ERIK STEELE

Protect our children from the food fight

Posted Sept. 22, 2011, at 1:27 p.m.

Among the things that will be lost if Americans shed the billions of extra pounds we are carrying around our waists are the billions of dollars our food industry makes selling us more food than we need. If we eat less food, we will buy less food, especially the highly processed kinds that make more calories for us and more profits for food processors.

Because “there’s gold in them thar hills” — of our fat — whatever foods we eat less of will affect some food industry interest financially. That industry will then cry fowl and argue it’s not their food that should be served in smaller portions on our overloaded plates.

A recent case in point: the potato industry’s complaint that new recommendations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reduce potato content in public school lunches unfairly tries to scud their spud. The industry has asked Maine Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe and others to force the USDA to plow under its recommendation that potato consumption in school lunches, which 40% of American children eat, be limited to one cup per week per child.

As is typical of various food producers, the potato industry has argued its product can be part of a healthful diet, and therefore should not be selectively targeted. In order to help make its case, the Alliance of Potato Research and Education’s website says it is “building a body of scientific research to support potato and French fry nutrition, and will use this information to educate the public that, when consumed in moderation, French fries can be part of a healthy, balanced diet.”

The Corn Refiners Association, whose members produce the high fructose corn syrup that is one of the main sources of excess calories in the American diet, has served up a similar approach. One manufacturer of some of the junkiest food American children eat — sugared, colored, breakfast cereals — has advertised them as “part of this nutritious breakfast.”

Manufacturers argue that their product is not the problem and therefore should not be targeted in efforts to improve our diets. Instead, they suggest, if we would all just use good judgment and eat their products in moderation, everything would be okay. In other words, it’s not their fault at all they are successful selling us too much food, it’s really all ours. If that was not so disingenuous it would make me laugh hard enough to snort Fruit Loops out my nose.

If every food producer gets a pass on our efforts to limit intake of their food, we are not going to limit any intake of any food and we are not going to trim the fat. We all have to eat fewer calories, and that means food producers will have to suck it up and make their part of our collective sacrifice. Otherwise, it’s like trying to reduce federal budget spending without anyone having to give up some tax breaks or get less federal money spent on their behalf.

More importantly, if every time we try to reduce our children’s intake of foods that contribute a disproportionate share of their calorie overload by legitimate efforts such as healthier school lunches, our children will pay for our failure to protect their health. Instead of letting that happen, we should make our schools a haven from the politics and finances of this growing American food fight over what we eat. Schools should be the one place in America where the food industry sets aside its business interests and lets the science of good nutrition set the table, and where children get the most nutritious meals possible. Schools should be the place where our children — currently on track to be the first American generation ever to live shorter lives than their parents because so many of them are becoming overweight — learn to eat well.

The rest of us should be protecting the ability of schools to serve food that only serves the interests of our children, not the interests of the industry that produces it.

Erik Steele, D.O., a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.

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