Big Food’s Real Appetites
More than the much-reviled products of Big Tobacco, big helpings and Big Food constitute the number-one threat to America's children, especially when the fare is helpings of fats, sugars and salt. Yet the nation so concerned about protecting kids from nefarious images on library computers also
allows its schools to bombard them with food and snack ads on Channel One and to sign exclusive deals with purveyors of habit-forming, tooth-rotting, waist-swelling soft drinks.
Foreigners who arrive in the United States often remark on the national obsessions about food and money. It is perhaps not surprising that a gluttonous mammon would rule the federal regulators of our food chain, but Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University, confesses that she has heard few of her nutritionist colleagues discuss the cardinal point: "Food companies will make and market any product that sells, regardless of its nutritional value or its effect on health."
Nestle goes on to demonstrate that not only do food companies use traditional corporate checkbook clout with Congress to insure their unfettered right to make money; they also co-opt much of the scientific and nutritional establishment to aid in their efforts. For example, the omnipresent "milk mustache" advertisements often show blacks and Asians--precisely those who are most likely to be lactose-intolerant. But then "science" rides to the rescue: There are a lot more research dollars shunted to those arguing that lactose intolerance is not a problem than there are for those who think otherwise. In fact, the Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine sued to annul the federal dietary guidelines, which recommended two to three servings of milk products daily; six of the eleven people on the voting committee had received research grants, lectureships or other support from the food industry.
Here Nestle wobbles a little in her argument, however. She waves the standard of science on behalf of the Food and Drug Administration when it comes to food supplements and herbal medicines, but devalues the "science" as well by revealing the conflicts of interest among researchers and regulators. Science is often up for sale. Researchers go to the food corporations for the same reason that bandits rob banks: That's where the money is, not least since the FDA's own research funding is controlled by Congressional committees in charge of agriculture, whose primary aim is hardly to promote dieting--it is the force-feeding of agribusiness with federal funds. Indeed, Nestle concedes, "USDA officials believe that really encouraging people to follow dietary guidelines would be so expensive and disruptive to the agricultural economy as to create impossible political barriers."
The dietary guidelines Nestle is referring to were monumentalized in the famous "food pyramid" familiar to every primary school student. But the pharaohs finished theirs in less time than it took the FDA to pilot its version past the army of lobbyists who resented the hierarchical implication that some foods were healthier than others. As a whistleblower on the FDA advisory committee that was drawing up the guidelines, Nestle is well qualified to recount the obstacles it faced.
In fact, many people did become more health-conscious as a result of such guidelines, but as Nation readers know, practice does not always match theory. Much of Food Politics reveals how the food industry has seized upon the marketing possibilities of consumers' safety concerns and perverted them by adding supplements to junk foods and then making health claims for the products.
Food is an elemental subject, on a par with sex and religion for the strength of people's beliefs about it. Otherwise rational people have no difficulty believing the impossible during breakfast, where their stomachs are concerned. Big Food relies on that snake-oil factor, the scientific illiteracy of most consumers. For example, marketers are happy with the advice to eat less saturated fat, since most buyers won't recognize it when it's drizzled across their salad. But advice to eat less of anything recognizable stirs up serious political opposition.
Federal dietary guidelines recommending that we "eat less" were thinned down to suggesting that we "avoid too much," which metabolized into "choose a diet low in..." And so on. For example, Nestle relates how in 1977 the National Cattlemen's Association jumped on Bob Dole's compromise wording on reducing red meat in the diet and increasing lean meat consumption: "Decrease is a bad word, Senator," the cattlemen warned him. The cowboys effectively corralled the McGovern committee on dietary guidelines: "Decrease consumption of meat" was fattened into "choose meats, poultry and fish which will reduce saturated fat intake."
Sometimes the more potential for harm, the more it seems likely that a product's positive--or putative--health benefits will be touted. We get vitamin-supplemented Gummi Bears and, what provokes Nestle's justifiable ire most, Froot Loops. This marshmallow blasted "cereal...contains no fruit and no fiber" and "53% of the calories come from added sugar," she inveighs. The perfect breakfast complement to a twenty-ounce bottle of cola that will be downed in school? Such pseudo-foods occupy the very top of the food pyramid, which characterizes them as to be used sparingly, or rather, only use if you have good dental insurance.
As Nestle points out, health warnings on alcohol and tobacco have done little to stop consumers. But picture a tobacco company allowed to sell cigarettes as "healthier" or "with added vitamins." (Indeed, she details a campaign by the alcohol companies to get Congress to allow them to market their products as healthy elixirs until Strom Thurmond's religious principles outweighed his conservatism enough for him to help shoot down the proposal.)
I was mildly surprised that Nestle does not comment on the imprecise use of "serving" information on food packaging. As a longtime student of labels, I find that the unhealthiest foods seem to have incredibly small "servings" compared with what consumers actually eat or drink. For the USDA, one slice of white bread or one ounce of breakfast cereal is a "serving" of grain, and nutritional data such as caloric content are rendered "per serving." A cinema-size actual serving of soda may contain 800 calories in sugar, before you get down to the buttered popcorn, not to mention the Big Mac before or after.
Food marketers are hardly breaking people's arms to persuade them to eat this stuff, of course. It is, after all, a great American principle that you can have your cake, eat it and slim down at the same time. What Nestle calls "techno-foods"--those labeled "healthier," "less fat," "lite," "more fiber"--pander to the health consciousness of a generation that will do anything to lose weight and live longer, except eat less.
The ultimate example of food marketing has to be Olestra, the cooking fat that passes through the gut undigested. Its maker, Proctor & Gamble, has spent up to $500 million on it, and spent twenty-seven years of the FDA's time getting various approvals, while it kept trying to remove the mandated health warning that the product could cause cramping, loose stools and block the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. P&G should count its blessings. A Center for Science in the Public Interest report says: "Olestra sometimes causes underwear staining. That phenomenon may be caused most commonly by greasy, hard-to-wipe-off fecal matter, but occasionally also from anal leakage (leakage of liquid Olestra through the anal sphincter)."
By 1998 Proctor & Gamble disingenuously claimed that 250 tons, or four railcarfuls, of fat had not been added to American waistlines. No one claimed it had--what the company meant was that was how much Olestra had been used to fry chips. The public expectations were quite high, though; Nestle says that "people also were disappointed that the chips did not help them lose weight." Indeed, she reports that some ended up with more calories from eating Olestra-fried chips than they would have from other kinds, because they consumed a higher volume, convinced that they were calorie-free, though of course they were not.
But given the amount of money involved and the way food-industry/scientific-community connections are structured, "it is virtually impossible for any nutritionist interested in the benefits and risks of Olestra to avoid some sort of financial relationship with P&G unless one systematically refuses all speaking invitations, travel reimbursements, honoraria and meals from outside parties," Nestle observes.
In yet another case of Big Food getting its way, Nestle chronicles how the State Department came to declare that signing the World Health Organization/UNICEF international code on marketing of baby formula would flout the Constitution. "Inasmuch as this explanation strains credulity," Nestle suggests, the real reason was lobbying by US formula companies. The formula makers are fighting a war of attrition against mother's milk, in other words, not just here but internationally.
A more recent case involves the coalition that forced the FDA to allow claims of benefits from untested herbal supplements. I wish Nestle had gone into more detail about the sociology of this mélange of New Age alternative-medicine users, libertarian types and those who mistrust the medical establishment. Groups like Citizens for Health and the Corporate Alliance for Integrative Medicine rallied behind the rapidly growing corporations to ram a suppository up the FDA and its power to control sales of what on occasion have proven to be fatally flawed "alternative" remedies for everything from impotence to Alzheimer's. As she quotes an FDA commissioner, "[We] are literally back at the turn of the century, when snake oil salesmen made claims for their products that could not be substantiated." She reports claims that 12 percent of users of herbal medicines, or about 12 million people, suffer from some kind of adverse effect.
People may feel better when they take supplements, but should health officials use "feelings" as a basis for regulatory measures, she asks? Or should the FDA instead "take the lead in reenergizing a crucial phase of its basic mission to promote honest, rational scientific medicine by vigorously combating its opposite"?
Many people may want to know what "science" is. Is it corporate-sponsored research, or the AMA defending its professional turf with the same vigor with which it has traditionally fought "socialized medicine"? Nestle shows how the American Academy of Pediatrics tried to insure that highly profitable baby formula flowed through its hands and rallied against direct sales to mothers. Was that concern for the "client" or concern for professional prerogatives?
Perhaps Nestle should have been more polemical. The food supplement row raised the question of "whether irreparable damage has been done to the ability of our federal regulatory system to ensure the safety of foods and supplements and to balance public health interests against the economic interests of corporations," she writes. But her own reporting suggests that the barbarians are already inside the gates and forcing their wares on the gullible.
Nestle sees no magic bullet to retrieve the situation. She wants "some federal system to guarantee that all those products on the shelves are safe and effective," and she asks, "Shouldn't there be some regulatory framework to control patently absurd or misleading claims?" To answer that in the affirmative is not necessarily the same as agreeing that the FDA is the best agency, certainly in its present form, nor that the AMA and similar organizations are in the corner of good science. The FDA's record does not inspire confidence, which is one of the reasons the herbalists' revolt was so successful in Congress. Its arrogance often matches its ignorance. While reading this book I went to a small British-owned cholesterol shop in Manhattan (pork pies, etc.). Its owner can't import kippers because the FDA does not recognize them as food. His first shipment of a brand of British Band-Aids was held on suspicion of being a soup, and when that confusion was finally cleared up, the FDA demanded of him a medical-goods import license.
I would like to hear more about how the FDA could be made more responsive and more efficient. It seems that in their present form, the regulatory bodies need some means of democratic oversight to check bureaucracy and to weigh problems of undue influence from the producing industries. Nestle details problems we've come to see elsewhere: the revolving door between civil servants, Congressional staff and industry. She also suggests rules--"a higher and stronger 'firewall'" between regulatory agencies and industry to inhibit the easy career glide from poaching to gamekeeping and back again--and she is entirely correct that the last bodies that should be overlooking FDA funding are the Congressional agriculture committees, which are dedicated to the prosperity of agribusiness.
Otherwise, Nestle's wish list ranges from sensible to Mission Impossible: tighter labeling rules so people can see exactly what they are consuming. A ban on advertising of junk foods in schools, especially candies and soft drinks with high sugar content. Sumptuary taxes on soft drinks as well--sure to be opposed bitterly by the lobbyists. If alcohol and tobacco advertisements cannot be allowed on children's TV, why allow advertising of foods that promote obesity and future health ills on a par with them?
At first glance, Nestle's call for an ethical standard for food choices for nutritionists and the industry seems highly idealistic; but ten years ago, who would have foreseen Philip Morris's berating of state governments for not spending their tobacco settlement money on the pledged anti-child-smoking campaigns? Already, more and more scientific journals are demanding disclosure of conflicts of interest for papers submitted.
Nestle does not touch the subject directly, but who knows, maybe campaign finance reform really will cut indirectly the pork in the political diet and the crap in the school lunches. However, it will be a hard push. Educating the public is a start, and Food Politics is an excellent introduction to how decisions are made in Washington--and their effects on consumers. Let's hope people take more notice of it than they do of the dietary guidelines.