possible that this idea could spread, just as the menu-labeling trend spread from New York and was incorporated into the healthcare bill?

Obesity in the U.S. is a financial burden that continues to rise and put a strain on the entire healthcare system. With that said, it is not a stretch to understand why legislatures are reaching far to try to combat this epidemic.

In early August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the country had failed to meet the goal of the “Healthy People 2010” target, set in 2001, that the country should have 15% or less of the population weighing in as obese. In fact, the number is now actually 26% of the U.S. population. That is more than one in four people. The problem is real. So does this lead you to wonder: Should we be selling toys with food?

If this idea does take hold and gain favor, the ramifications could impact the concession stand in movie theatres. (The menu labeling certainly did.) If the notion is that you cannot offer anything fun or entertaining to anything that is deemed unhealthy, then the snack food world in general had better look out. It starts with restaurants, but the idea could establish a precedent with far-reaching consequences.

The idea that children or adults would buy a meal or a snack or a concession item for a prize, a toy, a ticket or a cash reward is a very established practice in the United States. Fast-food restaurants have provided toys with meals for a long time, but not any longer than Cracker Jack has included toys in their candied popcorn or cereal manufacturers have included prizes at the bottom of the box.

There is a trend developing in the food world that seems to indicate that city, state and federal governments are seeking more oversight of what foods can be consumed, with the goal of improving the general public’s health. Abundant, processed, sugary food products have only been widely available in the last 80 years, as technology and agriculture have made their growth possible. The problem of rising obesity is much more recent, but nonetheless a consequence of this ability. However, the precedent for societies to control what and when their members eat is a very old, very well-documented cultural fact throughout time. It’s just not been a part of our particular history, except for the regulation of safe practices.

This may seem like a far-fetched idea to explore in “Snack Corner,” but it’s not really that much of a stretch for me to envision proposed legislation that deems all movie advertisements and movie-related prizes to be restricted from food items. If we are already legislating salt levels on the East Coast and outlawing kids’ toys with meals on the West Coast, is it really that hard to imagine?

This proposed legislation in San Francisco, which is already the law in Santa Clara, declares war on childhood obesity. But a few meals at McDonald’s are not going to make a child obese; the overall eating habits of the child and the family both at home and away from home make up the whole story. So why wouldn’t legislation eventually take a holistic approach? Another example of this thought process is the junk-food tax, the proposed federal legislation that would tax food deemed nutritionally marginal, as a way to encourage less consumption of these products.

We can all laugh about it, call them crazy Californians, and create lots of jokes about it. I already have. But this news really jumped out at me as one of those moments where I thought I could see the future coming. I pondered how anyone could seriously think there is a connection between a toy and the purchase of a Happy Meal. While it seems ridiculous on the surface—my children want the French fries and couldn’t care less about the toy—on some level I realized these critics are right. As a child, I did think about the plastic ring in the Cracker Jack box. I wanted that ring, and I ate the popcorn to get it.

Most laws, common or legislative, occur because of repetition of actions that deem them necessary. Perhaps we have been contributing for years to a trend that makes eating fun instead of functional and is partially to blame for our obesity problem. As crazy as it might seem, all of these legal actions are addressing this very concept and trying to roll back the tide. Only time will tell how wide the idea will grow.

Please send comments to Anita Watts at anitaw@reactornet.com.