Opinion: Appeasing Food Industry May Be 'Greatest Failure' In Obesity Fight

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"When the history of the world's attempt to address obesity is written, the greatest failure may be collaboration with and appeasement of the food industry," he writes.

Brownell, who heads the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, cites the frankly embarrassing "baby steps" public health officials have embraced — all those public–private partnerships, “healthy eating” campaigns, and corporate social responsibility initiatives, for instance — with very little in improved health measures to show for it all. At the same time, he noted, the food industry continues to "fight viciously against meaningful change."

Companies boast of introducing healthier options, and at least one report cites this as evidence that market forces (e.g., consumer demand for better foods) will be the best motivator for companies to change. But introducing healthier processed foods does not mean unhealthy foods will be supplanted, and might simply represent the addition of more calories to the food supply. Furthermore, the companies have not promised to sell less junk food. Quite the contrary; they now offer ever larger burgers and portions, introduce ever more categories of sugared beverages (sports drinks, energy drinks, and vitamin waters), find ever more creative ways of marketing foods to vulnerable populations (e.g., children), and increasingly engage in promotion of unhealthy foods in developing countries.

The food industry, like all industries, plays by certain rules—it must defend its core practices against all threats, produce short-term earnings, and in do doing, sell more food. If it distorts science, creates front groups to do its bidding, compromises scientists, professional organizations, and community groups with contributions, blocks needed public health policies in the service of their goals, or engages in other tactics in “the corporate playbook” this is what is takes to protect business as usual.

The piece, part of a special Big Food issue of the journal PLoS Medicine, concludes with a call for greater oversight of the industry's attempt to engineer "hyperpalatable" foods that makes us crave more while undermining our biological ability to regulate intake:

An emerging area in need of scrutiny is the food industry's attempts to create foods engineered in ways that thwart the human body's ability to regulate calorie intake and weight. Whether overconsumption is a consequence simply of hyperpalatability brought about by extreme processing [15] and/or an addictive process [20],[21], overconsumption is a predictable consequence of the current food environment. The arresting reality is that companies must sell less food if the population is to lose weight, and this pits the fundamental purpose of the food industry against public health goals.

This program aired on July 5, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Rachel Zimmerman Twitter Health Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for Bostonomix.