November 12, 2012 by waboyd
In the US, we are constantly bombarded with delicious, affordable food options. Although some of these options may be healthy, many inexpensive convenience foods are highly processed and loaded with high levels of fat, sugar, or salt and may be linked to health epidemics such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Even if we want to make healthier choices, deciphering all the messages on the nutritional value of food can be overwhelming for nutrition experts let alone many with limited nutrition knowledge. Often, the corporations who stand to profit from selling food products are presenting advertisements under the guise of offering nutrition information. Considering that their main objective is to realize profits, I’m very skeptical that the food industry can be trusted to act in the best interest of our health.
During a debate at The Obesity Society’s 2011 annual meeting, countless examples were provided of food industry partnerships with non-profit organizations to benefit public health issues including cancer and hunger. However, in all cases, the food companies also benefitted by either marketing to potential new customers (usually children) or by requiring purchase of their products for a portion to be donated to a specific cause. I think that many employees of food industry do want to partner with public health organizations to help fight public health epidemics. However, despite the good intentions of these employees, in the end, the corporation’s goal is still to sell as many of their products to as many people as possible.
To learn more on this topic, I searched PubMed for scientific articles focusing on the food industry, but I couldn’t find many until I came across a series of papers published by PLoS Medicine. According to an editorial by the PLoS Medicine editors (including guest editor Marion Nestle, the author of Food Politics), less than 10 peer-reviewed manuscripts have been published in medical journals on the topic of the role of the food industry in health over the past 10 years1. This paucity of information along with the growing epidemic of obesity around the globe led the editors to invite discussion on “Big Food, which (they) define as the multinational food and beverage industry with huge and concentrated market power”. According to one of the articles in this series focusing on the sugar sweetened beverage industry, this industry tends to stress individual consumer’s responsibility for consumption of their products over the responsibility of the industry to provide healthier products2. Once again, we are reminded that the bottom line of corporations is to sell their products.
So, if public health organizations do decide to partner with food industry, they should enter these partnerships with full awareness of the food industry’s goal of making profits and a transparent agreement describing exactly how each partner stands to benefit. Otherwise, to avoid future problems with the food industry inappropriately influencing nutrition policies, maybe public health organizations should avoid these partnerships under certain circumstances. For example, I wonder if the World Health Organization should really accept funding and participation on a steering board from corporations, including the food industry giants Coca Cola and Nestle; especially when these corporations have so much to gain from increasing their presence in global markets3.
- The PLoS Medicine Editors (2012) PLoS Medicine Series on Big Food: The Food Industry Is Ripe for Scrutiny. PLoS Med 9(6): e1001246.
- Dorfman L, Cheyne A, Friedman LC, Wadud A, Gottlieb M (2012) Soda and Tobacco Industry Corporate Social Responsibility Campaigns: How Do They Compare? PLoS Med 9(6): e1001241.
- Stuckler D, Nestle M (2012) Big Food, Food Systems, and Global Health. PLoS Med 9(6): e1001242. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001242.