Mayor Bloomberg, Big Sodas Aren't the Issue

If you want to reduce obesity rates, go after the companies that use science to drive us to overeat.

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(The Root) -- When a New York Supreme Court judge struck down New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's ban on the sale of supersized sugary drinks, I was glad. I hated this particular so-called nanny-state law from the beginning, even though our nation is in the grips of an obesity crisis. I'm very aware of this crisis because I live with it every day.

If you saw me walking down the street, you would think that Bloomberg's soda ban was tailor-made for me. I'm fat. I'm actually obese. I'll own that. But Bloomberg's ban on the sale of high-sugar drinks above 16 ounces had some ridiculous exemptions -- like Big Gulps and milkshakes (!) -- that made the law virtually useless. (Oh, and by the way, sodas are no longer the No. 1 drink of choice in the United States -- water once again holds that distinction.)

The idea that denying me access to extra-large, sugar-laden beverages -- which, by the way, I don't drink -- would have any effect on my weight is simply faulty thinking. It's the kind of thinking that adheres to the notion that fat people like me need saving from themselves, when in fact the problems run much deeper.

New York Times reporter Michael Moss has written a fascinating new book called Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (an excerpt recently ran in the New York Times Magazine). Moss spells out in vivid detail how processed-food manufacturers are using science to create addictive junk food that taps into our psychological and biological desires in ways that defeat ordinary willpower to stop eating: "To make a new soda guaranteed to create a craving requires the high math of regression analysis and intricate charts to plot what industry insiders call the 'bliss point,' or the precise amount of sugar or fat or salt that will send consumers over the moon." In labs across the country, corporate food scientists are using brain scans and complex formulas to develop food and sugary drinks that not only create cravings as intense as crack addiction but also override our bodies' natural triggers to halt overeating.

And it isn't just snacks that get the Frankenfood treatment. Pasta sauces, soups and other processed foods are all tweaked to reach that magical bliss point. In supermarkets, Moss notes, "The competition is utterly fierce to win space from the store managers who lord over their aisles with one maxim: The most space goes to the biggest sellers."

Our grocery stores have basically been turned into casinos, where the house -- processed-food manufacturers -- always wins and we, the consumers, are the biggest losers. And what are we losing? Our ability to better manage our health, lose weight and improve our life expectancy.

This is in no way an attempt to absolve overweight people from responsibility for their own health. But what we need is a fighting chance against an industry that is constantly gaming the system in its favor, that pits our primal urges for sugar, fat and salt against our high-minded attempts to eat healthier.

When Bloomberg called on food manufacturers to reduce trans fat and salt, he was on the right track. It put the burden back on many of the companies that are the real source of the obesity problem in the first place. Just as the government cracked down on the tobacco industry after it discovered that corporations were using additives to make cigarettes more addictive, public officials need to hold processed-food companies more accountable for their manipulative practices (their marketing to children is particularly egregious). That would go a long way toward improving our health rather than forcing us to drink sugary drinks from a sippy cup.

Genetta M. Adams is a contributing editor of The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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Genetta M. Adams is a senior editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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