How Thick is Your Slice?

by Dr. Nileema Conlon Vaswani in

I have a personal dislike for thickly sliced bread but I have a greater dislike for being told what type of bread I should be eating. This week, the House of Lords is debating the issue allegedly because thicker slices of bread contribute to the obesity crisis that Britain is facing. That Britain has an obesity problem, or is developing one, is not under dispute. To argue that thickly sliced bread has a role to play in this crisis is, however, a less plausible claim. The discussion being undertaken by the House of Lords is not entirely clear. Baroness Gardner, who has initiated the debate, also believes that thickly sliced bread ought not to be banned because it is "good as toast". Perhaps the argument is merely to discourage rather than to ban thickly sliced bread but regardless of the details of the "bread" debate, there is a bigger moral question that it raises: How closely should the government be controlling what we eat?

Even if it were morally appropriate for the Government to control our diet, it is not clear what the current debate is meant to achieve. If the House of Lords genuinely believes, rightly or wrongly, that thickly sliced bread is a threat to the country's health, then it ought to have it banned. But the debate is unwilling to go this far because Baroness Gardner believes that thickly sliced bread has its place in the form of toast. How toasting the bread will help alleviate the perceived threat of obesity is, once again, unclear. Moreover, if she is unwilling to have it banned, how does she plan to regulate its use? Regardless of the moral issues surrounding this proposal, it is going to be impossible to ensure that people who buy thickly sliced bread use it for toast only and not for sandwiches or anything else.

There is no reason why the House of Lords should argue that thickly sliced bread is a problem anyway because obesity depends on our lifestyles and not on how bread is sliced. Say, for example, that sliced bread were to be reduced to half its current thickness, we would still not alleviate the obesity problem because it is likely that people would just eat twice the number of slices that they do at present. Regardless of the practical problems in implementing such a proposal, the Government ought not to be interfering in our diets to such an extent. It is one thing to advise us on what to eat; it is quite another matter to regulate it or restrict our choices by making certain foods unavailable. Government advice on how much fruit and vegetables to eat, information on a balanced diet, on salt and sugar levels in food, etc. is appropriate and valuable as long as it remains within the realm of information and does not become instruction.

Restricting choice, while appropriate for children's foods, is wrong in the case of adults. For the Government to require that foods that are detrimental to children's health be banned or improved is appropriate because children are not able to make informed choices with regard to their health needs. It is also right that the Government has worked towards banning the use of cartoon characters on packaging that makes certain sugary foods more attractive to children. (For a more extensive debate on this topic, read our article of 25 August 2007 titled "Protecting the Vulnerable Consumer: The Moral Obligations of Manufacturers Towards Public Health".) But, on the whole, adults ought to be able to choose what to eat because we know that even so called "unhealthy" foods are unlikely to cause harm if eaten once in a while.

Avoiding obesity is about observing a balanced diet and one that is appropriate to one's health needs. In order to help adults achieve this, the Government ought to ensure that we are able to make informed choices. This requires more than just allowing us to choose what to eat. The Government ought to regulate manufacturers to ensure that nutritional information is listed in a uniform and accessible manner. Nutritional information ought to do more than just tick a few legal boxes that require that it be present; it ought to genuinely provide the consumer with information. Nutritional information sometimes suffers from the same problem as does pricing information. When determining whether it is cheaper to buy a 500gms packet of a certain product or a one kg packet of the same, some of the pricing information is listed per 100gms and some, per kg. If we do not notice these differences and are unable to calculate the price in the unit that we require, we may well end up paying more than we would like for a certain product. The same holds true for nutritional information. Sometimes, it is listed as per portion, at other times, per 100gms or per product.

The Government also ought to regulate products that claim to be healthy. One of the episodes in Greg Wallace's series of programmes this week "What's Really in Our Food" on BBC One uncovered some of the problems with food products that are labelled "healthy". Many of these products are packaged foods and it emerged that if one were to live on a diet of packaged and tinned foods, then it would be healthier, although not necessarily healthy, to consume from ranges that call themselves healthy. But these processed foods are by no means healthier than fresh ones. Its just that the "healthy" ranges of processed foods are better than the regular ranges of the same foods. The programme also highlighted how some manufacturers claim to have reduced the fat content of certain foods. This claim per se is probably true in most cases but what is also true and yet not always noticeable is that the portion sizes have also been reduced. If one is hungry and eats an extra portion or has to supplement a meal with other food, the purpose of making the original food product lower in fat than it previously was is lost.

The Government has a central role to play in what we should eat. But this role should be confined to regulating the manufacturers so that they do not mislead us but provide us with the information we need to be able to make informed choices about our individual diets. Any involvement beyond this would undermine our freedom of choice. And if the Government is going to regulate what we do at the breakfast table, who knows how many of our other choices will be restricted by the time we go to bed.