Food, Obesity, and Regulation: Simmering Culture War Boils Over

VIDEo: Yale University analyzes the nutrition of kids meals at fast food chains.

It's the holiday season – a time for gastronomic, even gluttonous indulgence. Between the candy canes and the candied yams lies a world of caloric intake.

But the onslaught of calories is also fueling something else: the simmering culture war over food. President Obama signed into law the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 on Monday, marking the largest investment in child nutrition programs since their inception.

The bill sets standards for food served in school cafeterias, vending machines and stores, among other things. Then there's the Food Safety Bill passed by the Senate last month and headed further consideration this week. The bill greatly strengthens the Food and Drug Administration and is intended to keep unsafe foods, such as the recent spate of salmonella-tainted eggs, from reaching markets and restaurants.

Republican lawmakers and other right-wing voices have loudly criticized both laws, saying they interfere with freedom of choice and reflect the liberal elite's crackdown on good old American food. Sarah Palin said interference in public schools is part of a "nanny state run amok." Glenn Beck said the Food Safety Bill was a plot to promote vegetarianism by making beef more expensive, and warned watchers of his show: "This is about control, and in the end starvation."

For laws aimed specifically at childhood obesity, corporations chimed in on the debate, with McDonald's voicing complaint over a measure passed in San Francisco banning the sale of a toy with a meal unless the food meets certain nutrition standards. McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner took aim at the law and the growing number of organizations blaming his chain for contributing to obesity in the U.S; he told the Financial Times that the rule "really takes personal choice away from families who are more than capable of making their own decisions."

On the ongoing soda tax debate, Muhtar Kent, CEO of the Coca-Cola Company, took to the Wall Street Journal's opinion pages to argue that "Coke Didn't Make America Fat." Kent said that expanding waistlines are a result of not only more calories in, but also less calories out. His company, he argued, is an easy target, when Americans' sedentary lifestyles deserve more blame.

Selling Carrots in Vending Machines? Government Regulators Are "Kidding Themselves"

For those who believe taxes and healthy-food bills threatens to make America a nanny state, Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and public health at New York University, said it is the government's job to encourage the health of the American public.

"The government already is deeply involved in regulation of food and what people eat; this isn't changing that," said Nestle. "It's tweaking that, to make it easier for people to eat healthily." The most welcome changes in the act, said Nestle, include trying to get more fruits and vegetables onto lunch trays, and making it easier for kids to enroll in meal programs.

Justin Wilson, an analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom, said there is a difference between public and private health. Wilson said the government should stay out of people's kitchens, and shouldn't regulate what parents feed their children. When it comes to public schools, however, he did say the government has a responsibility.

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