How Big Food Twists the Science


Just like mosquitos are the vectors of spread for malaria, a landmark article published last year in one of the most prestigious medical journals, Lancet, described large food corporations as the vectors of spread for chronic disease. Unlike "infectious disease epidemics, however, these corporate disease vectors implement sophisticated campaigns to undermine public health interventions." Most mosquitoes don't have as good PR firms.

A key message was that "alcohol and ultra-processed food and drink industries use similar strategies as the tobacco industry to undermine effective public health policies and programs." What they mean by ultra-processed is things like burgers, frozen meals, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, potato chips, doughnuts and soda pop.

But how is the food industry like the tobacco industry? The "first strategy is to bias research findings." For example, Philip Morris implemented the Whitecoat project to hire doctors to publish ghost-written studies purporting to negate links between secondhand smoke and harm, publishing biased cherry-picked scientific reports to deny harm and suppress health information. In my video Food Industry-Funded Research Bias, you can see the actual industry memo describing the Whitecoat Project, designed to reverse the scientific "misconception" that secondhand smoke is harmful.

Similarly, funding from these large food corporations biases research. Studies show systematic bias from industry funding, so we get the same kind of tactics--supplying misinformation, use of supposedly conflicting evidence and hiding negative data.

The same scientists-for-hire that downplayed the risks of secondhand smoke are the same hired by the likes of the National Confectioner's Association to say candy cigarettes are A-OK as well. Of course, they declared "no conflict of interest."

The similarities between strategies used by the tobacco, alcohol, and food and drink corporations are unsurprising in view of the flow of people, funds and activities across these industries, which also have histories of joint ownership--like Philip Morris owned both Kraft and Miller Brewing.

So what's their strategy? As a former FDA commissioner described:

"The tobacco industry's strategy was embodied in a script written by the lawyers. Every tobacco company executive in the public eye was told to learn the script backwards and forwards, no deviation was allowed. The basic premise was simple-- smoking had not been proven to cause cancer. Not proven, not proven, not proven--this would be stated insistently and repeatedly. Inject a thin wedge of doubt, create controversy, never deviate from the prepared line. It was a simple plan and it worked."

Internal industry memos make this explicit, stating "doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the body of fact that exists in the mind of the general public." The internal industry memos list objective number one as "to set aside in the minds of millions the false conviction that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer and other diseases; a conviction based on fanatical assumptions, fallacious rumors, unsupported claims and the unscientific statements and conjectures of publicity-seeking opportunists... [We need] to lift the cigarette from the cancer identification as quickly as possible, and to establish--once and for all--that no scientific evidence has ever been produced, presented or submitted to prove conclusively that cigarette smoking causes cancer," similar to what's now coming out from the food industry, from the same folks that brought us smoke and candy.

This is part of a series of "political" blogs which includes my video, Collaboration with the New Vectors of Disease. Why don't I just "stick to the science"? When there are billions of dollars at stake, the body of evidence can be skewed and manipulated. Funders can determine which studies are performed, how they're performed and whether or not they get published at all. That's why I think it's important to take a broader view to account for the ways the scientific method can be perverted for profit.

Here are some examples:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations--2013: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food, 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

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Food Dyes and ADHD









Food Dyes and ADHD

There are currently thousands of additives in our food supply. Some are good—like supplementing foods with vitamin B12, for example (See Vitamin B12 Necessary for Arterial Health). Other additives involve weighing the risks and benefits. Take nitrites in processed meats. Yes, they may increase our risk of cancer but, as preservatives, they decrease our risk of dying from botulism (See When Nitrates Go Bad and Bacon and Botulism). Then there are additives used for purely cosmetic purposes, like food dyes, used to provide color to colorless and “fun” foods. According to the FDA, “Without color additives, colas wouldn’t be brown, margarine wouldn’t be yellow and mint ice cream wouldn’t be green.” Heavens forbid! Color additives are now recognized as an important part of practically all processed foods we eat.

Because we’re eating a lot more processed foods, we’re now getting five times more food dyes in our daily diet than we were 50 years ago. Fifteen million pounds of food dyes are used every year in foods, drugs, and cosmetics in the United States.

I always wondered why they called them, for example, Blue #1 instead of their actual chemical name in the list of ingredients. Then, after reading this report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, I realized why. Picture a box of Kraft mac and cheese. It has Yellow #5. Would people be as likely to buy this product if instead of Yellow #5 it listed Trisodium 1-(4-sulfonatophenyl)-4-(4-sulfonatophenylazo)-5-(pyrazolone-3-carboxylate) on the label?

The list of food dyes used to be longer (See Artificial Food Colors and ADHD), but different dyes kept getting banned—including Violet #1, which, ironically, was the color used in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s meat inspection stamp, so they may have been actually further cancer-ing up the meat.

Years ago I featured a landmark study in my video Are Artificial Colors Bad for You?, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled food challenge in perhaps the most prestigious medical journal in the world. It showed that artificial colors increased "inattentiveness, impulsivity, and hyperactivity among young children." So what happened? Well, the British government said, OK, there’re no health benefits to these dyes, only health risks, so it’s a no-brainer. They mandated that food manufacturers remove most of the artificial food colors from products. In fact, the whole European Union said that if manufacturers want to keep using the dyes, then they have to put a warning label stating: “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” Many international food companies have taken them out of their products in Europe, but continue to use them in the same products here in the U.S. where similar regulations are not currently in place. Why did the U.S. government take steps to get rid of them as well?

The FDA put together a committee that looked at the landmark study and conceded that the food additives may have resulted in changes in behavior, but the “type of treatment effects reported in the study, even though the investigators referred to increases in levels of ‘hyperactivity,’ were not the disruptive excessive hyperactivity behaviors of ADHD but more likely the type of over-activity exhibited occasionally by the general population of preschool and school age children.” A distinguished toxicologist basically responded, “look, low level lead exposure may only shave off a few IQ points off of kids, but just because they’d still fall within a normal range, doesn’t mean it’s OK to expose it to our kids.” And looking back now, the lead in leaded gas may have been causing brain cancer and possibly even urban violence—the aggravated assault rate in cities around the U.S. seemed to closely follow the lead levels in the air.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest continues to call on the FDA to ban food dyes and for food companies to voluntarily stop using them. Good luck with that. In the meantime, some researchers recently suggested a way to see which food colors may be damaging our child’s brain, advising parents to test artificial colors by purchasing little bottles of food dyes at the grocery store. Then have their kid do some homework or something and then have them chug down an artificial color and see if it affects their handwriting/reading/math at 30 minutes, at 90 minutes, and 3 hours. They also see if they get irritable later, have problems sleeping, and so on. If that’s OK, they say you should try even more to see if more will mess with their mind. If I may offer an alternate suggestion, maybe we shouldn’t buy our kids processed junk in the first place.

This whole saga reminds me of the artificial flavor in my video Butter-Flavored Microwave Popcorn or Breathing. It’s amazing what the food industry is able to get away with. There’s even sometimes Artificial Coloring in Fish.

There is a campaign to get Kraft to remove yellow #5 from their mac & cheese, but even if the stuff didn’t glow in the dark it’s still just a blob of sodium (750 mg), saturated fat (4.5 g), and trans fat (2.8 g). The food movement might better spend its time encouraging healthier fare altogether.

How can we get our kids to eat less processed junk? I review some practical tips in my videos Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at School and Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at Home. 

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

Image Credit: Asif Ali / Flickr

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