The Food Industry is NOT Behaving Like the Tobacco Industry. Right?

The Milbank Quarterly, a peer-reviewed journal of population health and health policy, provides an assessment of the social, legal, and ethical dimensions of health care policy in the US.

Their March issue is dedicated to obesity, a disease that has become a top priority due to the heavy toll it is putting on us both financially and medically.

One of the interesting articles is entitled The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar Is Big Food?

In 1954 the tobacco industry paid to publish the “Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” in hundreds of U.S. newspapers. It stated that the public’s health was the industry’s concern above all others and promised a variety of good-faith changes. What followed were decades of deceit and actions that cost millions of lives.

The article was written by two well respected public health researchers – Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, and Kenneth Warner, dean of the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Here’s what the researchers found.

Tobacco companies:
1. emphasized personal responsibility rather than industry responsibility.
2. criticized “junk” science that found harms associated with smoking.
3. paid scientists to produce counter-studies.
4. created self-regulation to preempt stricter government control.
5. lobbied with huge financial forces to stifle government action.
6. introduced “safer” products.
7. Denied the addictive nature of their products.
8. Denied the fact that they were marketing to children.

What you need to know:

Food is very different and much more complex than cigarettes. Our bodies need food, whereas they certainly don’t need cigarettes.

There is also a huge variation in food products and their nutritional values, whereas tobacco products are very limited in scope.

Therefore it is very difficult to pinpoint one specific product as so dangerous that it warrants the same treatment as a cigarette. Many foods have both beneficial nutrients along those better to restrict.

In addition, some nutrients are required up to a point and then become dangerous. For example, our bodies must get a daily dosage of sodium in order to function properly, whereas no nicotine is required at all.

Having said that, there certainly are similarities between the two industries:
* Personal responsibility is a biggie – you’re fat because you have no willpower to stop eating, not because an entire system has been built to offer you something fat/sweet/salty to stuff in your mouth every single minute of every single day.
* Many industry sponsored studies have lead to health claims on food labels that are questionable at best.
* Self regulation – take a look at the various industry initiatives to create front of label nutrition scoring (Smart Choices, Guiding Stars, etc…) as well as voluntarily providing calorie information on menus at Pizza Hut in order not to have to provide much much more.
* Lobbies – Ask the folks at the USDA and Capitol Hill about the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the power it wields, just as an example.
* Safer products – those would be, for example, low-fat, low-carb, reduced-sugar (but how safe are some artificial sweeteners), and omega-3 fortified products.
* Marketing to children – Any parent taking a kid to a supermarket knows that those cartoon characters on cereal boxes, yogurts, and ready-pastas are not there for our pleasure, rather for our kids to be able to nag us till we give in.

What to do at the supermarket:

Our usual recommendation is to choose minimally processed foods, those that have been around before Big Food. Sticking to the perimeter of the supermarket, where you can find fresh produce, meat and milk, as well as grains, is a good start.

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  • Adriana

    Hi–I love your blog (long-time listener, first-time caller…). Speaking of minimally-processed foods, I just read something about flash-frozen food having more vitamins:

    Really? REALLY??? I’d love to hear your take on this claim.

    • staff

      Hi Adriana,

      Thanks fro your loyal readership.

      With respect to flash frozen produce – Yes, sometimes it can be more nutritious than fresh.

      Wintertime is a perfect example. Fresh produce is shipped from halfway around the world, picked way too early and slowly ripening in a plane / truck. Alternatively, apples may be picked ripe, but months in advance and stored at near freezing warehouses until distributed to supermarkets in January and February. These “fresh” products are not as tasty, and not as nutritious as they could be (if eaten in season and as soon as possible after harvest).

      We wrote about this a few months ago in a post entitled Fresh, Frozen or Canned?

  • Adriana

    Thanks for your response–I’ll check out Fresh, Frozen or Canned.