Fun Size Redux

Written by: Paul Thompson

Primary Source: Thornapple CSA

Nov. 2, 2014

So here it is just two days after Halloween night, and I’m thinking that both readers of the blog are probably sitting there munching on little tiny candy bars as they peruse the blog this Sunday. Of course there’s the chance that you aren’t reading the blog on it’s posting date, but if that’s the case, just pretend and go along with the “tiny candy bars” theme. As this week’s title suggests, we’ve hit this theme before, but that was mostly for comic effect. This time I’m going to exploit your guilt feelings over eating all those tiny little candy bars that you either pilfered from your kids Halloween treat bag or, in my case, failed to distribute to the neighbor kids who came around for Trick or Treat. Of course there’s the chance that you don’t feel any guilt, but if that’s the case, just pretend and go along with the “I feel bad about stuffing my face with tiny candy bars” theme.

You are not going to find very many nutrition experts who will step forward to assuage your guilt. It was a couple of years ago that I blogged about having dinner with Walter Willet from Harvard’s School of Public Health. It’s possible that Willet would forgive a once a year splurge on tiny candy bars, but I’m betting we are way past that now, seeing as how it’s pretty likely that you had a few of these bad boys right on Halloween night as you were dishing them out to the little ghosts and goblins that were ringing your doorbell. You might have been nibbling on them for over a week now. And since it’s the second day after Halloweeen, you probably had a face full yesterday, didn’t you? So we’re well beyond the “once a year” forgiveness policy. Those candy bars are “bad for you” because they are full of “empty calories”. They’re full of refined sugar and they very likely have a fair amount of fat, as well.

So to link this up with the last couple of blogs on nutritional science, these tiny little candy bars are, in the mindset of nutritional reductionism, bad, bad, bad because of their nutrient structure, or to put it another way, their “nutrient density.” I should probably step forward and confess that I got onto this stream of nutrition related consciousness because I was reading Gyorgy Scrinis’ book Nutritionism. It put forward lots of ideas (which we noted on October 19), and then I felt obligated to hit another lick last week by explaining what Scrinis was talking about when he referred all this to a problem in “reductionist philosophy of science”. We did a short and probably quite obscure bit on “socially relevant philosophy of science” two years ago at about this time, so I’m just taking an opportunity to knit multiple themes together this morning by pointing out that there really was a “take-home ethics” point to these philosophically obscure musings. To wit: deep connections in how we do science can come back to bite us in the butt when they become embedded in our practical mindset, not to mention public policy.

Of course, I’m not at all sure how this relates to tiny little candy bars. It’s not like Scrinis’s revelations about the reductionism in nutrition is going to excuse this kind of dietary excess, especially when it continues for more than a week. If either of my regular readers decides to plow through Nutritionism, they’ll discover that he probably would complain about the fact that tiny little candy bars are examples of highly refined and processed food. They are “miscellaneous edible objects.” The point of nutritionism is that it actually provides a number of ways that you could work your way to exonerating tiny little candy bars because, for instance, they actually don’t do all that bad when you are focused on the glycemic index. Tiny little candy bars are “gluten-free.” Or maybe you could add some vitamins or Omega 3 fatty acids and claim that they are functional foods! Scrinis wants to tell us that a focus on nutrients and food components gives the food industry too many “outs”, too many ways to divert our attention from the way that tiny little candy bars are not really food at all. I’m sorry if this spoils your morning, but don’t worry. Those leftover Halloween treats won’t last forever.

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Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He formerly held positions in philosophy at Texas A&M University and Purdue University. His research has centered on ethical and philosophical questions associated with agriculture and food, and especially concerning the guidance and development of agricultural technoscience.
Paul Thompson

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