Should Junk Food Be a Human Right?

It's a question at the center of the global obesity problem.
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(Photo: korosirego/Flickr)

(Photo: korosirego/Flickr)

An unhealthy diet is just as bad as tobacco.

At least, according to a report given by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food to the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2012, it is. With that in mind, the report called for taxing unhealthy products, as well as regulating the sale and advertising of junk food. In other words, treat soda like we treat cigarettes—you can have it, but you need to know the risks, and you’ll have to pay extra to indulge in them.

This past August, at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization meeting in Rome, a group of American diplomats took issue with this idea. Reportedly concerned about a definition of “culturally acceptable” food that could pose future trade barriers, the American negotiators offered this definition: “For the purposes of this document, consumers, through the free exercise of their choices and demand, determine what food is culturally acceptable.” In other words, whatever people eat—that’s culturally acceptable. Take it a step further, and such language poses a danger that access to junk food could become codified as human right. It’s at this nexus of consumer freedom, corporate profitability, and public health that many of the world’s most pressing food issues exist.

Those in poverty should not have to eat undesirable food any more than they should have to live in crime-ridden neighborhoods or near toxic waste plants, but we should also question the ways in which social policies meant to help the poor just end up securing the right to consumerism and consequently undermine psychological and physical health.

THE COMMON EXPLANATIONS FOR poor dietary quality among low-income groups generally fall into three groups: 1) healthful foods cost more than unhealthful foods; 2) those in low-income households have limited access to grocery stores; and 3) individuals living in financial poverty also commonly face time poverty, or scarcity, which exerts pressure toward consuming quick, convenience foods.

While these explanations are partly correct, they’ve also given rise to a particular well-accepted myth: that there are no inexpensive, nutritious foods. In reality, there are many inexpensive-yet-nutritious foods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Thrifty Food Plan, for example, identifies and recommends foods such as eggs, ground turkey, cabbage, chickpeas, and lentils that are low-cost and nutritious, but these foods are not widely consumed by low-income households.

Why is this? Researchers have found that such foods were rejected by the poor because they “violated unspoken cultural norms, deviated from current consumption standards; fail to meet cultural requirements, and were culturally inappropriate.”  In this case, “culturally appropriate” simply represents the branded, packaged, hyperpalatable foods that dominate the landscape and are only “appropriate” due to the brute force of their ubiquity.

For the past five years, I’ve mentored a refugee family from Myanmar. After living in a refugee camp for 15 years, they were relocated to the U.S. by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. They initially stocked their American kitchen with fresh produce, milk, chicken, rice, and frozen fish that they acquired through public assistance programs and several area food banks. Now five years later, one of the parents has a stable minimum wage job and the family has joined the ranks of the working poor. They all have iPhones, and their kitchen is filled with jugs of orange soda, chips, cookies, ramen noodles, and fast food wrappers. Three of the four of them have gained considerable weight, and the mother is now clinically obese. The two kids recently told me that before 2009 they had never seen or tasted a Coke—and now they drink several each day.

What should we make of this family’s story? On the one hand, their safety and religious freedom are no longer under threat. They have health care, free education, and the opportunity to work. They have shelter, electricity, clean clothes, and running water. On the other hand, they now chronically overeat and overspend. They are at risk for obesity and Type II diabetes. They have high-interest payday loans, as well as bad credit reports due to their misunderstanding of cell phone contracts. For their first year in the United States, their extreme poverty, combined with an ignorance of consumerism, paradoxically functioned as a protective factor, but as their incomes increased, they understandably wanted to join in the culture through the established tokens of membership: fast food, electronics, sodas, and sweets.

BIG FOOD BOTH CREATES and sustains such consumerism, and it does so arguably at the expense of public health. Soda manufacturers, for example, disproportionately target black children and teenagers with their advertisements of sugar-sweetened beverages. Because of these targeted advertisements, black children and teens see more than double the number of ads than do white children for Vitamin Water, Sprite, Sunny D, 5-hour Energy, and Mountain Dew. Recent research shows that gaps in dietary quality between higher and lower socioeconomic status groups in the United States have continued to widen over time, largely accounted for by increases in the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.

Some researchers, though, suggest that maybe this doesn’t matter. They argue against the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan, saying that “good nutrition does go beyond mere survival and should include taste, convenience, and variety and be consistent with societal norms.” Yet these exact qualities—taste (hyperpalatability), convenience, and variety (increased choice)—are what undermine health. In other words, arguing that the poor should have access to these desirable experiences has the unintended consequence of promoting hyperpalatable junk food.

Certainly, those in poverty should not have to eat undesirable food any more than they should have to live in crime-ridden neighborhoods or near toxic waste plants, but we should also question the ways in which social policies meant to help the poor just end up securing the right to consumerism and consequently undermine psychological and physical health.

The notion that “consumers, through the free exercise of their choices and demand, determine what food is culturally acceptable” is a market-based definition with no regard for human well-being. This elevation of free trade and profitability above psychological and physical health creates insurmountable obstacles to good nutrition and upward mobility. Shall we allow junk food to become a human right? To a large extent, the war on global obesity hinges on the shape these future policies will take.

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