“This,” Witherly said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it…you can just keep eating it forever.” -The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, by Michael Moss (NY Times Magazine).
Is it a surprise to hear that food companies painstakingly, scientifically manufacture the taste and textures of our foods and drinks to make them addictive? No. Moss quotes Bob Drane, the brains behind Kraft’s Lunchables, who explains how the food industry got to where it is today: “Our limbic brains love sugar, fat, salt… So formulate products to deliver these. Perhaps add low-cost ingredients to boost profit margins. Then ‘supersize’ to sell more…And advertise/promote to lock in ‘heavy users’.”
“When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another” - Lev. 25:14.
From the Torah verse above our sages learn the prohibition of Ona’ah, overreaching – “the act of wronging another by selling him an article for more than its real worth.”
Are food companies withholding what they know about our tastes and therefore making a profit from our lack of knowledge about food science? We like to think that America was built on Judeo-Christian morals, but that is not the case. The reason that there are no warning labels on bags of chips or cans of soda is because our moral code, when it comes to business anyway, is the moral code of Rome not of Jerusalem (an analogy often made by one of my mentors, Dr. Bruce Powell):
Rome teaches: Caveat Emptor – “Let the buyer beware.”
From the perspective of the food company it is the business of the consumer to find out about a product and make her own decision.
Is such a business plan criminal? No. Is it moral? Again, no.
Jerusalem teaches: “It is forbidden to cheat people in buying or selling or to deceive them.” – Mishnah Torah, Laws of Sales. Judaism teaches that buyer has the obligation of full disclosure to seller.
“So,the food and drink around me, that is cheaper and tastier than healthy food and water, is killing me?” Buyer beware, indeed!
I will admit that some will say that ona’ah, overreaching, on the part of Big Food is a stretch. Nonetheless, I stand my ground, but that ona’ah is taking place in hospitable bills is paramount to anyone who has bothered to ask for an itemized bill from their last hospital visit.
This week’s Time Magazine cover article by Steven Brill is a must read for every American. Hospitals, even non-profit hospitals, have such complex guides for deciding payment, which can seem so arbitrary. How do they decide? Hospitals have different pay rates for cash, insurance, and Medicare. Brill give the example of a chest x-ray. A patient might be charged $333, but if it’s billed through Medicare, that same x-ray would pay the hospital $23.83.
Of course, the hospital should be allowed to make a profit, make up for non-payment, or low payment, but it seems that the mark-up something controlled by the secretive “chargemaster- the mysterious internal price list for products and services that every hospital in the U.S. keeps.”
Why are Americans paying so much more for healthcare than other well-off nations without the results? We value the right of hospitals to make money without us fully knowing what we are being charged for. Alas, such is life in Rome. Healthcare costs would not be so bloated if true Judeo-Christian values ruled. Consider this teaching:
“One who has medications, and another person is sick and needs them, it is forbidden to raise their prices beyond what is appropriate.” - SHULCHAN ARUCH, YOREH DE’AH 336:3.
In choosing Rome as our ethical compass, we have led ourselves to a crisis point. Protecting the right of companies to profit at the knowing expense, in dollars and in health, of our citizens is a sure sign that America no longer lives by Judeo-Christian values.
According to the NY1-Marist poll, 53% of New Yorkers believe that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s latest proposal is a bad idea. The Nutritionist-in-Chief of the “World’s Capital” proposes a ban on the sale of soda in cups exceeding 16 oz. 42% of New Yorkers say it’s a good idea; and 6% are unsure. Manhattan was the only borough in which those in favor of the proposal, 52%, outweighed those opposed to it, 44%.
Is it an intrusion on our freedom? Not at all. Feel free to get 20 oz. of soda if you’d like, but you’ll need two cups. This forces you to visualize, and therefore stop denying, that you are one person drinking enough for two. What the mayor has done is created a bit of “choice architecture” that would “nudge” us in the right direction. He did a similar thing a few years back when he required the printing of calories on menus. You could have that lemon iced carrot cake with your latte if you’d like; your choice, but just know that it has all the rest of the calories your body will need to fuel you from breakfast until bedtime. Your choice.
In Richard Thaler’s and Cass Susstein’s wonderful book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, the two describe ways in which choices are offered that lure us to better decisions.
When you walk into a super market and you are statistically more likely to buy the cereal, or pretzels, or salsa that has been shelved at eye level. That’s prime real estate in the market business. Without a word, our choices are influenced by big and tiny nudges.
Certainly my favorite example, found in the introduction to Nudge, is that of the tiny image of a little black housefly etched into each or the urinals in the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam:
“It seems that men usually do not pay much attention to where they aim, which can create a bit of a mess, but if they see a target, attention and therefore accuracy are much increased…fly-in-urinal trials found that etching reduced spillage by 80 percent.”
What we know about human nature is that we are fully capable of making choices against our best interests, especially when we feel a competing value threatened. Right now some New Yorkers might feel like their freedom to buy and drink however much soda as they please is threatened. Yet at the same time, we are dealing with a national epidemic on the way to 1 in 4 Americans having diabetes. Freedom and health are the competing values here. It is very hard to change one’s habits, yet alone that of a city or a nation, but we know we need to change. I for one applaud the nudge toward smaller sizes of sugary drinks – empty calories that the body does not even recognize as food. Will I still have a soda at the movies? Yes, I will, but I won’t have two – and my waistline will thank me.
A nudge makes it easier for us to make the right choice. This is an application of the verse, “Thou shalt not put a stumbling block before the blind.” -Lev. 19:14.