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Good Foods, Bad Foods, and Non-Foods

Posted Apr 30 2009 1:33pm

by Marlene Schwartz

I have previously expressed my frustration with the "there are no good or bad foods" mantra. This issue came up again when I was on a television panel recently that included someone from the Connecticut Restaurant Association (who was there to argue against legislation to mandate calorie label on menus) and a well known therapist who treats eating disorders.

The therapist made the point that people with eating disorders have very rigid ideas of what are good foods and bad foods, and will eat an extremely limited (and therefore unhealthy) diet of only these "good" foods. Clearly, this is a problem, so part of eating disorders treatment is challenging the person' s categorization of some foods as good and some foods as bad. So, on the panel, my colleague and I disagreed on whether or not there are good and bad foods.

For the record, I spent over a decade treating clients with eating disorders, and I fully agree that when you are treating people with these disorders, you need to work with the individuals to help them eat a wide array of foods, and normalize their eating patterns so they are health promoting, not health damaging.

But there is a huge difference between providing medical treatment to the very serious and rare psychiatric illness of anorexia nervosa, and coming up with public health policy for obesity and poor diet. We cannot treat our society like a patient with anorexia. We do not have an epidemic of people eating only carrots and celery - we have an epidemic of people eating a diet that includes too many foods that are high-fat, high-sugar, and highly processed.

So, I have been looking for an answer to the "no good food or bad food" argument that will make sense.

I think I found one. Rather than say that there are bad foods, I am going to start saying that there are non-foods. This is something Michael Pollan writes about in his books - the prevalence of "artificial food-like substances" which have come into our lives and disguised themselves as actual food. He has some decision rules to help you determine if something is a food or not, which all make sense to me. I' ve known about Michael' s work for a while, but learned something new recently that shows how governments have already done this.

In response to Kelly Brownell' s recent work on soft drink taxes, the Hartford Courant published a slippery-slope argument:

"Start taxing soft drinks, and the next thing you know states will be padding their revenues with ‘fat taxes’ on ice cream, liquor, beer, maple syrup, marshmallows and, well, you get the picture — the list of caloric contributors could fill this column."

But here is the thing - I recently learned something very interesting about food taxes here in Connecticut. Usually "food" is exempt from sales tax, but there are some items that are not considered "food" and guess what?? Yes, that' s right, according to the state of Connnecticut , soda and candy are not food.

"Food Products" Defined: Conn. Gen. Stat. §12-412(13) defines food products to include "cereals and cereal products, milk and milk products, oleomargarine, meat and meat products, fish and fish products, eggs and egg products, vegetables and vegetable products, fruit and fruit products, spices and salt, sugar and sugar products other than candy and confectionary, coffee and coffee substitutes, tea, cocoa and cocoa products other than candy and confectionary." This list is not all-inclusive, but describes the types of items considered food for purposes of the general exemption for sales of food products.

Conn. Gen. Stat. §12-412(13) specifically excludes from the definition of food products the following items: "spiritous, malt or vinous liquors, soft drinks, sodas or beverages such as are ordinarily dispensed at bars and soda fountains, or in connection therewith, medicines except by prescription, tonics and preparations in liquid, powdered, granular, tablet, capsule, lozenge, and pill form sold as dietary supplements or adjuncts."

So, instead of arguing whether something is a good or bad food, I am going to say that some edible products are simply not food at all.

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