Redefining Food

Redefining Food

Redefining Food

Science, technology, and life.
May 15 2009 2:01 PM

Redefining Food

New York City Health Commissioner Tom Frieden has just been named to head the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention . In announcing his new job, the White House touts his expertise in health care reform, swine flu, and tuberculosis . But Frieden's distinctive expertise isn't in infectious diseases. It's in chronic diseases associated with eating. Frieden is the world's most ambitious innovator in redefining unhealthy foods as not really food. By rhetorically pushing these items out of the category of sustenance, he's paving the way for more aggressive regulation of what you eat.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.


First Frieden went after trans fats. There, he had a good case that the targeted ingredient was industrial, not nutritional. But he wasn't shy about exploiting that angle. In its two documents explaining the city's ban on trans fats, Frieden's health department uses the word artificial 77 times .


Then he went after salt. Only 10 percent of the salt we consume "is found naturally in food," the health department declared in a bulletin devoted to topic. The vast majority was " processed " and " packaged " by " manufacturers ." Frieden used this point in his campaign to pressure food companies to halve the salt content of high-sodium foods.

Then, last month, Frieden and Kelly Brownell, the director of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, propose a penny-per-ounce excise tax on " sugared beverages ." Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine , they rejected the notion that soft drinks were sacred "because people must eat to survive." On the contrary, they argued, "sugared beverages are not necessary for survival."

I'm not saying these initiatives are out of line. I detest trans fats, soda, and excess salt. But let's be clear about what's going on: We're recategorizing things so we can get away with aggressively regulating them.

Americans don't like the idea of bureaucrats banning or restricting unhealthy food. We tend to think it's none of the government's business. But food-related disease, particularly obesity, has become a huge problem for any government agency charged with disease control and prevention. If Frieden can persuaded us that trans fats are artificial, sweet drinks aren't necessary for survival, and most of the salt we eat is unnatural, then maybe we can accept restrictions on them as akin to regulation of tobacco or additives, not a jackbooted assault on eating in general. And if we do, I'll be curious to see what Frieden goes after next.