I have officially returned home for the summer. I was sad to leave school, but I’m excited for what’s to come. Hopefully I’ll have even more time to write! What I have had time to do so far is finish up an excellent read, Food Politics, authored by one of my idols of the food movement, Marion Nestle. An esteemed professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at NYU, she is famous for being able to translate the complex nutrition messages bombarding us into usable advice, and for being an outspoken critic of food industry tactics to influence government to increase their sales at the expense of public health. The latter is the subject of the aforementioned book. I highly suggest you give it a read; Nestle gives a detailed and compelling summary of the history of food industry’s influence on government in the U.S. But if you won’t get a chance to read it, here are the important points from the book I took away:
- A food company is a business. Its priority is to sell its products, and, if it is a publicly shared company, to increase sales of its products constantly to satisfy investors. The rest of the points follow from this.
- Food companies spend a shocking amount of money on marketing–or perhaps it is not so shocking, when compared with how much more profit is earned as a result of marketing. This marketing, without exception, encourages the public to eat more of whatever it is that the company is selling, regardless of the health consequences of consumption of the product. Marketing obviously has a huge influence on sales, whether you the consumer realize it or not–otherwise, industry wouldn’t spend so much money on it.
- The food industry will do whatever it takes to ensure that the government’s dietary guidelines (think the Food Pyramid and MyPlate) steer clear of directly advising the public to eat less of their products.
- But how can the food industry be able to influence nutrition education, you ask? Remember that food companies have a TON of money and power that they use to:
- Lobby to influence legislators to pass policies favorable to the food industry and reject policies unfavorable to it.
- Form or fund political action committees that donate large sums of money to legislators’ election campaigns.
- Sponsor scientific research on the effects of consumption of their products. Though there is usually no way to prove that this biases the results, research sponsored by industry is statistically much more likely to find favorable effects or minimize unfavorable effects of a product than independently funded research.
- “…befriend federal officials, develop legislation in their own self-interest, and use public relations to create a positive image for their activities…”
- Sue their critics, who usually back off, given the whole money and power thing.
- A substantial portion of major food companies’ obscene marketing budgets fund advertising to children, who are much more vulnerable to the influence of advertising than adults. The industry has also historically exploited children by advertising in schools (IN SCHOOLS, FOR PETE’S SAKE!). And of course food companies will also do whatever it takes to ensure that government won’t restrict their marketing practices.
- Food companies use potentially misleading health claims to promote sales, and petition the FDA to allow them to make these claims. They also add nutrients to otherwise unhealthy foods in order to be able to make those health claims.
Until I became familiar with the work of Marion Nestle, I knew I wanted to make an impact on the obesity epidemic, but I was very iffy about the political side of things–I didn’t want to touch it. I had never been interested in government, politics, or current events before. I took AP U.S. Government in high school and didn’t retain any of it because I thought it was boring. I held very few strong opinions.
But when I learned that the food industry’s political tactics are hugely to blame for the poor health of U.S. citizens, I became much more interested, informed, and quite passionate about political issues related to food and health. I now know that there is no way to reverse the doomed dietary trends of this country without getting political. It will take a lot of time and effort for the government to rein in the food industry like it did the tobacco industry, but it is worth the time and the cost; if obesity keeps rising the way it has been, the outlook is very grim for the American public.
This post is especially relevant right now because there is a bill being put up for vote in the House of Representatives that would roll back the extremely needed new, healthier standards for nutrition in schools. You can read about it on Marion Nestle’s blog. You can sign a petition in protest here. Don’t be afraid to get political if you care about these issues!
Let’s start a dialogue! What should or shouldn’t the government be doing to reduce obesity and chronic disease?