This month we review a book that reveals how the food industry controls what we eat and the role it plays in the obesity epidemic.
Appetite for Profit:
How the Food Industry Undermines Your Health
and How to Fight Back
By Michele Simon
Nation Books, 2006
She reveals how the major corporations determine what foods you eat and encourage everyone to eat more so they will maximize their profits. Although these companies manufacture highly processed foods devoid of nutritional benefits, they have mounted deceitful public relations campaigns claiming to be "part of the solution" to the obesity epidemic.
The author trains her guns on the largest and most vocal corporations she includes in her Big Food category: Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, General Mills, and McDonald's. Whenever these organizations are criticized for their role in the obesity crisis, they invariably respond with a variety of tactics to shift the blame. Their army of lobbyists has achieved success in persuading state legislatures to pass Commonsense Consumption Acts, also known as Cheeseburger Laws. As of July 2005, 18 states had versions of this legislation. In that same year the House of Representatives passed a cheeseburger bill, but it never became a law because it failed to muster votes in the Senate.
These Cheeseburger Laws, labeled as "frivolous lawsuits" by Big Food, prevent people from suing food companies for causing their obesity. Big Food is really saying, "Don't sue us for making you fat. What you eat is your personal responsibility." Another tactic employed by Big Food is "nutriwashing." According to Simon, "They bathe their products in the warm fuzzy glow of health-themed marketing and PR." She provides the example of General Mills reformulating cereals to include whole grains. Along with the whole grains its Lucky Charms are loaded with sugar, cornstarch, corn syrup, gelatin, two yellow dyes, blue dye, red dye, and artificial flavor. The company claims, "There really is no better breakfast your child could eat."
Big Food comes under attack for marketing junk food to children through television advertising and for invading school campuses to increase sales of soft drinks. Although claiming it does not market to children under 12 in schools, Coca-Cola has lobbied against legislation in state legislatures that would forbid the company from selling sodas in elementary schools. A 2002 survey of schools in Kentucky revealed that 44% of the schools in that state had vending machines dispensing sodas.
To achieve its goals to sell more, deflect criticism, and discourage lawsuits, the industry has established groups to promote its agenda. Food and beverage associations like the National Restaurant Association and the Snack Food Association actively market and lobby for their members. Simon describes "front groups" with important sounding names as just tools for their industries. The Center for Consumer Freedom, for example, reflects the interests of the restaurant industry by working diligently to prevent legislation that would require restaurants to provide nutritional information on their menus. The Council for Corporate and School Partnerships is a Coca-Cola tool to promote school soda pop contracts.
Big Food has become involved in a number of corporate educational and wellness programs to deflect attention from their highly processed foods as a principal cause for obesity. Instead of marketing nutritious products, they extol the virtue of exercise as the solution. Kellogg's offers "Girls on the Run" instead of creating healthier breakfast foods. PepsiCo announces, "Get Active Stay Active."
Unfortunately, citizens cannot turn to their government for solutions to the obesity problem. Fearful of alienating their business allies, government officials reiterate the same phrases and arguments used by Big Food. They cannot tell people specific foods are bad and should not be eaten. Government subsidies for corn production make it possible for calorie-laden, high-fructose corn syrup to be everywhere in the food supply. "With MyPyramid, government officials adopted the food industry's argument that exercise is the real answer to the nation's health woes," Simon writes.
In Appetite for Profit Michele Simon does not stop with just describing the evils of Big Food in controlling our food supply and choices; she develops strategies for people to fight back. The appendix to the book is a mini handbook for citizens who want to battle the evils of Big Food.
Reviewed April 2007