How the Food Industry Influences What We Eat


I have a friend who refers to the Standard American Diet by the acronym SAD.

This is an apt description indeed. Think about it. We have more colorfully packaged choices on the shelves of our supermarkets, more new flavors of cereal, crackers, and chips than we know what to do with, more fortified, functional foods than ever. Yet, as a nation, we get sicker every year. Diet related diseases are epidemic, especially among young people. In fact, children today are the first generation expected to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. And it’s all related to our SAD. With all of our medical knowledge and wealth, how did this come to pass?

According to Marion Nestle, Professor and Chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at NYU and author of the classic book, Food Politics, the problem is that our heavily subsidized, highly efficient food industry produces too many calories – twice as many as we need. Because of this surplus, food companies must work hard to get us to EAT MORE. Hence the millions of dollars in advertising spent every year to get us to Supersize It.

Though Food Politics was published back in 2002, it’s just as relevant today. Besides advertising, the Food Industry influences our diets in many ways that most of us are not even aware of.

1. Food industry lobbyists influence USDA’s food guidelines.

Chapter 2 of Food Politics provides readers with an instructive history of the development of the USDA Food Pyramid and how food industry lobbyists influenced the final product. For example, meat and dairy producers did not like the implication inherent in the pyramid design that some foods were better than others. They preferred a design that presented each food group as visually equal. The food industry spent over a year fighting the design and wording. In the end, the pyramid won out, but the meat and dairy industries succeeded in getting many minor changes made. The biggest change was that, instead of recommending a straight number of servings (2-3), the wording was changed to “at least 2-3 servings” to encourage people to eat more.

2. Food industry sponsorships

The food industry regularly sponsors research studies, nutritional journals and conferences, and sometimes, entire university departments. How much does this corporate money influence the findings and recommendations of research? Surveys cited in Food Politics show that researchers often have financial or professional ties to the companies they are researching, which certainly creates the impression of bias. And when food companies use the findings of a study in its advertising, as a way to sell more product, the appearance of bias is even harder to ignore. Also, when a corporation has an exclusive partnership with a university research department, as is becoming more common, there is a very real concern that these partnerships will interfere with academic freedom.

3. Endorsements and labeling rackets

When professional societies develop partnerships with food companies in order to provide nutritional information to consumers or develop labeling schemes for certain foods, the net outcome is not always good for consumers. Food Politics offers many examples of this phenomenon, including one in which the American Heart Association charged food companies enormous fees to be a part of its Heart Check labeling program. The program resulted in the labeling of foods like pop-tarts as heart healthy. Such labeling schemes that isolate one aspect of a food product, such as cholesterol, while ignoring sugar content and other less healthy aspects of the food in question, only confuse consumers. The program was eventually discontinued and fees returned.

4. Revolving doors

When industry executives get jobs in government things tend to go the way industry wants them to. This happens in every sector (think banking!) and the food industry is not an exception. Two recent examples of revolving door appointees in the Obama administration include Dr. Islam Siddiqui, chief agricultural negotiator and former lobbyist and vice president for science and regulatory affairs at CropLife America, a US trade association representing the major manufacturers, formulators and distributors of crop protection and pest control products. In September Catherine Woteki was named Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics at the USDA. Previously she served as global director of scientific affairs for Mars, Inc., where she managed the company’s scientific policy and research on matters of health, nutrition, and food safety.

5. PR

Remember the Smart Choices labeling scheme, an industry-driven label designed to make consumers think that Froot Loops are healthy? An earlier example given in Food Politics is that of Nestle’s efforts to convince women in developing countries that formula is better for babies than breast milk. When its reputation in the US suffered as a result of these efforts, the company hired a well-known PR firm to help it out of the mess. The book includes a chart that outlines the company’s actions including issuing opinion papers on the subject, sponsoring conferences, and urging journalists to write favorable articles on the subject of formula feeding.

6. Lawsuits against critics

Remember Oprah vs. The National Cattleman’s Association? Have you heard of the veggie libel laws that exist in 13 states? The prospect of an expensive lawsuit can really have a chilling effect on anyone considering speaking out against a specific food or production practice.

7. Marketing to children and in schools

Not only do packaged and fast food companies spend millions to target children through advertising on television, in magazines, on the Internet, through movie product placements, and toy campaigns, they also have an incredible grip on the visual space inside schools. Food Politics outlines how companies use advertisements in hallways, on buses, and in teaching materials to reach children. And also how club and sports teams sponsorships, contests, school meal programs, and “pouring rights” contracts get company logos and products in front of children. If you don’t know what a pouring rights contract is, it’s a program in which a packaged good or soft drink company gives cash-strapped schools money for sports and other programs in exchange for an exclusive right to sell their products in the school.

I caught up with Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, over email and asked her a couple of questions about the current landscape of food politics.

Q: How have things changed for better or worse since you wrote Food Politics?

A: “The Food Movement!  When I wrote the first edition of Food Politics, all people talked about was personal responsibility. Now just about everyone understands that the food environment discourages healthful eating.”

Q: What do you think of the USDA and FDA under the Obama administration?

A: “The USDA has a complicated job. Historically it has favored industrial agriculture. That has not changed, but Vilsack has introduced new initiatives that favor organic and local producers. That’s a start. USDA’s work is governed by the Farm Bill and advocates for sustainable agriculture need to start working now to get that bill to do a better job.”

Q: What is the biggest hot button issue emerging today in food politics?

A: “It depends on what concerns you, I suppose. Mine is election campaign laws, the root of corruption in our political system.”

To keep up on developments in food politics, check in on Marion’s blog.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: Ben McLeod

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.