When Charities Collaborate With the Food Industry

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When the history of the world's attempt to address obesity is written, one researcher writes, "the greatest failure may be collaboration with and appeasement of the food industry." For instance, Yum! Brands, who owns Kentucky Fried Chicken, linked up with a leading U.S. breast cancer charity, to sell pink buckets of fried chicken.

Save the Children, an organization aiming to positively change the lives of children, was initially a staunch supporter of soda taxes. Recently, however, the organization withdrew its support, saying that support of the soda taxes did not fit the way Save the Children works. Perhaps it is only a coincidence that it was seeking a grant from Coca-Cola and had accepted a $5 million grant from Pepsi.

Through these partnerships, the food industry seeks to emphasize that inactivity -- not the promotion and consumption of its calorie-rich products -- is the prime cause of obesity. But studies showing that obesity is rising even in areas where people are exercising more are most likely explained by the fact that the rate of physical activity levels are being outstripped by our eating activity levels. We can outrun our mouths.

As stated by researcher, Bruce Neal, from the University of Sydney (highlighted in my video, Collaboration with the New Vectors of Disease), "The message is plain - the primary driver of the obesity epidemic in the United States is now the food supply, and interventions targeting physical activity are not going to resolve it. So, while physical activity is good regardless, it will not address most of the burden of ill health caused by obesity. That is going to require a new focus on the root cause of the problem--the American diet."

This researcher adds, "At the heart of the 'energy in' side of the obesity problem is the food and beverage industry. Put simply, the enormous commercial success enjoyed by the food industry is now causing what promises to be one of the greatest public health disasters of our time. As fast as we rid the world of the microbial causes of pestilence and famine, they are replaced by new vectors of disease in the form of trans-national food corporations that market salt, fat, sugar, and calories in unprecedented quantities. So policy makers should work on pricing strategies that subsidize the cost of healthier foods."

First, we need to shift relative prices to make it more expensive to consume animal products compared to fruit, vegetables and beans. Second, we need to increase demand for plant foods, which is not as easy given the hundreds of billions of dollars in annual subsidies - our tax payer dollars going to make animal products artificially cheap.

Dr. Bruce Neal then concludes, "The food industry will rail against the 'nanny state' and fight tooth and nail for its right to market a range of options to responsible individuals able to make choices for themselves-it's the American way. For context though, these arguments are no different to those used by the tobacco industry, which also markets habituating unhealthy products in pursuit of profit. In the case of tobacco, the American people have agreed that controls must be applied to limit the harms caused. Poor diet is now responsible for an even greater burden of disease than tobacco, and food companies must be controlled in the same way if the harms are to be reduced. As unpalatable as this may be, the food industry would do well to strengthen their public health conscience, given that consumers are always going to need their goods, something that cannot be said for the tobacco industry." You hear that a lot in public health circles, how we have to work with the companies, because unlike tobacco, we have to eat. But just like yes, we need to breath, but we don't need to breathe smoke, yes we need to eat, but we don't need to eat junk.

Is it our physical activity or eating activity? See Diet vs. Exercise for Weight Loss and How Much Exercise to Sustain Weight Loss?

I touched on the pink buckets of KFC in my video Breast Cancer Survival, Butterfat, and Chicken.

For more on the idea of subsidizing healthy foods or at least stopping tax money to supporting junk, check out my video Taxpayer Subsidies for Unhealthy Foods.

It's sad when non-profits collaborate with companies that contribute to suffering, but seems particularly egregious when the Registered Dietitian group does it. See Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Conflicts of Interest.

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 Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: Rafael Edwards / Flickr

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Our Tax Dollars Subsidize Unhealthy Foods

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Why do food companies sell junk? Because unhealthy commodities are highly profitable. This is in part because of their "low production cost, long shelf-life, and high retail value," which create perverse incentives for industries to market and sell more junk. In a study highlighted in my video, Taxpayer Subsidies for Unhealthy Foods, researchers at the University of Cambridge stated, "Coca-Cola's net profit margins, for example, are about a quarter of the retail price, making soft drink production, alongside tobacco production, among the most profitable industrial activities in the world." One of the reasons production costs are so low is that we tax-payers subsidize it.

Distinguished UNC Professor of Nutrition, Barry Popkin, writes:

"For more than a century, Western governments have invested heavily in lowering the costs of animal products and some basic cash crops [such as sugar]. Accordingly, Western diets have shifted during the past century, especially after World War II, to include more animal sourced foods--meat, poultry, dairy, seafood, and eggs [as well as more sugar and corn syrup]. During this same period, however, we have begun to realize that a healthy diet actually requires fewer animal products and empty calories, and more vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains. Redressing this balance is a complex task requiring not only a shift in agricultural investment and policy, but also changes in social preferences that have developed over decades, in part due to dollar menu meat."

Why is chicken so cheap? In the nine years that followed the passage of the '96 Farm Bill, corn and soy were subsidized below the cost of production to make cheap animal feed. So U.S. tax-payers effectively handed the chicken and pork industry around $10 billion dollars each.

What if we instead subsidized healthy foods? Or taxed harmful ones? Every dollar spent taxing processed foods or milk would net an estimated $2 in healthcare cost savings. Every dollar spent making vegetables cheaper would net $3, and subsidizing whole grains could net over a one thousand percent return on our investment.

Unfortunately, we can't count on Big Broccoli. The produce sector lacks the extensive funding that went to create the National Dairy Council, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, and the American Egg Board.

Even if we removed the hundreds of billions of dollars in annual subsidies for animal products, it might not be sufficient to tip the balance in favor of healthier diets. According to Professor Popkin, "We have created societies in the West that value and consume meat, dairy, poultry, fish and seafood. Over several generations, a particular way of life has been promoted that has shifted expectations about diet to include large amounts of animal-sourced foods"--the concept that a meal centers around some hunk of meat.

The idea that animal products should form the basis of our diet has been scientifically debunked, but remains the social aspiration of billions of people. As we in the West slowly come to accept that our diets and eating habits are not healthy, it is to be hoped that this will change policies not only here, but throughout the world.

For more on the power Big Food's hold over our political system, check out videos such as:

My video series on corporate influence over our federal nutrition guidelines may also be enlightening:

And if we really wanted to save our country money we could start by trying to wipe out some of our leading killer chronic diseases:

-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, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: Rakka / Flickr

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