Thursday, June 01, 2006

March of the food fascists

By Bettina Arndt

At my son's school the food fascists issued a new decree - only health foods for tuckshop recess specials. With the other volunteer mums, I stood for hours making summer rolls, wrapping fiddly rice paper around chicken breast and healthy vegies, and then watched in horror as the lines of boys took one look and walked on past. They had plenty of other healthy food to choose -- from sandwiches, sushi, salads and pasta -- and weren't thrilled to have their occasional chicken nuggets declared out of bounds.

When we examined the healthy crowd of boys romping around the playground, very few were overweight, many positively weedy. It's hardly surprising that most parents have been content with the mix of foods on sale in the tuckshop, understanding there's nothing wrong with the odd sausage roll to brighten long days in this academically demanding school.

But food fanatics are now infiltrating the parent committees, determined to impose their absurd prejudices on the rest of us. Junk food has become the new tobacco. Rising levels of obesity are giving licence to health food junkies to attempt to ban everything they don't like. And despite the contradictory evidence supporting these drastic measures, they already have scores on the board. New South Wales and Queensland restrict foods that can be sold in school tuck shops, with South Australia and Victoria to follow suit, and Western Australia likely to head in the same direction.

Yes, many kids are putting on more weight. And they are eating more hamburgers and drinking more fizzy drinks and watching more TV, which advertises these products. But it's not clear whether the weight gain is simply due to greater consumption of energy-dense foods or also to inactivity. Some recent Australian research supports the former, but many overseas studies point to inactivity as the major problem. And there is no good evidence that restricting junk food ads on television has any impact on obesity.

As state after state in the United States bans soft drink in schools, scientists have been churning out research trying to determine whether this makes sense. Last year, a study by the Georgetown Centre for Food and Nutrition Policy found no link between fizzy drink consumption and obesity in kids aged 12 to 18. A 2004 Harvard Medical school study of 14,000 children found calories from junk food had no more effect on weight than calories from health food.

Junk food in schools only affects kids with overweight parents, who may have a genetic susceptibility to weight gain, according to a 2004 National Bureau of Economic research study. It has no effect on students whose parents have normal weight, say the researchers. Yet bans on tuckshop food are only the beginning.

In America, the Public Health Advocacy Institute is proposing "putting nutritionally deficient foods behind the counter like you do with spray paint". A recent New Zealand Ministry of Health discussion paper suggests a new law extending the minimum age requirements on purchases of liquor and cigarettes to popular foods such as soft drinks, hamburgers, sweets and chocolate. One major problem for the food cops is that they have a moving target.

What exactly is junk food? Britain's new school rules have bogged down over determining whether fruit drinks containing lots of natural sugar are better, or worse, than low-calorie soft drinks containing artificial sweeteners. Across Australia, there is little agreement whether low-cal soft drinks, such as Coke Zero, and fruit juices should go on to the banned list. Are we likely to follow New York, where schools have banned whole milk, permitting only low-fat versions?

This is cloud cuckoo land. It is hardly surprising that Queensland students are already sneaking off campus to buy foods now banned in tuck shops and that there is a thriving black market in illicit items. Of course, kids are going to see these foods as even more desirable if we ban them. These extreme measures teach children little about commonsense and moderation, which are the essence of good eating.


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