Don’t just ban Happy Meal toys; American food culture needs to be changed

After San Francisco recently moved to ban the toys in Happy Meals (by tying the ability to include toys to certain nutrition benchmarks),  Josh Ozersky argues that more than just banning Happy Meals is needed: American food culture and what foods it says are good needs to be changed.

No, the problem with the ban is that it doesn’t go far enough. America’s tots aren’t getting supersized simply by eating Happy Meals…University of São Paulo professor Carlos Monteiro makes the case that “the rapid rise in consumption of ultra-processed food and drink products, especially since the 1980s, is the main dietary cause of the concurrent rapid rise in obesity and related diseases throughout the world.” And reversing that trend will be a lot harder than making Happy Meals a little less happy.

But still, you have to start somewhere, and I understand why the San Francisco supervisors picked Happy Meals as their beachhead…

Again and again, efforts to promote fresh fruit and produce in low-income urban areas have failed for the simple reason that Americans have been brainwashed. We have been conditioned, starting in utero, to prefer high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar concoctions rather than their less exciting, more natural culinary cousins…

Why? Because as Americans, we like highly processed food. It was invented to please us. Cheap flavor bombs will always trump healthier alternatives. Dangling a Transformer or Beanie Baby or some other toy du jour in front of a kid may help balance the playing field at least a little. But why can’t cheap, processed food be made healthier? Is that really impossible? Or is it just too expensive?

Ozersky doesn’t quite come out and say it but he is suggesting that Americans need to radically rethink their diets and food choices. This is not a matter of just eating less fast food but thinking about all processed food and why we eat it rather than more natural food. As other writers like Michael Pollan have pointed out, other cultures make different food choices where natural is the norm and meals are events that then five or ten minute periods where Americans try to relieve their hunger while also getting essential nutrients. American food habits are tied to a whole host of other phenomenon including cars (fast food), ideas about efficiency, technology (eating in front of the TV, microwaved food), ideas about how expensive food should be, and more. And these are patterns that start young.

The question of whether all of this could be changed through governmental intervention or through other means is another controversy for another day.

(Another thought: how come McDonald’s is the most common target of such actions? It is kind of like the attention that Walmart draws – neither McDonalds or Walmart are the only games in town and yet their size and reputation tends to draw the most attention.)

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