The Junk Food Commission
The assault by Tim Lobstein of the Food Commission on children's food makes interesting, but depressing, reading. He accuses manufacturers of 'undermining children's diets' and considers the large majority of products aimed at young people as 'junk' and 'nutritional disasters'. The scientific basis for all of this, however, is not revealed in the press reports (see BBC, Express). Rather, we are urged to worry about the 'unhealthy' fat and sugar content of children's lunchboxes and to be suspicious of those products with cartoon characters on the wrappers.
Regular readers of SIRC's Articles and Mediawatch pages will be familiar with Mr. Lobstein's approach to scientific investigation. In F.I.T only for the waste bin we reported on his questionnaire survey of attitudes towards genetically modified foods. This involved sampling only people who were already 'friends' of the Food Information Trust – another allegedly 'independent' organisation of which Mr Lobstein is a director. In addition, the questionnaire itself was preceded by a letter providing 'helpful' information about GM foods, such as: "Genetically modified crops are new organisms . and unlike any living thing which has ever grown on this planet. Nobody can be quite sure about the benefits they may bring, or the harm they can do."
Data from such surveys are clearly so biased as to be meaningless. So, are we to trust the conclusions he draws from his latest 'empirical' research? Clearly many foods aimed at children are relatively high in fat and sugar. That, perhaps, is one reason why kids like them. There is, however, no such thing as a bad food, only a bad diet. And on that Tim Lobstein offers little in the way of realistic or practical advice except, presumably, stopping kids eating what they enjoy but what the Food Council has declared to be 'junk'.
Such a proscriptive approach has serious pitfalls. A report published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, for example, concluded that restricting children's access to certain foods actually increases their desire to obtain and consume those foods. (See Forbidden Fruit and restricted snacks and The hidden dangers of policing school food). Improvement in the diet of young people will not be achieved simply by nagging them about things which they seem to enjoy. In the way that many campaigns aimed at reducing alcohol and drug abuse among young people fail to achieve any significant effects, or even encourage the behaviours they seek to prevent, moralising about fat and sugar may well increase the perception of certain food products as 'wickedly' desirable forbidden fruits.
There is no doubting the fact that the diet of many children in Britain, particularly those in low-income or single-parent homes, is unbalanced and far from what we would see as being 'healthy'. Improving this state of affairs, however, requires a broadening of the types of food that children both consume and enjoy. This will not be achieved by 'demonising' snack food or championing the benefits of broccoli. It will only be realised when young people have a better appreciation of what eating is all about – seeing it not as a nutritional minefield about which they should harbour deep anxieties, but as a pleasurable and rewarding experience.
On the day that the Food Commission's report was published news came of research by the psychologist Geoff Lowe and the immunologist John Greenman. They concluded that people who feel the most guilty when indulging in their favourite activities have weaker defences against infection. Let us hope that Mr. Lobstein and his 'friends' are not intent on inducing similar, unhealthy reactions in our children.