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posted by janrinok on Friday May 19 2023, @08:40PM   Printer-friendly

Study examines how three decades of U.S. policies define junk food for taxation and other regulations:

How is "junk food" defined for food policies like taxes? A combination of food category, processing, and nutrients can determine which foods should be subject to health-related policies, according to a new analysis examining three decades of U.S. food policies by researchers at the NYU School of Global Public Health and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts.

[...] "There is a growing recognition that an unhealthy diet stems from overconsumption of what we colloquially refer to as 'junk food,' " said Jennifer Pomeranz, assistant professor of public health policy and management at NYU School of Global Public Health and the first author of the study, published in the journal Milbank Quarterly. "However, public health efforts to address junk food are hindered by a lack of a uniform method to define junk food for policy purposes."

One policy example where a definition for junk food is needed is a junk food tax, which raises the price of such products to reduce consumption and generate revenue for other programs to improve the nutrition and health of communities in need. Previous research by NYU and Tufts shows that taxes on junk food are administratively and legally feasible.

[...] They identified and analyzed 47 laws and bills from 1991 through 2021, including one active junk food tax law implemented by the Navajo Nation, three state snack food sales taxes that were later repealed, and numerous junk food tax bills that have not been enacted. (Their analysis did not include policies that solely focused on beverages such as soda taxes.)

[...] The researchers were surprised that no state tax laws or bills directed the state's public health department to define the foods subject to the tax, a practice regularly used at the federal level and a mechanism that states could use to have experts define the foods to be taxed.

The researchers further concluded that their analysis supports the use of junk food taxes implemented as excise taxes paid by manufacturers or distributors, rather than sales taxes that need to be administered by retailers and paid directly by consumers. Revenue from excise taxes can be earmarked for particular uses, including improving access to healthy food in low-resource communities.

"An advantage of excise taxes is that food companies may be motivated to reformulate their products to be healthier to avoid taxation," said study co-author Sean Cash of the Friedman School at Tufts. "Defining foods to be taxed is not a static exercise, as existing products are reformulated and thousands of new packaged foods are introduced each year—so how we tax foods is not just a tool for steering consumers away from the least healthy options, but also for encouraging healthy innovations in what ends up on the supermarket shelves."


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  • (Score: 4, Informative) by RamiK on Friday May 19 2023, @09:14PM (2 children)

    by RamiK (1813) on Friday May 19 2023, @09:14PM (#1307066)

    The definition for junk food is basically https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empty_calories [wikipedia.org]

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    compiling...
    • (Score: 2) by istartedi on Friday May 19 2023, @11:27PM (1 child)

      by istartedi (123) on Friday May 19 2023, @11:27PM (#1307079) Journal

      The chart that shows men's peak tolerance at age 19-30 seems spot on. Oh, the pizzas and soda I consumed in those years and never gained! I was also very active though.

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      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 20 2023, @02:33AM

        by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 20 2023, @02:33AM (#1307091)
        I'd have thought the teenager years would be higher. I ate a lot during that time... 19-30 not so much.
  • (Score: 2, Insightful) by khallow on Friday May 19 2023, @10:01PM (14 children)

    by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Friday May 19 2023, @10:01PM (#1307072) Journal

    The researchers were surprised that no state tax laws or bills directed the state's public health department to define the foods subject to the tax, a practice regularly used at the federal level and a mechanism that states could use to have experts define the foods to be taxed.

    This practice had led to a lot of abuse at the federal level, such as changing definitions of wetlands. At that post, I quoted at length from a reason.com article. I'll do so here as well.

    "It's unusual to have a statute that can require significant expenditure of time and resources and consultants just to figure out if you're even regulated, and also imposes significant penalties if you end up violating it," he says, noting the maximum daily civil penalty the EPA can apply for non-compliance with the Clean Water Act is just under $60,000.

    That there is still so much uncertainty around the extent of the Clean Water Act, which Congress passed in 1972, speaks to just how technical cases involving the law can be.

    At issue for the Sacketts is whether their property contains "navigable waters" regulated by the law.

    That's a vague term. The Sacketts had no reason to assume it applied to them when they first purchased the property in 2004. Their lot was, after all, a landlocked residential-zoned piece of land in a mostly built-out subdivision. Local officials, too, were quick to issue them permits to build a home.

    Nevertheless, just a few days after the Sacketts started construction, inspectors with the EPA told the couple that pools of water on their property were, in fact, protected navigable waters and that they would have to obtain a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers if they wanted to move ahead with construction.

    Trying to get that federal permit is a daunting prospect. The Sacketts' petition to the Supreme Court notes that the average time to obtain a permit from the Corps is two years and costs some $250,000 in consulting costs. "Even when obtained," reads the suit, "a permit can result in significant changes to the applicant's intended operations and may substantially limit the use of the property."

    Think about that with respect to junk food. Passing on such responsibilities to a regulatory agency means that the definition of "junk food" is now a moving target that can be exploited by the administration in power to grant market power to certain favored brands or used to punish certain lifestyles: perhaps, a single brand of a major company's junk food magically jumps through the regulatory hoops that competitors can't manage, maybe vegetable-based foods and juices are now junk food, or maybe animal products are now junk food.

    And of course, it'll take a lot of money to determine if your product falls under the terms of the definition this year or who to bribe to keep your product from getting hit. This is a massively bad idea no matter how "administratively and legally feasible" it may be.

    • (Score: 1) by khallow on Friday May 19 2023, @10:02PM

      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Friday May 19 2023, @10:02PM (#1307073) Journal
      Sorry, link [soylentnews.org] to said post.
    • (Score: 4, Interesting) by gznork26 on Friday May 19 2023, @10:15PM (9 children)

      by gznork26 (1159) on Friday May 19 2023, @10:15PM (#1307075) Homepage Journal

      Regulation of something entails defining what is to be regulated, and therein lies a nest of worms. If you enumerate items to be regulated, the countermove is to re-brand something or create a new product that is not in the list. If you specify characteristics, the countermove is to reformulate and escape the restriction. And so forth. So how could the regulated set be defined such that it actually means something useful? It feels like a logic problem, but I don't see how to compile it without warnings or errors that can be exploited. Ideas? Examples?

      --
      Khipu were Turing complete.
      • (Score: 3, Insightful) by khallow on Friday May 19 2023, @11:55PM (5 children)

        by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Friday May 19 2023, @11:55PM (#1307081) Journal

        Regulation of something entails defining what is to be regulated, and therein lies a nest of worms. If you enumerate items to be regulated, the countermove is to re-brand something or create a new product that is not in the list. If you specify characteristics, the countermove is to reformulate and escape the restriction. And so forth.

        You have just described regulatory thrashing which occurs over much more than just defining stuff. My take is that even the largest and stodgiest of private businesses will be more agile than a regulator. If your regulation is so terrible that businesses are routing around the damage like this, then you need to change the approach.

        My opinion is that we're way too eager to regulate things. For starters, I think regulation should be for something compelling and which has a large externality associated with it. I grant that a given source of junk food potentially has society-wide harm, depending on how prevalent the junk food consumption is, but it doesn't have externalities. If I gorge myself on junk food, you aren't harmed by that consumption or its aftermath. One might argue publicly funded health care costs, but even then society choose to fund that and embrace the costs that come with that choice.

        Another reason to restrict regulation is that we can then focus on the things that are really important, rather than have them fall through the cracks because there were too many distractions around.

        • (Score: 1, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 20 2023, @01:12AM (4 children)

          by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 20 2023, @01:12AM (#1307086)

          While I'm not in favor of over regulation either, you've gone too far (IMO) with this line,

          > If I gorge myself on junk food, you aren't harmed by that consumption or its aftermath.

          If you have a coronary and get to the crowded ER just before I do (I don't gorge on junk food), you may well take up the bed that I need.

          • (Score: 2, Touché) by khallow on Saturday May 20 2023, @01:39AM (3 children)

            by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Saturday May 20 2023, @01:39AM (#1307089) Journal

            If you have a coronary and get to the crowded ER just before I do (I don't gorge on junk food), you may well take up the bed that I need.

            And if I have a coronary a few years later (due to not gorging on junk food), I still might take the bed you need.

            • (Score: 2) by Tork on Sunday May 21 2023, @04:15PM (2 children)

              by Tork (3914) Subscriber Badge on Sunday May 21 2023, @04:15PM (#1307231)
              He's right. The junk food dude and the health food dude will spend exactly the same amount of time in a hospital bed. 🙄
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              🏳️‍🌈 Proud Ally 🏳️‍🌈
              • (Score: 1) by khallow on Sunday May 21 2023, @07:31PM (1 child)

                by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Sunday May 21 2023, @07:31PM (#1307243) Journal

                He's right. The junk food dude and the health food dude will spend exactly the same amount of time in a hospital bed.

                That is indeed the problem. When you're complaining about displacement of health resources, the health food dude will displace them just the same. It just might be a bit later.

                • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 22 2023, @10:51AM

                  by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 22 2023, @10:51AM (#1307305)
                  Yes so if you're gonna be the "healthy" person your selfish interest is to influence public opinion into taxing the "unhealthy" so that they help subsidize your healthcare etc even though the very unhealthy are more likely to die earlier often suddenly and thus incur similar or lower health care costs over their shorter life time than you over your longer life time (which probably ends up with you getting cancer and/or living for years in an expensive assisted care facility since you are less likely to die of a heart attack or stroke).

                  It's much easier to convince people to pay taxes on their "sinful" stuff like tobacco and junk food...

                  And if there's a pension or universal healthcare or basic income scheme, those unhealthy smokers paying billions of taxes and dying before retirement or soon after retirement are great for the country's budget. And even after retirement they'll be paying (tobacco) taxes. Would be similar for junk food addicts if they get taxed.

                  Thus it makes perfect sense to me, since I don't consume that much junk food... 😉

                  First they came for the smokers, and I did not speak out because I was not a smoker... (well actually I spoke out against bans - we should not ban smoking in restaurants and bars but instead tax places that allow smoking - don't miss out on the $$$$$$).
      • (Score: 1) by the_olo on Sunday May 21 2023, @07:40AM (2 children)

        by the_olo (1764) on Sunday May 21 2023, @07:40AM (#1307206) Homepage

        I think there is an effective way to counter the escape of restrictions through reformulation.

        The regulators need to base the criteria for food as close as possible on scientifically-proven, biologically significant and objectively lab-measurable properties.

        So instead of declaring "tax on fries" which is easy to evade, the taxation criteria could be based on things such as glycemic index [wikipedia.org] (above a certain threshold the tax would kick in and grow higher the more glycemic index exceeds that threshold).

        Other possible metrics could include the ratio of fermentable and non-digestible fiber to easily digestible carbohydrates (i.e. to glucose).

        For fat component of foods, the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats.

        Etc. etc.

        These metrics should properly weed off harmful ingredients of food, and any reformulation would necessarily make the foods less harmful (e.g. lowering the glycemic index of a meal will practically always make it less harmful for insulin sensitivity).

        • (Score: 2) by gznork26 on Sunday May 21 2023, @10:44AM (1 child)

          by gznork26 (1159) on Sunday May 21 2023, @10:44AM (#1307213) Homepage Journal

          Thank you. Focusing on the glycemic index as a way to define junk food is an excellent solution.

          It raises an interesting question, though. GI is not new, but this approach has not been taken. I suspect the reason has to do with how the situation must be understood: GI is a way to measure how a biological system responds to a complex mixture of ingredients. The typical method of regulation focuses on what is taken to be a proximate cause of the problem being regulated, so rules are made regarding some ingredient.

          The distinction also exists in other areas. There is opposition to seeing and responding to systemic problems in society as well, with segments of the population insisting that systemic causes do not exist. So now I'm curious about whether focusing on a systemic element such as GI in dietary regulation would be met with similar resistance, and how it could be overcome.

          If such opposition can be overcome in food regulation, how can the same approach be used in other areas?

          --
          Khipu were Turing complete.
    • (Score: 2, Insightful) by the_olo on Sunday May 21 2023, @08:07AM (2 children)

      by the_olo (1764) on Sunday May 21 2023, @08:07AM (#1307207) Homepage

      khallow your arguments relate to areas of regulation that suffer from subjective interpretation and fuzziness of the science that backs the regulatory decisions.

      In nutrition science, there has been a lot of back and forth over the last few decades, and carrying out studies is difficult because of the need to sustain a consistent diet among a large population of study participants over a long time. However, eventually a few unquestionable facts have been successfully established that can be used as a basis for objective, measurable criteria that are easily testable in a lab.

      For example, there is a pretty robust understanding of how high glycemic index [wikipedia.org] of foods is associated with deterioration of insulin sensitivity [wikipedia.org] and a causative link to metabolic syndrome [wikipedia.org] and type 2 diabetes [wikipedia.org].

      Similar findings have been established about the fiber content of foods (e.g. ratio of various classes of fiber to certain classes of human-digestible carbohydrates) and fats (ratio of various classes of unsaturated fats to saturated fats).

      The good thing about such metrics is that they are easily measurable, independent of properties that are mostly irrelevant for health (e.g. animal vs plant-based foods) and attempts to game them would lead to the foods inherently becoming more healthy / less harmful because they would have to improve food's health-relevant properties.

      • (Score: 1) by khallow on Sunday May 21 2023, @07:29PM

        by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Sunday May 21 2023, @07:29PM (#1307242) Journal

        khallow: your arguments relate to areas of regulation that suffer from subjective interpretation and fuzziness of the science that backs the regulatory decisions.

        Any area of regulation that has large conflict of interest, including what you just mentioned, suffers from subjective interpretation and fuzziness. Nutrition regulation in particular is notorious for this.

        My point here is that the strategy of "X is bad because science so force people to pay more for X" is extremely naive politically for many reasons. First, because as above, it ignores how tools of enforcement are already abused to yield results very different than expected - the science can be quite objective, but the politics isn't by definition. Second, it's not a compelling reason because if those people were weighting their decisions the same way the would-be policy makers were, then they wouldn't be buying X in the first place. There's a natural gap here between policy and actual people.

        It also creates precedent for more meddling. Since we're fixing people because they eat the wrong foods, then it is a short jump to the usual meddling: fixing people with the wrong psychology, the wrong beliefs, wrong ancestry, or who just cross the wrong people.

        Perhaps you say that can't possibly happen. Well what gave you the idea we should do this? Prior meddling in things like liquor and vice. This is just a bit further down that slippery slope.

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 22 2023, @10:16AM

        by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 22 2023, @10:16AM (#1307302)

        Different foods affect different people differently though.

        https://www.cbsnews.com/news/huge-differences-even-when-people-ate-the-same-foods/ [cbsnews.com]

        "This was true in the majority of people, but interestingly, not in all people. And there were 10 or 20 percent of the population that we tested who actually had a higher response to the bread with butter compared to the bread," he said.

        The study discovered her that her "healthy" eating habits may have actually been contributing to her problem. Her blood sugar levels spiked after eating tomatoes, which she ate multiple times over the week of the study.

        So for some people tomatoes are junk food?

        Or are you going to say high glycemic index foods are OK as long as they provide enough other nutrients? Then would people start overdosing on vitamins etc just because the snack food manufacturers start "fortifying" their stuff?

        Or just go with what happens with > 66% of a random sample? Is that a healthy sample or unhealthy sample or random sample of those not hospitalized?

  • (Score: 2) by lentilla on Saturday May 20 2023, @04:05AM (3 children)

    by lentilla (1770) on Saturday May 20 2023, @04:05AM (#1307099)

    People are easily able to categorise [wikipedia.org] products as junk or not-junk. (To be sure there will be many edge cases, but when pressed a choice can be made.) So we (humans) categorise a bunch of products and we pass the results over to Artificial Intellegence to formulate a filter.

    The resulting filter will likely look ridiculous - "OK if cooked on Tuesday afternoons" won't make sense to humans, but it may well be an accurate determinant.

    Now we leave manufacturers to make products. They can try to devise work-arounds (and they will try, and try and try and try), but they will get caught by the next round of re-categorisation. When it comes down to it, candy in a breakfast cereal box is junk food. Is, was, will always be - own it - nothing inherently wrong eating candy at breakfast.

    So I am proposing we determine junk food with a complex filter. A filter that is so complicated that a normal human wouldn't be able to remember the rules... but the rules themselves don't matter in the same way that lighting a candle at midnight doesn't make it "daytime".

    • (Score: 1) by khallow on Saturday May 20 2023, @11:22AM

      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Saturday May 20 2023, @11:22AM (#1307123) Journal

      They can try to devise work-arounds (and they will try, and try and try and try), but they will get caught by the next round of re-categorisation.

      I don't think you get what success is in such a situation. Success is not just easily scooting past the previous round of recategorization, which I think most of these triers would easily do, but also using that recategorization scheme to block your competitors. My take is that this would be easy to game merely by bribing the right people.

      So I am proposing we determine junk food with a complex filter. A filter that is so complicated that a normal human wouldn't be able to remember the rules... but the rules themselves don't matter in the same way that lighting a candle at midnight doesn't make it "daytime".

      After all, those huge corporations that would easily figure out this scheme need all the advantages they can get. How much will it cost just for your small business to figure out if their current food product qualifies as junk food, and how easily it would be for a tweak in ingredients to bypass that excise tax?

    • (Score: 3, Interesting) by aafcac on Saturday May 20 2023, @01:17PM

      by aafcac (17646) on Saturday May 20 2023, @01:17PM (#1307130)

      People were able to categorize it easily, but thanks to the sheer number of invented ingredients in "food" today, that can be quite hard. Just keeping track of things that are legitimately harmful versus a bunch of conspiracy theories can be a significant issue. And that assumes that the ingredients are known to be safe with decades of use.

      Generally speaking, though, junkfoods are ones with an excessive number of calories and an insufficient amount of nutrients to justify the number of calories. A 1500 calorie food item that has an entire day's worth of nutrient content is probably not junk food, but the same number of calories and only a couple nutrients is definitely junkfood.

      And really, probably the best way of handling it is to make it as easy as possible for customers to know how much bang they're getting for the calorie in terms of nutrients.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 21 2023, @04:16AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 21 2023, @04:16AM (#1307196)

      People are easily able to categorize it. Meanwhile they get fatter and fatter. We need a system of AI cameras tracking every single morsel everybody stuffs down their throats. The AI can give in-depth nutrition advice, regardless of how healthy or not the cereal mixed with marshmallows is.

  • (Score: 3, Insightful) by VLM on Saturday May 20 2023, @01:06PM

    by VLM (445) on Saturday May 20 2023, @01:06PM (#1307129)

    Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts

    My understanding is that's an industry mouthpiece, so don't expect independent results, it'll be 100% corporate.

  • (Score: 2) by VLM on Saturday May 20 2023, @02:13PM (1 child)

    by VLM (445) on Saturday May 20 2023, @02:13PM (#1307137)

    The problem with regulation is it admits what they're regulating is addictive.

    You don't need to regulate consumption levels of watermelons or garden compost or nail clippers or roofing tar.

    You do need to regulate addictive substances like heroin, alcohol, nicotine, sucrose, fructose, HFCS, and similar.

    So the long term plan is apparently they want to set up something like the DEA but for corn syrup, with all the financial corruption and, eventually, organized crime, that comes with a DEA solution to addiction. Some few will make money and power; most will suffer; this situation will be defined as 'democracy' and 'capitalism' and considered holy above all.

    I would imagine in the proud tradition of government corruption, that most of the regulators will be executives from major corporations working in those fields (like the SEC/FDIC/FDA/etc) and most of the regulation will be based on extracting maximal taxation from the mfgrs, so it doesn't matter if pickled herring is junk food or not from a medical perspective, it matters if they can extract tax revenues off pickled herring. Or rephrased if they can make money taxing pickled herring, pickled herring will be defined as junk food. There will be no medical or scientific or common sense input into the taxation decisions.

    • (Score: 2) by ChrisMaple on Sunday May 21 2023, @03:21AM

      by ChrisMaple (6964) on Sunday May 21 2023, @03:21AM (#1307192)

      Regulations can prevent improvement of a bad product. More than 3 decades ago, Pearson & Shaw pointed out that adding vitamins to alcohol was a felony, even though it would reduce the damage alcohol does and reduce hangovers.

  • (Score: 2) by turgid on Saturday May 20 2023, @08:15PM (1 child)

    by turgid (4318) Subscriber Badge on Saturday May 20 2023, @08:15PM (#1307170) Journal

    It's really difficult to have a sensible conversation about food with anyone. The subject is a total minefield. In every day discussions all sorts of terminology is abused and there are all sorts of superstitions and mantras. Actually understanding root causes is impossible.

    I'll give you one example. "Processed food is bad." Right, so what do we mean by "processed food" and why is it bad?

    Well, apparently, as soon as you put a piece of broccoli on a conveyor belt it becomes "processed." So why does that magically make it bad?

    I really haven't the time or the inclination to read the thousands upon thousands of books in the popular culture that try to explain what bad food is but listening to people it seems that there are one or two main things.

    Our bodies are at a certain state in evolution, which may not have kept up with the rate of our civillisation. Therefore our bodies are adapted to eat unrefined carbohydrates (with the fibre still in) and without any extra things added, like sugar. Our bodies expect to expend effort digesting our food and in doing so to extract the right nutrients. So don't eat stuff with extra added sugar and salt and what have you. It may taste great but that might be evolution from hundreds of thousands of years ago trying to mitigate against future scarcity since farming hadn't been invented.

    Then there's the whole thing about being able to digest things like milk and wheat. Agriculture is only about 12-11k years old, isn't it? Did we eat much wheat before then?

    My broccoli becomes processed when I put it on the chopping board and chop it. That doesn't stop me eating it. By the way, are frozen peas "processed?" I'd imagine so.

    I just eat stuff. I'll live as long as I am going to.

    • (Score: 2, Insightful) by the_olo on Sunday May 21 2023, @08:24AM

      by the_olo (1764) on Sunday May 21 2023, @08:24AM (#1307208) Homepage

      turgid You've got something there with the evolutionary side of nutrition, but there's also good news on the other side - we do have some objective established metrics that are proven to separate harmful/junk food from the rest. See my other comment [soylentnews.org] in this discussion.

      I think the reason that it's difficult to have a sensible conversation about food is because so many people are looking for easy shortcuts to become healthier/slimmer/fitter without much effort, and the demand they create caused the information space to be flooded with all kinds of non-scientific garbage. I'm thinking miracle diets such as juice fasting or keto.

      Contrary to that noise in the information space, the most important and effective scientific findings in nutrition science have been made (although there is still a lot of ongoing progress being made studying dietary fiber). The problem is that many people don't accept these findings because they don't offer easy, quick shortcuts.

      E.g. in order to burn fat, the principle is simple - you need to create a caloric deficit sustained over long time (weeks, not days).

      In order to maintain healthy metabolism, you need to stick to low glycemic index carbohydrates (typically found in carb foods that have large fiber content) and unsaturated fats (e.g. fish rather than cheese or pork). This means staying away from addictive "taste good" foods such as pasta, pizza, bacon etc.

      Following this established advice is thus hard for many, and commonly gets rejected in favor of more tempting (but ineffective) solution proposals.

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