Processed convenience foods are sickening people at unprecedented rates, so a team of public health experts from around the world recently called out the food industry for its role in causing a global outbreak of non-communicable diseases like obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. The report appeared in the medical journal The Lancet.
Taking tobacco and alcohol deaths out of the equation, ultraprocessed foods and drinks fuel chronic diseases and are a major driver behind the 18 million annual deaths attributed to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity—hallmark conditions of a diet centered around processed food and drinks.
#1: Manufacturing Doubt
Transnational food manufacturers fund research that's more likely to cancel out independent scientists' negative health findings. These are moves straight from the tobacco industry's playbook: Tobacco giant Philip Morris International hired doctors to publish ghost-written studies negating the links between secondhand smoke and health problems.
A 2007 analysis published in PLoS Medicine found that studies funded by food and drink corporations were four to eight times more likely to have results favorable to the company.
#2: Forming Misleading Partnerships
To appear to be doing something about current obesity and disease problems, food companies enter partnerships with scientists and lay out their own rules for better health, undermining the findings and recommendations of scientists and doctors who aren't funded by industry and actually have the greater public interest in mind. These partnerships, such as the one recently announced between food giant Nestlé and the International Diabetes Federation, are not proven to work. In fact, critics say partnerships between food companies and government or health organizations can "lead to procrastination and delay—a standard industry tactic to avoid regulation."
#3: "Reformulating" Products
Once the science is irrefutable—for instance, statistics that prove that industrial trans fats are harmful—companies often reformulate their products and market the "trans-fat free" versions as healthier. The problem? The food may not have trans fats, but it likely harbors other questionable ingredients and remains a nutritional dud.
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#4: Only Looking on the Bright Side
Food companies prey on lower- and middle-income working families, people too busy to cook or spend a lot of time analyzing ingredients lists. Ultraprocessed foods and drinks generally are calorie dense, dangerously spike your blood sugar, and contain few micronutrients, naturally occurring fiber, or whole food ingredients. Still, you'd never guess that looking at their ads and labeling. Front-of-package labeling focuses on things like "whole grains" or "low-fat" content.
What you won't see prominently on the package? Warnings about toxic food-packaging ingredients that leech into the food or cancer-causing food additives.
#5: Funding Politicians
Pro-business politicians help keep the junk-food industry loosely regulated around health concerns. According to the Lancet report, PepsiCo shelled out $9 million to lobby Congress in 2009. Its political action committee, Concerned Citizen Fund, contributed nearly $500,000 to pro-business candidates during the 2008 election cycle.
#6: Focusing on Off-Topic Causes
Huge food companies adopt causes that, although worthy, distract from the main issue at hand: their production of high-profit, low-nutrient foods that are responsible for deadly chronic disease epidemics around the world. Makers of junk food and drinks focus on physical inactivity instead of identifying their products as a main player in the obesity crisis. In much the same way, note the authors of the Lancet report, tobacco companies campaign for the prevention of violence against women instead of focusing on female lung cancer deaths.
#7: Blaming the Victim
Political movements opposing taxes and regulation work well for the ultraprocessed food and drink industry. In this way, the food industry again borrows from the tobacco industry's playbook. Cigarette companies promote personal responsibility and the right to smoke. "Similarly, blame-the-victim campaigns by transnational food corporations reduce public support for government interventions," the Lancet authors write.
Interestingly, giant food corporations don't want you to have a right to know what you're eating. International food companies vehemently oppose the stringent labeling of genetically engineered ingredients, for instance. They also regularly sneak hunger-inducing ingredients into "natural" foods that result in chronic hunger, overeating, and even addiction. In 2005, Princeton researchers found that eating sugar triggers the release of opioids, neurotransmitters that light up your brain's pleasure center much as morphine and heroin do. Sugar withdrawal leaves some with chattering teeth, anxiety, and depression. Thanks, food industry!
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