Public Confusion over Food Choices Good for Profits

by Annie on December 4, 2008 · 6 comments

in Eating Healthy

Photo by:  Bobby.

A few posts ago, I mentioned that everyone wants us to be fat. Along the same theme, I would like to discuss how public confusion over food choices is good for the profits of food companies.

Almost every food and beverage product is represented by a trade association or has a public relations department whose job is to promote its positive image – usually either based upon its health benefit or “cool” factor.

It is easier to get funding for the effects of a single nutrient because the results are more likely to get headlines, especially if they contradict previous studies. In addition, it is easier to study the effects of a nutrient such as omega-3 fatty acid on heart disease than it is to try to explain if our dietary patterns are associated with declining rates of heart disease. Besides it is old news to just “eat your vegetables.” Who wants to read that in the newspaper? Even blog posts about eating more vegetables and getting more exercise gets old fast. Sure it is an axiom for good health, but it sure does not sound as easy as popping omega-3 fatty acid pills to reduce inflammation without changing your lifestyle.

The trade associations and public relations group can take the results of a single nutrient research and make across the board claim that their food product contain the beneficial nutrient and lobby for the right to make that claim on package labels. Never mind that food contains hundreds of micro-nutrients and other components that influence health.

The first thing that comes to mind is the soy confusion. The food companies are able to extrapolate that since the whole food form of soy contains helpful isoflavones that help with menopausal symptoms, then the isolated isoflavones pill form of soy will do the same thing. So now you have studies saying that soy is harmful (which the isolated isoflavones pill form is) and studies claiming its benefit.

This reminds me of a cartoon strip I once saw about the evolution of healthcare. On one frame it was titled “Past” it showed an image of a witch doctor with a patient and the caption of “Eat more vegetables.” On the second frame titled “Today” it showed an image of a doctor and a patient and the caption of “Take these pills.” On the third frame titled “Future” it showed an image of a doctor and a patient and the caption of “Eat more vegetables.”

People eat diets that contain a dozen different foods. It is rare to find information about how these foods interact with the single nutrient research. Are all test subjects getting the exact same diet besides the increase in whatever nutrients they are studying?

Photo by:  Colin Rose.

Public confusion over food choices is good for the profits of food companies. They can make health claims about their packaged food that the average person cannot refute. For example, my post on the whole grain white bread confusion discuss how Sara Lee is able to claim whole grain health benefits on a white bread with just 30% whole grain in the ingredients.

And food companies love it when we use the words “everything in moderation.” If a food product is not labeled as “good” or “bad,” that means there is no medical advice to restrict intake of that particular food product. But we all know that “moderation” has different meaning for different people and organizations. How often is moderation and does that definition applies to every group of people?

No government agency or watchdog group can ever compete with food companies to promote dietary recommendations. They just do not have that kind of money. They publish a few pamphlets and put up a website, while the food companies are advertising on TV, newspaper, radio, internet, and movies with dancing cartoons. So it is not surprising that we get most of our nutritional advice from trade association and public relations groups of food companies. Where do you think that advice on drinking three glasses of milk a day to lose weight come from?

Government dietary guidelines are compromises between the food industry and what science is telling us. “Eat more” makes everyone happy or at least eat their packaged food “in moderation.” I really would like to see a campaign in my lifetime advocating that we eat less.

Until next time and thanks for stopping by Small Steps to Health.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Tom Parker - Free Fitness Tips December 4, 2008 at 4:06 pm

Good post Asithi. Research studies on food products can be a very dangerous things when companies get their hands on them. The results can be twisted completely out of context just to sell their product. I’m surprised McDonalds don’t do promotions on how the protein in their burgers can help you build lean muscle mass.

Tom Parker – Free Fitness Tipss last blog post……The Common Cold & the Flu Explained

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asithi December 4, 2008 at 4:17 pm

@Tom Parker – Free Fitness Tips – Talking about McDonalds, they should have a label on their premium salad about how many calories is in them. The Premium Southwest Salad with Crispy Chicken and Premium Asian Salad with Crispy Chicken have more than 400 calories each. That is more calories than a Quarter Pounder!

asithis last blog post……Thoughts on Child Obesity

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DR December 4, 2008 at 8:55 pm

Asithi,

Great post.

I think your post dovetails with another one I was just reading about the junk food advertising being aimed at our kids.

And the municipalities (NYC, LA) who are forcing fast food references to disclose nutrition info on their menus.

I think people are waking up and are a little bit pissed off at being manipulated by advertisers.

I don’t know if having the gov’t ban all junk food advertising is the right idea either.

Hopefully blogs like yours are reaching people and helping them make positive changes for their health

DRs last blog post……Beans, beans, the musical fruit

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asithi December 5, 2008 at 8:33 am

@DR -I hope so. I think that we might have a movement going on here on the internet, but when you talk to the people around you, not only are most of them clueless, but they are also too busy to find the time to learn how some of our food buying decisions are really not our decision. Either that or I get the eye roll and the mumble of being a conspiracy lover.

I think that if government ban junk food advertising, marketers are only going to get more subtle with it. At least now, we can point it out (hopefully in front of our kids and educating them in the process). Product placement in movies and TV is so subtle now, that unless they have a big logo, even I miss them sometimes.

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Grounded Fitness December 5, 2008 at 4:21 pm

Great post. Its almost like people will pay more money or go to greater lengths to NOT learn something new. If people would just educate themselves, there wouldnt be an issue.

Kelly Turner
http://www.groundedfitness.com

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asithi December 8, 2008 at 8:56 am

@Grounded Fitness – Unlikely duties that have immediate impact, like not doing your dishes, people do not give much thought to their long term health concerns. You do not see the impacts of eating junk food and not exercising until 10+ years later. And you are right, the people that I know that are not health minded do not want to know.

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