Wrong Bogeyman

Monday, April 15, 2013

Some time ago, I encountered an article in the New York Times about the "Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food" and found the article interesting in some respects, but its analysis somewhat lacking. The author of the Times piece, Michael Moss, is author of  Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, one of the latest of a slew of books that attack modern eating habits. By chance this morning I ran across a preview of Moss's book, by Rob Lyons of Spiked, that indicates to me that the article I read is pretty much like the book, and that the analysis in both suffer from three major (and related) deficiencies: a view of individuals as not really being in control of their choices, a distrust of capitalism, and a deficient skepticism about the government as our self-appointed guardian.

I particularly liked two passages from this review. Lyons summarizes the first two weaknesses in Moss's analysis quite well as follows:

... Moss treats Big Food as a collection of evil geniuses, and consumers as vulnerable fools who are addicted at the first bite of the latest novelty to come down from the lab. ...
Lyon nicely shows how Moss is wrong on both counts, and that even the evidence he puts forward supports the opposite view. But he isn't done yet. He also points out a big blind spot  in this book, which will doubtless be used to justify more central planning for the food industry regardless of whether it actually advocates such:
The turn against fat brings us to some rather more important culprits in this whole affair: government itself and the crusading medical researchers who have come to advise it. Quite apart from the stupid subsidies ladled out to American farmers to produce food that people would not otherwise want, the role of official health advice may well have been crucial to the rise of obesity. For example, despite the endless advice - which Moss parrots - that saturated fat is a killer, the evidence for this claim has always been shaky and is getting weaker all the time. But it did mean that there was a demand for low-fat foods that, perversely, were packed with sugar and other carbohydrates - and it is these foods which may be making us fatter, causing diabetes and the rest, if consumed in large enough quantities.
Ryan also deserves praise for noting the demonization of exectutives in the food industry via the parallel Moss draws between them and mafia bosses -- with which the Times piece opens. Ryan's review is worth reading in full as is perhaps, ironically, Moss's book: The latter might be worth a read as a prime example of how bad fundamental principles can make someone blind (or worse) to what the facts are actually saying.

-- CAV

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