Food costs consume a huge percentage of our budget. Because we’re dependent on food, we’re also fairly dependent on those who market and sell it. Food industries take advantage of this. By making claims about the proven nutritional value of their products, food and drug companies and advocacy groups blur the line between science and marketing. How does food industry corruption affect you?
Organizations like the National Dairy Council, the American Meat Institute, and Florida Citrus Processors Association each have annual budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars. With this money comes power over research, medical education, and government decisions. We’ll cover the ways in which the food industry acts unethically and why you should care.
Food Industry Corruption: 4 Problems for the Consumer
Let’s look at some of the ways food industry corruption affects you.
Problem #1: Nutrition Confusion
The consumer can’t always tell which claims are based on rigorous research and which are marketing ploys.
It’s the job of food industries to sell a product. But when they clothe their marketing in scientific language, they make it hard for the consumer to understand the truth of a product’s health claims.
Problem #2: Consumer Vulnerability
Consumers are particularly vulnerable to food and drug industries.
Our lives literally depend on the foods we eat and the drugs we take. We might be able to resist the newest Apple offering or Lululemon pants because we know, on a rational level, that we don’t really need them. But we can’t say that about food.
When food industries tell us that we need their products in order to be healthy, they’re hard to resist. They use scientific language or cite scientific studies to make it sound like it’s science that says we need these products. And whereas the layman might be skeptical of an advertiser’s health claim, he often doesn’t have the background knowledge to argue with “science.”
Problem #3: Reductionism
Marketers take advantage of reductionism.
Researchers often study nutrients out of context. This can result in conflicting findings and confusion. It also makes it easy for industries to find a favorable study result and exploit it, taking the finding out of context. (This is what the supplement industry did with lycopene.)
Problem #4: Prioritization of Profits Over Health
Food industries use shady tactics to prioritize profits over public health.
Researcher T. Colin Campbell says that while he was preparing to publish the results of the China Study, the National Dairy Council and the American Meat Institute employed a committee of researchers to infiltrate scientific councils and boards across the nation and keep tabs on his and others’ work.
The dairy and meat industries wanted to stay ahead of the “competition” (the researchers). They wanted to know what scientists were discovering that might hurt their profits so they could market their own versions of the research.
This might be a smart (if unethical) business move, but it increases the confusion around nutrition research and hurts consumers looking for the truth.
Food Industry Corruption Example #1: The Orange Industry
Nothing seems as innocuous as oranges, but few products are immune to food industry corruption. The orange industry is a powerful food industry in the U.S. and provides a good example of the extent to which the food industry can shape the public’s health “knowledge.”
We all know that oranges are high in vitamin C. Or do we?
Oranges do have vitamin C, but this antioxidant makes up only 1-2% of the total antioxidants in oranges, meaning that 98-99% of an orange’s free-radical fighting power comes from other antioxidants.
There are many foods that contain far more vitamin C than oranges, like peppers, strawberries, broccoli, papayas, and peas. So why do we automatically think oranges whenever someone mentions vitamin C? Because the industry jumped on research that showed oranges contained vitamin C and publicized it until it was the most well-known fact about oranges.
Food industries have the power to shape what we know about nutrition. This is an example of low-level food industry corruption. Let’s look at an example of a food industry that dupes us on a larger scale.
Food Industry Corruption Example #2: The Dairy Industry
The dairy industry is another major industry, one of the most powerful in the country. In 2003, the National Dairy Council’s budget for marketing alone was $165 million. (In contrast, the budget of the National Watermelon Promotion Board was $1.6 million.) With lots of money comes a high chance of food industry corruption.
The Dairy Council’s stated goal, unsurprisingly, is to increase demand for dairy products, and they’re open about their strategy of targeting children and their mothers through schools.
The Dairy Industry’s Relationship with Schools
The dairy industry uses schools as a platform in various ways.
For example, the industry publishes highly successful educational programs on nutrition, one of which was used in 76% of the nation’s preschools and kindergartens in 1999. Programs aimed at 2nd- through 4th-graders reach 12 million students every year and high schools receive videos, posters, and nutrition teaching guides. These nutritional programs highlight the importance of milk and dairy products in a healthy diet. Some of these nutrition guides even reassure kids that ice cream is healthy. In addition to promoting the health of all dairy products, even desserts and junk foods, some “nutrition” lesson plans include making cow puppets and “Moo Masks.” Curricula provided by the dairy industry is the only nutrition education that most kids get.
Representatives of the dairy industry also go to schools to teach cafeteria managers how to keep milk cold, the way kids like it, and run promotions in over 20,000 schools to increase milk consumption.
Marketing to Adults with “Science”
The dairy industry also markets to adults, appealing to their desire to keep their families healthy by sharing research that proves milk’s benefits. They even spend $4 to $5 million a year on conducting their own research.
The industry was excited when a study on conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), produced in the cow’s rumen (one of its four stomachs) and present in milk products, showed that CLA might prevent stomach tumors and slow the growth of existing tumors.
Soon, journalists were reporting that milk fought cancer. But this wasn’t a logical conclusion. First, CLA was tested in isolation. There was no proof that milk, even milk with CLA, prevented cancer, only that CLA on its own seemed to prevent stomach tumors from forming.
Second, the CLA studies were done on mice. The results weren’t confirmed in humans.
Third, some of the experimenters used the tricky method of administering the CLA before, not after, the carcinogen. This was a problem because CLA activates the enzyme system. The tumor could be prevented from forming simply because the enzyme system is highly activated, not because CLA is an anticarcinogen. It’s like eating a handful of pesticide, then eating a handful of peanuts drenched in the carcinogen aflatoxin. By eating the pesticide first, you revved up the enzyme system that gets rid of the body’s toxins. Now, your system is better prepared to fight the aflatoxin. But this doesn’t make pesticides anticarcinogens, just like CLA’s ability to activate your enzyme system doesn’t make it an anticarcinogen.
One scientist researching CLA privately acknowledged the limits of CLA research, but continues to work for the dairy industry and won’t share his opinion publicly.
Summary of Recommendations: Beware Food Industry Corruption
Understand that information on food labels and in advertisements, no matter how scientific it appears, is almost always placed there in the hopes that it will convince you to buy the product. Food industry corruption is common and you should always question the health claims food companies make.
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