This Scientific American Guest Blog post, Dear Consumers, Please Don’t Start Eating Healthfully. Sincerely, the Food Industry got a lot of attention. At the time of its publishing, it was the highest-trafficked article of all time across the Scientific American network. It was also the 2013 blog of the year. Below I’ve also included a response to some of the comments from on the original post, addressing ways we can encourage more people to think about their health without alienating them.
A disturbing trend has come to our attention. You, the people, are thinking more about health, and you’re starting to do something about it. This cannot continue.
Sure, there’s always been talk of health in America. We often encourage it. The thing is, we only want you to think about and talk about health in a certain way—equating health with how you look, instead of outcomes like quality of life and reduced disease risk. Your superficial understanding of health has a great influence over your purchasing decisions, and we’re ready for it, whether you choose to go low-calorie, low-fat, gluten-free or inevitably give up and accept the fact that you can’t resist our Little Debbie snacks, potato chips and ice cream novelties.
Whatever the current health trend, we respond by developing and marketing new products. We can also show you how great some of our current products are and always have been. For example, when things were not looking so good for fat, our friends at Welch’s were able to point out that their chewy fruit snacks were a fat free option. Low fat! Healthy! Then the tide turned against carbohydrates. Our friends in meat and dairy were happy to show that their steaks, meats and cheeses were low-carb choices. Low carbs! Healthy!
But we’re getting uneasy.
In 2009, Congress commissioned the Inter-agency Working Group (IWG) to develop standards for advertising foods to children. The IWG included the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Congress identified these organizations as having “expertise and experience in child nutrition, child health, psychology, education, marketing and other fields relevant to food and beverage marketing and child nutrition standards.”
We were dismayed when the IWG released its report in 2011. The guidelines said that foods advertised to children must provide “a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet.” For example, any food marketed to children must “contain at least 50% by weight one or more of the following: fruit; vegetable; whole grain; fat-free or low-fat milk or yogurt; fish; extra lean meat or poultry; eggs; nuts and seeds; or beans.”
This report was potentially devastating. These organizations, experts in nutrition, were officially outlining what constituted “a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet.” Thankfully, we have a ton of money and were able to use it to get the IWG to withdraw the guidelines.
In a public comment, our friends at General Mills pointed out that under the IWG guidelines, the most commonly consumed foods in the US would be considered unhealthy. Specifically, according to General Mills, “of the 100 most commonly consumed foods and beverages in America, 88 would fail the IWG’s proposed standards.” So you see? If you people start eating the way the nutrition experts at the CDC and USDA recommend that you eat, that would delegitimize almost 90 percent of the products we produce! Do you realize how much money that would cost us?
According to the General Mills letter, if everyone in the US started eating healthfully, it would cost us $503 billion per year! That might affect our ability to pay CEOs like General Mills’ Ken Powell annual compensations of more than $12 million.
But revamping the food environment will also cost you money. The General Mills letter stated “a shift by the average American to the IWG diet would conservatively increase the individual’s annual food spending by $1,632.” Sure, we’ve heard talk about costs to the individual that arise from being obese. One 2010 paper from the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Service estimated that the annual costs to an individual for being obese can be upwards of $8,000. We like to think of this as a small price to pay for consumer freedom.
Of course, we don’t necessarily want you to be unhealthy. It’s just that it’s so much more profitable to provide foods that happen to be unhealthy. We’ve been able to industrialize the food system so that we can produce massive amounts of the cheapest ingredients available, in the cheapest, most efficient way possible.
On top of that, we understand human biology. Humans evolved in situations in which food was scarce. This led to an evolutionary adaptation that causes you to crave salty, sugary and fatty foods. Consuming foods with these characteristics actually lights up the same pleasure centers in the brain as cocaine. Who wouldn’t play upon that biological craving to increase profits? If one company didn’t, their competitors would, so we all kind of have to do it.
We are also able to provide you with perceived value. Because it doesn’t cost us that much more to make a soda, say, 42 ounces instead of 22, we can almost double the size of a beverage and only charge you 20 percent more . How could you resist a deal like that? You can’t. Trust us, we know.
So you see, dear consumer, everything is fine. We’ve got a good thing going here. There’s no need for you to start worrying about the industrial food system. If you do start thinking about your weight, check out our line of Healthy Choice frozen meals. If that doesn’t work, our friends over in the pharmaceutical industry, the health and fitness industry and the healthcare industry will be happy to help you to continue to fulfill your role as an American Consumer.
Response to “Dear Consumers” Comments:
Thanks for the conversation this has generated, both here, on Twitter, on my website, and all over the web. Pretty overwhelming.
I want to address something that I think is really important, but first let me get a couple other things out of the way.
First, AvangionQ brought up a legitimate concern, asking if there was any evidence of bribery to public officials. This commenter was referring to this passage:
“Thankfully, we have a ton of money and were able to use it to get the IWG to withdraw the guidelines.”
I haven’t heard of any illegal bribes, but most corporations these days have no need for bribes, since they have at their disposal a well-funded army of lobbyists.
Marion Nestle pointed reported in a 2011 post that there was more than $37 million spent by companies lobbying against federal attempts to set nutritional standards for foods marketed to children. Of that, General Mills contributed $660,000.
So I suppose no bribery per se, but call it what you want.
Here’s a link to the Nestle post:
Second, a number of readers object to Scientific American posting this obviously opinionated piece. Keep in mind this work was posted on the Guest Blog, and I refer you to its description on the website:
“The editors of Scientific American regularly encounter perspectives on science and technology that we believe our readers would find thought-provoking, fascinating, debatable and challenging. The guest blog is a forum for such opinions. The views expressed belong to the author and are not necessarily shared by Scientific American.”
There you go.
Third, there’s a lot of the inevitable “Keep-your-nanny-state-away-from-my-food-I-eat-what-I-want-It’s-the-parents-fault-stop-blaming-businesses-for-people-who-make-bad-decisions-stop-trying-to-take-away-freedon-of-choice” comments.
Opponents of public health efforts often claim that the reasons that the “nanny state technocrats”, or “bureaucrats” (or other bad names), try to implement policy-level health initiatives is because they LOVE telling us normal Americans what to do, and that they hate freedom, and they think that they know better than everyone else.
Those claims are absurd, but they are to be expected anytime any government action is discussed on the Internet, especially involving the topic of food. I would like to remind the readers that in this case, the government action was simply recommendations for SELF-regulation. The IWG’s guidelines were not taking away anyone’s freedom. Those who post such comments are not going to have their minds changed by anything that I write here, so I’ll just leave it at this reminder: In spite of government’s very real problems, by its very nature, it is not out to get you. It is specifically working (however often poorly) FOR YOU. However, by their very nature, businesses are NOT working for you. They are working expressly for the bottom line. Often this results in great things for the public. But often this also results in terrible things for the public. When that happens, we as a democratic people need to step in and limit those harms. The government is our tool for doing this. It may be unwieldy. It might be slow. But it’s ours.
Ok, now to the thing I really wanted to get at.
There were many commenters and tweeters who gave this piece a great reception. I’m blown away by the response and the support and I thank you for it.
However, as awful as some of the actions of the food industry are, I think it’s important to take a measured, thoughtful, and sometimes even unemotional approach to these issues.
The more we say the that food industry “sucks,” that they’re “criminals,” that they produce “poison,” then the more we turn off the average Joe who wants to enjoy his cheeseburger and fries in peace without having those health freaks trying to shove broccoli down his throat. And how can you blame him? We’re building fences when we should be opening gates and inviting people into the garden.
I agree with a lot of what you say, but keep in mind, in the system we’ve set up, the actions of the food and industry are not necessarily “criminal.” That doesn’t mean those actions aren’t wrong. We can demand better, but we have to remind ourselves that just as a population responds to overabundance by over-consuming, a business will respond to a consumer desire by meeting it and encouraging it. We have to understand WHY corporations push fatty, sugary foods. Are they intentionally trying to make us unhealthy for the sake of making us unhealthy? No. Are they negligent? Probably. Are they responding naturally to their environment? Absolutely.
We have to help change that consumer environment that the food industry is responding to, just as they have changed the food environment that consumers are responding to. In order to do that, we need Joe with his burger and fries, and we’re not going to win him over by drawing a line in the sand. I don’t necessarily have an answer about how to win those folks over, but we can start by not alienating them.
Thanks so much for the conversation, and keep supporting change in the way we talk about and pursue health!