FDA Wants Informed Choice
Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on January 25, 2007
The Food and Drug Administration intends to use the Internet to help people better understand food labels. The concept is admirable, but will it make a difference?
The perception of obesity as the consequence of choice rather than of situation (or situationally constrained choices) is a clear hurdle. The public health community has uncovered many of situational sources of obesity. Food Fight (by Kelly Brownell and Katherine Horgen at the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders) and Broken Scales detail many of those findings — everything from portion size and advertising to human biology, the economy, and agricultural policy seem to play a role. And the more scientists scrutinize, the more subtle causal forces they discover .
Dr. Jeffrey Gordon, director of the Center for Genome Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has has recently conducted several studies suggesting that part of the cause might even be microbes. Yes, microbes. But not just any microbes. Hungry microbes that live in our stomachs and share our food with us, while simultaneously helping us to digest it. As Dr. Gordon explained in an interview on NPR, scientists have had the ability to learn what lives in a person’s digestive tract only within the last few years. Today, with the help of genetic probes, they are able to take a census of each person’s stomach. What they have discovered is that the types of microbes — some of which are more effcient, effective calorie harvesters than others — vary depending on the weight of the person. Although there is much still to learn, Dr. Gordon’s research does suggest that “a large part of the difference between fat people and thin people may come down to” these hitchhiking, free-riding gut microbes.
Bacterial causes or not, if the situationists are correct, and if weight is influenced significantly by many factors beyond “choice,” then internet guidance on how to translate food labels is unlikely to have much effect. True, it could be of some use to those individuals with the opportunity and ability to visit the website and alter their consumption patterns significantly. But it could also hurt inasmuch as it further assures those who attribute obesity rates to individual choice, that the problem of, and solution to, obesity is to be found in each individual’s will or character. More or better information, in other words, may contribute to the “take personal responsibility” mantra that has been gaining volume in this country at roughly the same rate as many Americans have been. Changing those trends will require taking situation seriously.