Food politics is always controversial, and it exists because there’s a clear separation between profitable food and public health.
Our food is supposed to sustain our health, but big corporations are always seeking greater profits. By selling the cheapest possible food for the highest possible price, they make their money. At the same time, people who regularly eat this ultra-processed food lose their health.
Rather than admit the food they sell is unhealthy, commercial food corporations use their massive wealth to promote it as healthy.
As part of these food lies, they lobby to the government and spend huge sums on public advertising. All this is to convince us that their factory-made food is healthy.
In shocking examples of food lies and politics, this article will look at five unethical events that jeopardized (or are currently compromising) public health.
#1 Dietitians Taking Money From Coca-Cola to Oppose a Soda Tax
A flurry of activity on Twitter drew suspicion in early October 2016. Many dietitians suddenly, and in tandem, started tweeting against a soda tax. Included in these tweets were clear examples of fear-mongering, attempting to persuade their followers that a soda tax will push up the overall price of groceries.
Several newspapers and media sources broke stories about it early. Under pressure, coca-cola admitted that they had been funding dietitians and released the list of names. Unsurprisingly, the dietitians who spoke out against a soda tax had all received financial compensation from the soda giant for doing so.
The question to ask is this: what place does the promotion of sugar have in public health? Dietitians are the ‘official source’ for dietary advice, yet they promote an ingredient that destroys health.
Of course, there are many great dietitians out there, and I don’t want to paint all with the same brush. However, why are some dietitians (health advisors) even able to take money from companies who make ultra-processed food?
Isn’t that a conflict of interest in itself?
#2 Healthy Professionals Taking Money to Promote Coca-Cola
Interestingly, a very similar thing happened in 2015. Coca-cola were caught paying nutrition professionals (mainly dietitians again) to pen nutrition articles in the media. If you’re wondering what these articles regarded, then the answer is “how coca-cola mini cans are a healthy drink”.
When the information became public, Coca-Cola apologized and said they would aim for greater transparency in the future. It seems like they haven’t quite got there yet?
#3 Food Lies, Labels and Unknown Animals
It’s important to realize that food labels can be wildly incorrect. Whenever you buy refined, packaged food with a list of ingredients you never truly know what you’re getting.
The primary example I want to talk about here is burgers. Burgers obviously come in different scales of quality, ranging from 100% beef to a big list of unpronounceable ingredients.
However, 100% beef doesn’t sound too bad right?
Well, thousands of Europeans probably thought the very same thing when they bought their burgers from a range of stores and fast food joints. The only problem was that these burgers were not 100% beef at all, and instead, they were a random mixture of horse meat and beef.
Among the stores selling “100% beef burgers” (made of horse meat) were the British retail giant Tesco and Burger King.
However, at first, Burger King gave their “absolute assurance” that their products were in no way involved. A few weeks later they had to backtrack on their position after tests revealed horse DNA in their burgers. In an apology, Burger King stated they were “deeply troubled by the findings.”
Probably not as troubled as the people who ate horse meat after receiving “absolute assurance” it was beef.
#4 Margarine is ‘Heart Healthy’
Study after study shows that saturated fat isn’t truly a dietary villain.
Despite this, big food spends huge sums of money to promote their “low in saturated fat” products.
In reality, any product that claims to be low in saturated fat is most likely bad for you. Additionally, it probably contains a huge load of refined carbohydrates, sugar and vegetable oil.
The reason for this is likely the profits involved. Margarine and vegetable oils can be made entirely from machinery; it’s an automated process, cheap to produce, and sold for a large profit.
The fact that it’s bad for us is a threat to these profits, and so the industry uses advertising funds to convince us that it’s healthy.
Sure, it’s morally and ethically wrong, but for the companies involved it makes sense for business.
An obvious example of this is Australia’s ‘health star’ system. The general idea of this scheme is to rate a food based on its health properties, with ratings on a 5-star score system.
How does butter score? 0.5 stars. As for margarine, it gets five health stars!
So, they are telling us that butter, made naturally from cream, is a terribly unhealthy product.
At the same time, they are telling us that solidified vegetable oil that is chemically flavored (to hide the terrible taste) and chemically colored (to make it look yellow instead of gray) is a perfect example of a health food.
The truth is that margarine, as well as vegetable oils in general, are damaging to our health.
As for butter, there’s nothing to fear about healthy fats.
#5 The Myth of a Balanced Diet
“<insert any junk food> is healthy as part of a balanced diet.”
This kind of promotion is pretty much the slogan of every company that produces ultra-processed food.
In addition, health authorities (commonly sponsored by the food companies) repeat the balanced diet mantra.
The simple truth is this: an unhealthy food in moderation is moderately harmful.
Unfortunately, this truth isn’t very profitable, and that’s why the ‘balanced diet’ myth persists.
There’s no problem with someone enjoying unhealthy food from time to time if that’s what they want.
But enough of these food lies; it’s about time the food industry were honest about their products rather than purposefully trying to mislead people.
If you are interested in food politics, then here are some great books that cover food politics and big industry.