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Inside Story Americas
Should Americans be told what to drink?
As New York bans large sugary drinks in trying to reduce obesity rates we ask if the move should be extended nationwide.
Last Modified: 18 Sep 2012 08:44

The US is infamous for its food and drink portion sizes. Movie theatres offer beverages in sizes as large as 1.5 litres.

But now New York has become the first city to approve a ban on the sale of super-sized sugary drinks.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg says the ban is an attempt to tackle the city's soaring obesity rate.

"We need to do everything we can to stop the growth in obesity and chronic diseases in the US…right now one-third of the US population is overweight, another third is obese and the last third will become obese if we don't do something."

- Per Pinstrup-Andersen, a professor of food nutrition and public policy

More than half of New Yorkers are either obese or overweight. The city's health authority estimates 5,000 people die every year from obesity-related health problems.

But the measure has been fiercely criticised by the US soft drinks industry – which spent more than $1m in an advertising campaign against the move – arguing that the law restricts consumer freedom.

And the issue points to a wider debate about food safety and regulation.

The powerful food lobby – made up of more than 50 food and beverage groups – has spent more than $175m lobbying since Barack Obama, the US president, took office in 2009.

One of its principal targets is to prevent a California law coming into force that would force labeling on products made with genetically-modified organisms, or GMOs. That is despite concerns over the safety of GMO products.

Among the key findings in the report GMO Myths and Truths co-authored by genetic engineers and released in June are:

  • genetic manipulation has not been proven safe in the long-term
  • genetically-modified seeds can produce toxins or allergens in the food itself
  • animal feeding trials have shown disturbances in liver and kidney function, and in immune responses
  • most GM crops are engineered to incorporate either herbicides or pesticides into a plant's DNA
  • one heavily-used pesticide – Monsanto's Roundup – was found to cause birth defects, reproductive and neurological problems, cancer and even damage to DNA

In the 1990s, the meat, dairy and agricultural industries pushed a series of "food disparagement laws" through some state legislatures – 13 states have some form of these so-called "veggie libel laws" – making it easier to sue people and groups who criticise food products.

"We are the only country that believes that GMOs are both substantially equivalent and at the same time unique enough to patent, and that was a policy that put in place by the industry. It's a monopoly and the government is doing the bidding of this monopoly. It's time to break it up."

- Adam Eidinger, an 'Occupy Monsanto' spokesperson

Critics say the laws actually lowered previously existing legal standards for malice and falsehood. In some states, it is illegal to even photograph corporate farms.

On Tuesday a new report is expected to paint a bleak picture of obesity rates in the US.

Earlier Al Jazeera asked John Banzhaf, a public interest lawyer who in recent has been focusing on the food industry's role in the nation's obesity, why he believes using the law was the correct strategy to combat public health problems.

Among other things, he said: "All the conventional remedies aren't working, education isn't working… We litigate until the legislators begin to legislate… The US agribusinesses, food corporations and regulatory bodies are all too incestuous…

"All too often our agencies and also our foundations are more interested in getting the co-operation and cuddling up, for example, with the manufacturers of soft drinks rather than simply imposing restrictions on them."

In this episode Inside Story Americas asks: Will regulation help improve our eating habits?

Joining presenter Shihab Rattansi to discuss this are guests: Tom Philpott, the food and agriculture correspondent for Mother Jones magazine; Per Pinstrup-Andersen, a professor of food nutrition and public policy at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and the former president of the American Agricultural Economics Association; and Adam Eidinger, a spokesperson for the Occupy Monsanto movement, a group campaigning for labelling of food products containing GMO.

"A better angle would be to tax sugar inserters and to do that in a fairer way is to tax sugar and then take the proceeds and invest them in expanding access to healthy foods in low-income areas."

Tom Philpott, a food and agriculture blogger


HEALTH PROBLEMS LINKED TO SUGARY FOODS:

  • There is plenty of evidence that eating sugary foods contributes to high rates of obesity. But a recent series of studies have also linked sugar intake to Alzheimer's.
  • Scientists believe that Alzheimer's is largely caused by the brain becoming resistant to insulin.
  • Recent research suggests excess sugar consumption leads to insulin resistance.
  • In addition to other functions, insulin regulates the neurotransmitters crucial for memory and learning.
  • It is also important for the function and growth of blood vessels which supply the brain with oxygen and glucose.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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