Gorging on anti-corporate baloney
A Canadian medic claims on YouTube that Big Food is killing us. Such claims need to be taken with a huge pinch of salt.
Dr Yoni Freedhoff is an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa and the founder of the Bariatric Medical Institute (BMI – pun no doubt intended), a private clinic that runs weight-loss programmes. Freedhoff writes widely on nutrition and obesity policy. In the past couple of days, he has had a minor YouTube hit with a fairly uncompromising attack on the food industry. While his short video is not, in itself, particularly newsworthy, it is a good example of the one-sided view that Big Food is killing us.
Freedhoff’s video seems a bit of a public-relations own goal for the industry. Invited to speak at a food industry ‘breakfast symposium’ in Toronto about health and nutrition policy, his invitation was withdrawn three days beforehand. Peeved, Freedhoff decided to post the talk as a short video on YouTube and on his own blog. Freedhoff sums his talk as follows: ‘What the food industry can do – it’s actually quite straightforward; why I don’t think they’re going to do it; and what we should do about it.’
There follows a litany of complaints against food-industry practices. For example, there are the dubious claims by manufacturers that adding nutritious material to otherwise unhealthy food makes that food ‘healthy’, whether it is added fibre or vitamins or omega-3 fatty acids. He also rails against the claim that food products have ‘no added sugar’ when the ingredients already make those products extremely sweet. Del Monte Fruit Twists, he points out, have 10 times as much sugar, weight for weight, as apples. SunRype Fun Bites are a fruit product, but, says Freedhoff, they are 79 per cent sugar by weight. He suggests the food industry should ‘stop being disingenuous’ about such claims.
Freedhoff is none too keen on marketing directed at children, either, whether it is the use of cartoon characters on the front of cereal boxes or McDonalds producing a carbonated fruit-juice drink called Fruitizz, which ‘has more sugar – drop for drop – than Coca-Cola’ but still counts towards a child’s ‘five a day’. Then there is the industry’s habit of taking basic food ingredients like cauliflower, mashing them up, adding salt and other ingredients, and presenting them as nutritious alternatives. ‘Why not just give them cauliflower?’, he asks.
‘What I think the food industry could do’ says Freedhoff bluntly, ‘is to stop lying’. He is particularly appalled by the way that Coca-Cola claims not to advertise to children, while producing comic-book adverts, sponsoring events that seem explicitly aimed at associating good childish fun with The Real Thing, or even producing Coca-Cola branded versions of popular toys.
That said, Freedhoff also claims about the food industry that ‘it’s not their job to try to do anything but sell food’, even if the methods they use are dishonest or unethical in Freedhoff’s eyes. ‘I blame us. I blame public-health officials. I blame governments. Because we could theoretically do something about it.’ And that ‘something’ is regulation: ‘calorie postings on menus, soda taxes, subsidies for healthier foods, banning the zoning of fast-food restaurants near schools’ and so on.
This is a handy menu of food-related government intervention that is trotted out all the time by food crusaders everywhere. But before we get to those interventions, maybe we should ask how we got here in the first place.
First, food got cheaper while, on average, we’ve been generally getting richer. In particular, if America is anything to go by, we spent less as a proportion of income on meat and dairy products – surprisingly, spending on fruit and veg has been pretty constant – and more on processed foods and sweets. In other words, we bought convenience with the money we were saving.
Changes in US grocery spending from 1982 to 2012.
(Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Credit: Lam Thuy Vo / NPR)
Second, suppliers and retailers realised that as food got cheaper, the way to make money was to ‘add value’ – in other words, take basic ingredients and make them more convenient, more ‘fun’, more ‘premium’ or to appeal to some other psychological need. Yes, food manufacturers are as capable of bullshitting as anybody else with something to sell.
One of the other ways that suppliers add value is to make ‘healthy’ products. But who set up those health claims in the first place? It was the media, the medical profession and, most of all, governments. Who said we should be stuffing our faces with fruit to get our ‘five a day’? Who suggested that we get more omega-3s? Who said we should aim to eat low-fat diets? All of these ideas got the big official stamp of approval. And in the spirit of convenience, the food industry has made it easy, for better or for worse, to meet these official goals.
When Freedhoff claims that the McDonalds fruit drink Fruitizz is unhealthy, he should recognise that it is just fruit juice and fizzy water. Fruit and fruit juice are naturally very sweet. Yet drinking juice has got the government’s seal of approval. Even whole, 100 grams of raw apple contains, according to the US Department of Agriculture Nutrient Database, 85 per cent water and 52 calories. Given that the small amount of fibre won’t be digested, pretty much all of the digestible calories will come from… sugar. It might be ‘natural’ fruit sugar, but it’s still sugar (and it will still rot your teeth if you eat enough of it). If sugar is the problem, why tell people to feed their kids apples? And the apples are pretty light on vitamins, too. McDonalds french fries would be a better choice, pound for pound, if the aim was to get vitamin C. Dried fruit, like currants or raisins, has 60 per cent sugar or more – not so different to those SunRype Fun Bites.
Moreover, what about the wild claims made for organic food? It has a completely spurious image as natural and wholesome, but study after study finds no consistent difference between organic foods and conventional foods – apart from the price. Yet it is often the most vociferously anti-Big Food campaigners, bloggers and ‘experts’ who push organic as the healthy alternative.
And then there’s the multi-billion dollar weight-loss industry, which claims it can reverse the expansion of our waistlines and save us from an obesity-related early death, but whose track record at making and keeping us slim is frankly uninspiring.
Rather than endless calls for regulations, bans and taxes – whose efficacy is doubtful but whose effect on personal autonomy would be substantial – it would be far better to recognise that any diet with some modicum of balance will be fine for most people, who will live to a greater age than their parents or grandparents, on average, no matter how much disapproved food they consume. Claims that any particular food is some dietary panacea should be treated with a large, metaphorical pinch of salt, whoever makes them, whether they are an evil mega corporation or the bloke behind the counter at the health-food shop.
Above all, a similarly healthy scepticism should be applied to crusading medics who want to scare us with the idea that Big Food is out to kill us and who encourage politicians to regulate what we eat.