“There is a lot of money being made…feeding both oversized stomachs and feeding those enterprises selling fixes for oversized stomachs…And both industries—those selling junk food and those selling fat cures—depend for their future on the prevalence of obesity.” – W. Weis, in the Academy of Health Care Management Journal
We all know that Washington, DC is the home of lobbyists. We lament that they have too much influence over our elected officials. Yet it never occurs to many of us that some of the largest lobbying efforts in the country are made by firms representing the food industry. The days of the nice farming family growing their crops are long gone. Today our food is grown by huge agribusiness concerns. According to a 2007 report by Mary Hendrickson and William Heffernan at the University of Missouri, 83.5% of beef, 80% of soybeans, and 55% of flour are produced by the top four firms in those industries. A single company supplies the seeds for 90% of genetically modified corn and soybeans.
Or consider the dairy industry.
That’s why we need to watch where we get our nutrition information. Is the source driven by science or profits? When the answer is profits, we hear things like this from the Grocery Manufacturers of America—the people responsible for ensuring grocery stores are as profitable as possible: “Policies that declare foods ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are counterproductive.” The Sugar Association agrees: “All foods have a place in a balanced diet.” A similar platitude is offered by the National Soft Drink Association:“As refreshing sources of needed liquids and energy, soft drinks represent a positive addition to a well-balanced diet.”
None of these statements are backed by science. While we will not immediately become diabetic if we treat ourselves to inSANE starch and soda occasionally. But does that mean starch and sweets should be recommended as part of a balanced diet? Food corporations know better than anyone what the facts are, but they are not going to condemn themselves. Quite the opposite. Food companies aggressively fight any scientific information that threatens their bottom line.
Government Involvement in Money-Motivated Dietary Guidance
Sadly, the crowding out of sound science by money doesn’t stop there. Nearly two-thirds, or 64 percent, of the members of national committees on nutrition and food receive compensation from food companies. David Willman at the Los Angeles Times reported:
Both the food industry and our government are paid to keep profits high, not to teach us about nutritional science. A famous quote puts it plainly: “It is hard to get someone to believe one thing when they are paid to believe another.”
Marion Nestle, Michele Simon, and Michael Pollan have all written excellent books detailing how the food industry harms our health. I highly recommend reviewing their work. In the meantime, one short example is all we need to show how wellness stacks up against profits for the food industry.
Science, millions of years of evolution, and common sense tell us that mother’s milk beats out formula as the best food for babies. Basic human decency tells us that it would be wrong to persuade mothers who cannot afford sufficient quantities of formula to buy it anyway. Neither of these stopped the food industry from marketing infant formula to mothers in developing countries. This led to formula being diluted and contaminated, and, tragically, increased infant mortality. No matter. The food industry continued their promotional campaign, which included an advertisement distributed in Africa that depicted an African baby holding a container of formula with the caption: “The very best milk for your baby.”
1975 South African Formula Ad
Dr. Cecily Williams, a pediatrician who spent years working with African infants, reported: “Statistics have been collected to show that the death rate among artificially fed babies is much greater than that among breast-fed babies. And this is a death rate that shows a very marked class prejudice…. Misguided propaganda on infant feeding should be punished as the most criminal form of sedition…these deaths should be regarded as murder.”
In a world with more socially responsible corporations, we would have dietary guidelines focused on health instead of profits. They would look something like this:
A SANE Scientific Pyramid
A SANE Scientific Plate
Why has the food industry moved so slowly to answer the concerns of many nutritional scientists? At the risk of being repetitive, it’s because the people generating the guidelines the industry adheres to—the USDA—are not responsible for nutrition. They are responsible for a profitable food industry. That is why they are called the Department of Agricultureinstead of the Department of Health, Nutrition, and Fat Loss. Dr. Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, tells us:
Lest you think I am engaging in conspiracy theory, take a look at this chart. Note how the worse we do health-wise, the better the food industry does money-wise:
Food Quality/SANEity vs. Profitability
- “Lobbying Spending Database | OpenSecrets.” OpenSecrets.org: Money in Politics — See Who’s Giving & Who’s Getting. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/top.php?indexType=c>.
- Brownell, Kelly, and Katherine Battle Horgen. Food Fight. 1 ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004. Print.
- Cannon G. The Politics of Food. London: Century Hutchinson, 1987.
- Cauchon D. FDA Advisers Tied to Industry. USA Today, Sept. 25, 2000.
- Hays CL, McNeil Jr. DG. Putting Africa on Coke’s map. New York Times. May 26, 1998.P. D1.
- Hendrickson, M. and Heffernan, W. (2007) Concentration of Agricultural Markets April 2007. Greenwood Village, CO: National Farmers Union (http://www.nfu.org/wp-content/2007-heffernanreport.pdf).
- Nestle, Marion. Food politics: how the food industry influences nutrition and health. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Print.
- Sugarman C, Gladwell M. U.S. drops new food chart. Washington Post, April 27, 1991: A1, A10.
- The National Institutes of Health: Public Servant or Private Marketer? – Los Angeles Times.” Featured Articles From the Los Angeles Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2010. <http://articles.latimes.com/2004/dec/22/nation/na-nih22>.
- Weis W. Academy of Health Care Management Journal, 2005. http://www.alliedacademies.org/public/journals/JournalDetails.aspx?jid=20