Fighting the Food Industry for Healthier Choices

2

October 7, 2012 by waboyd

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) were first published in 1980 to provide science-based nutrition information to the American public in order to maximize healthy dietary choices and thus minimize the occurrence and severity of nutrition-related chronic diseases1. Unfortunately, the prevalence of these diseases has actually risen since the introduction of the DGAs; for example, we have been repeatedly reminded of the rise of obesity across the US in almost all of our nutrition classes.

So, why do so many Americans seem to be making even worse dietary choices now than before the introduction of the DGAs? There is not one simple answer to this question and certainly the DAGs are not the only factor, and maybe not even a primary one. However, as the soaring obesity rates imply, the DGAs are not leading to the improvements for which they were originally developed. In this blog, I will focus on the power of the food industry on the development and implementation of the DGAs, and how this affects the behavior of American food consumers.

There is no doubt – the US food industry is extremely powerful. Many companies have merged into massive corporations made up of hundreds of brands and thousands of products. According to the Food and Beverage Industry, the top 5 food companies with the highest sales of value-added, consumer-ready goods that were processed in U.S. and Canadian facilities in 2012 are: 1) PepsiCo; 2) Tyson Foods; 3) Nestle; 4) Kraft Foods; and 5) Anheuser-Busch InBev2. Combined, these companies sold over $135 billion in food products alone, not including any non-food company earnings. In general, the convenience foods and beverages sold by these companies are highly processed, energy-dense and nutrient-poor, and high in sugar, fat, and/or salt.

Such massive earnings result in substantial power in the form of lobbying and advertising. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to read Food Politics yet, but apparently this book describes how the food and agricultural industries have influenced the language of the DGAs and other nutrition information provided by government to consumers, making the final products confusing, vague, and ineffective. It does seem difficult to imagine how the USDA is charged with producing the DGAs but also with protecting the food industry’s interests by helping to identify alternative markets for new food products. It seems to me that these two activities are not always compatible, and the average American consumer is at a huge disadvantage compared to the power of the food industry.

Aggressive advertising practices of the food industry put them at the top of the list in terms of ad spending with estimates for 2012 forecasted to be almost $34 billion per year, with approximately $12 billion directly targeting children- including television, print, and internet advertising3. And, guess who the biggest ad spender of them all is? Nestle, the number 3 top earner of the food industry in 2011 and climbing! Among the many food ads that American children may see, less than 5% are for ‘healthy’ food products such as the whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables recommended by the DGAs4.

So, even for those Americans who understand the information described in the DGAs, making healthy dietary choices is not always easy…

References:

1. Rowe S, et al. 2011. Journal of Food Science 76:R29-R37.

2. http://www.foodprocessing.com/top100/index.html

3. http://www.marketingprofs.com/charts/2010/3733/ad-recovery-for-most-industries-by-2011

4. Kaiser Family Foundation (2007). Food for thought: Television food advertising to children in the United States. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.kff.org/entmedia/upload/7618.pdf.

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2 thoughts on “Fighting the Food Industry for Healthier Choices

  1. hpworley says:

    It has been argued by many that the food industry has an inflated role in shaping the nutrition messages relayed to the American public. It’s important to realize the food industry is a business and like any other business is constantly looking for ways to increase profit. Consumers can be easily mislead by food packaging claims like, “made from whole grains” and “reduced sugar” without realizing these claims mean very little. An interesting commentary by David Ludwig and Marion Nestle (author of Food Politics) in the Journal of the American Medical Association (1) highlights the “darker side of the food industry” explaining operations of the Center for Consumer Freedom. The article explains that the Center for Consumer Freedom is an organization that lobbies against public health campaigns targeting obesity and is funded by companies like Coca-Cola and Tyson. It ends with suggestions for the division of responsibility, including a recommendation that nutrition recommendations are based on science as opposed to special interests (1). This has long been a controversial issue for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who lists some of its sponsors for 2012 FNCE as Campbells, CongAgra and DelMonte, just to name a few (2).
    1) Ludwig, D.S., & Nestle, M. (Oct 15, 2008). Can the Food Industry Play a Constructive Role in the Obesity Epidemic. Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol 300. Retrived from http://jama.jamanetwork.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/article.aspx?articleid=182715
    2) http://www.eatright.org/FNCE/content.aspx?id=6442469274

  2. amittnac says:

    Windy, I really enjoyed your discussion of this unnerving issue. In your post you said “the convenience foods and beverages sold by these companies are highly energy-dense and nutrient- poor, and high in sugar, fat, and/or salt, “ and that “ ad spending estimates for 2012 are forecasted to be almost $ 34 billion per year,” and that “ the USDA is charged with providing the DGAs but also with protecting the food industry’s interests.” What is there to do in this situation…? Can we trust that the USDA has our best health in mind? Does your average American even consider the DGAs when making food decisions? I find it surprising that the guidelines are intended for Americans ages 2 years and older, yet the “ Key Recommendations” included in Dietary Guidelines for Americans executive summary are not AT ALL engaging, memorable, interesting to look at (unless one is really interested in making dietary changes (1).

    I think that those Americans who try to make “ healthy” choices (regardless of whether or not they ‘ understand’ the DGAs) have a hard time discerning between what is truly good and what is advertised to look and taste good . When many individuals are making food choices, words like “organic”, and “all natural” are considered synonymous with “ healthy.” I think that “organic” junk food is a perfect example of manipulative food advertising- In her essay titled; can an Organic Twinkie Be Certified? Joan Dye Gussow (nutrition maven who was at the forefront of the organic food movement) describes how this kind of labeling reflects the way in which “ food” is currently defined in this country (2). She explains that “ food manufacturers will arrange to add to their products any nutritional substance that appears to have financial implications.” For example, by using organically produced ingredients to make Twinkies… What does “ organic” really mean anyway. In 1978 the U.S. Federal Trade Commission “ agreed that the ‘organic’ designation of a food referred to its growing method-” thus, “‘organic’ production is focused on the process not the product.” Gussow goes on to explain that “before organic agriculture was codified in certification standards… the term ‘ organic’ carried with it an implicit environmental, social, economic, and nutritional wholesomeness. But when ‘organic’ is legally defined solely in relation to set of growing and processing methods, the term no longer comes with a conscience…” Is all of the information that is being thrown us by food manufacturers and the USDA ( i.e via. food labels/ advertising/ the DGAs) preventing us all from making logical decisions about what is truly good for us?

    1) 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans : http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/DietaryGuidelines/2010/PolicyDoc/ExecSumm.pdf

    2) Joan Dye Gussow, Can an Organic Twinkie Be Certified? . http://joansgarden.org/Twinkie.pdf

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