Obesity and Complicity by the Food Industry

Cathy Arnst wrote a compelling article in BusinessWeek here, about the Food Industry’s complicity in fostering obesity in society.  While individuals ultimately have to be responsible for their actions, misleading advertising and claims definitely contribute to this epidemic, as I have written in the past (ie, Corn Refiners Assoc lying re HFCS, COKE lying about soft drinks – and claiming it is all natural, dilution of "natural" claims because of so much deception by big food cos, etc.).

Now Arnst brought forward many studies and sources – from Dr. David Kessler to a study in the health journal The Milbank Quarterly – that compare Big Tobacco’s dirty tricks to how large food companies are behaving….

Blaming The Food Industry For Obesity

Posted by: Cathy Arnst on May 16

The evidence is mounting that the obesity crisis is not the result of a lack of personal responsibility—the processed food industry’s practices may be just as much, if not more, to blame. Pish tosh, say many of us; we just need to watch what we eat and exercise more. It seems it’s not that simple. Two new studies conclude that the food industry is following the tobacco industry’s play book to ensure that we keep loading up on calories, and as a result virtually all of the weight gain in the U.S. over the last 30 years can be attributed to eating more, not moving less.

There’s been quite a debate about food and personal responsibility in response to my previous blog post: How Mac n’ Cheese Is Like A Cigarette. That entry was about a new book, The End Of Overeating by Dr. David Kessler, the former FDA commissioner who fought to regulate cigarettes during the 1990s. He thinks too much fat, salt and sugar is addictive in many of the same ways as tobacco, and lays out how the food industry creates “hedonic foods” that we just can’t resist (even Kessler admits to an addiction to Snackwell’s cookies). Though lots of commenters disagreed, the experts are increasingly on Kessler’s side.

A provocative article in the latest issue of the health journal The Milbank Quarterly lays out those pernicious and tough-to-resist marketing strategies. It’s entitled The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar Is Big Food? Authors Kelly Brownell of Yale University and Kenneth Warner of the University of Michigan reviewed tobacco and food industry practices, messages, and strategies for influencing public opinion, legislation and regulation, litigation, and the conduct of science. Their conclusion:

The tobacco industry had a playbook, a script, that emphasized personal responsibility, paying scientists who delivered research that instilled doubt, criticizing the “junk” science that found harms associated with smoking, making self-regulatory pledges, lobbying with massive resources to stifle government action, introducing “safer” products, and simultaneously manipulating and denying both the addictive nature of their products and their marketing to children. The script of the food industry is both similar to and different from the tobacco industry script.

Because obesity is now a major global problem, the world cannot afford a repeat of the tobacco history, in which industry talks about the moral high ground but does not occupy it.

A study released last week at the European Congress on Obesity also found that it is the calories that are solely to blame for the obesity epidemic—lack of physical activity has played virtually no role. The researchers measured food intake, energy expenditure and body size in 1000 children and 1400 adults, then developed an equation to predict increases in their weight, based on USDA figures on how much food was delivered between 1970 and 2002. They found that the mean weight gain in children—4 kg—matched their predictions, so the kids were no less active; they just ate more. In adults, the weight gain—8.6 kg—was slightly lower than predicted, implying that adults increased their activity, but still gained weight, because they increased their calorie intake even more.

Lead author Dr Boyd Swinburn, director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention, told The Heartwire that communities and politicians like to push for more physical activity over reducing calories because it is uncontroversial, and there are no commercial competitors. Meanwhile, the food industry masters promotion, especially to children.

Over the past 30 years they have become very sophisticated in marketing and advertising that is particularly iniquitous in relation to kids. They are adept in the way they turn kids into liking, preferring, demanding, and pestering for the foods that they advertise…The food industry has done such a great job of marketing their products, making the food so tasty that it’s almost irresistible, pricing their products just right, and placing them everywhere, that it is very hard for the average person to resist temptation.

According to a new survey by Mintel, nearly nearly three quarters (72%) of parents said their kids have too much access to junk food, and 40% are worried that their children will become obese (right now, 12% of U.S. kids age 2 to 19 are obese). Still, the message of personal responsibility has taken hold: 78% of parents believe the fault lies with them.

Does it? Sure, we parents are responsible for what we choose to serve their children, but we are living in a commercial world determined to counteract our healthy efforts. What do you think should be done? Tobacco-style regulations on unhealthy food? A tax on junk food? Calorie and nutritional content printed on all restaurant menus? Go live in the forest? Suggestions welcome, because we are all in this together.

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  1. "The Center for Consumer Freedom" | Daniel Lubetzky said:

    [...] With a name like that – The Center for Consumer Freedom – you can be sure this DC spin group has an industry-group agenda.  The agenda in this case is to convince consumers that a product that does not exist in nature is the same as one that does – trying to say High Fructose Corn Syrup is the same as honey.  The problem is your body has a difficult time breaking up the artificially created sugars from HFCS, a problem that is contributing to obesity and diabetes.  [...]

  2. Kali Boothe said:

    Great, thanks for sharing this article post.Much thanks again. Great.

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