Issue 28 / 23 July 2012

THE influence exerted by pharmaceutical companies — often called Big Pharma — gets plenty of publicity. But what about the power exerted by the large food corporations?

In the first in a series of articles on the food and beverage industry and health — Big Food — in PLoS Medicine, the authors start with the observation that the current global food system is virtually broken.

The figures are appalling: about a billion people go to bed hungry every night while another two billion are overweight. And why has this occurred? Because the world’s food system is now designed to maximise profit for those who rule over it — Big Food.

Once a competitive marketplace of small producers, the global food system is now driven by dominant players with massive market power.

In the US, the 10 largest food companies control more than half of all food sales. In Australia, the aggressive and politically powerful Food and Grocery Council represents just 10% of food companies, but more than 80% of the dollar value of foods.

Big Food now calls the shots, moving food consumption from traditional simple diets to highly processed — and more profitable — products. Within Australia, Big Food has coopted governments of all persuasions to push for greater export of processed foods to Asian countries. This work in progress is having the obvious effect of increasing obesity, type 2 diabetes and other Western diseases in these countries.

Problems with what Australians eat became apparent last week with the release of Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports on Australia’s food and nutrition, showing that more than nine in 10 people aged 16 years and over do not consume sufficient serves of vegetables.

Although Big Food companies and their supporters correctly claim that food is not tobacco, following the lead of that industry is all too common. So Big Food opposes any increased taxes on processed foods and drinks and fights any proposed regulation that might impinge on sales.

We have all heard the “nanny state” cries, the claims that “public health moves will cost jobs”, witnessed the fight against any effective restriction on marketing junk foods to children, the push for relaxed laws regarding health claims on food packaging, and the emphasis the industry places on individual responsibility in food choice. However, that doesn’t extend to giving shoppers information about trans fats or the quantity of added sugar in the ingredient list on food labels. According to Big Food, no one needs to know such information.

The PLoS Medicine article is critical of those who believe they can improve the food supply through partnerships with Big Food. Conflicts of interest will always occur and professional groups will not risk upsetting their food industry partners.

Big Food pays lip-service to wanting to be part of the solution, but improving health would entail moving away from the highly processed, unhealthy foods that are the most profitable in its armoury.

“Value padding” is the name of the game. You can spot it easily in the breakfast cereal aisle. A handful of basic nutritious grains have been turned into several hundred products, processed to blandness, then flavoured with sugar and salt and “fortified” with some of the nutrients destroyed by the processing.

The more highly processed the product and the more sugar it contains (which is usually cheaper than the cereal it replaces), the higher the cost.

Check out the humble oats. Australian oats sells for around $1.20 for 750 g, or about 12c/serve. Big Food replaces 20% of the original grain with highly processed wheat starch or sugar, adds inulin (a fibre derived from chicory), tacks on some (undeserved) health claims and increases the price 500%. The healthier — but less profitable — option would have been to leave the original product alone.

What about industry support for research? Sadly, studies funded by industry are 4–8 times more likely to support conclusions that favour the industry.

The answer? Unless there is direct and concerted action to expose and regulate the vested interests of Big Food, the authors of the PLoS Medicine article say epidemics of poverty, hunger, and obesity are likely to become more acute. It’s a convincing argument.

Dr Rosemary Stanton OAM is a nutritionist.


Posted 23 July 2012

12 thoughts on “Rosemary Stanton: Big Food gluttony

  1. Guy Hibbins says:

    To say that dieticians achieve nothing in relation to obesity is like an uncontrolled experiment. What would obesity rates be without dieticians and healthy eating campaigns?
    Thoracic surgeons have been quite active in anti-smoking campaigns and dieticians have been active in healthy eating campaigns. They are not the only influences in society, however, and cannot really be blamed for societal behaviour.

  2. Sue Ieraci says:

    Michael Romm – aren’t you selling a purgative for weight loss? (or have I got you confused with another Michael Romm?). I suggest you have alsolutely no basis for your contention that the population of nutritional professionals in Australia have had no impact on individual outcomes – how have you measured this? What would health outcomes be like if they did not exist? Dieticians and nutritionists are not “life coaches” – they consult with people who need help in the context of conditions like newly-diagnosed diabetes. (And perhaps on nutritional deficiency in people who use purgative to lose weight.)

  3. Michael Romm says:

    Sue, my point is this – nobody is forcing people to eat unhealthy. The food industry is not making anyone do anything against their will. By and large, most people know what a healthy diet is, and that they should be exercising regularly. The fact that they choose not to do this is a poor reflection on the very industry who are supposed to educate them and support them. (I’m only joking here, but why doesn’t anyone suggest regulating individuals’ food intake – this is where the actual problem is.)
    Guy – I’m wondering whether you’ve mixed up cause and effect. Thoracic surgeons don’t exist to prevent cancer, just to address it post facto. On the other hand, dietitians and nutritionists charge handsomely for providing advice and support which appears to be completely ignored. If so, then why do we need them? I’m not saying they cause obesity, but they certainly don’t prevent it. It appears that the efforts of the entire industry have achieved exactly nothing.

  4. Sue Ieraci says:

    Michael Romm – are you suggesting that those 5,000 dieticians are responsible for the food intake of 20 million Australians? So, each dietician needs to personally control the entire food intake of 4,000 people? Have you analysed the “Australian Paradox” paper? What did you think of the methodology and conclusions?

  5. Guy Hibbins says:

    I think that blaming dieticians for obesity is a bit like blaming thoracic surgeons for lung cancer. If public health authorities had billion dollar budgets to spend on healthy eating promotions, then maybe that would would make a difference. This is hardly likely to happen, so the advertising is likely to be one-sided in favour of unhealthy food promotion.
    A recent Australian literature review, Which Interventions Offer Best Value for Money in Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease?” published in PLoS ONE concluded that lifestyle interventions aiming to change risky dietary and exercise behaviours are extremely poor value for money and have little population health benefit.
    However, the review concluded that the most cost effective measure would be regulation mandating less salt in processed foods. This is hardly a revolutionary concept, but it is likely to be resisted by industry.

  6. Michael Romm says:

    Rosemary, I’m going to play devil’s advocate. It’s always nice to blame BIG industry, but hasn’t Australia marched to the top of the obesity charts while under the care of 5,000 professional dietitians, 20,000 GPs and countless advisory bodies? They are all paid well to work full time and do their job, so what went wrong? As a former colleague of mine was fond of saying – “why do we need you, then?”
    And furthermore, when you look at the scientific evidence, there is one paper which found that sugar consumption has actually gone down over the last 20 years while obesity has risen (“the Australia paradox” Are you suggesting that dietitians have failed and the government must step in with heavy regulation? What do you propose all the dietitians would do if they are no longer required?

  7. Guy Hibbins says:

    The former FDA Head and Dean of the Yale and UCSF medical schools, David Kessler argues in his book, The End of Overeating, that within Big Food there is a concept called the industry compass, which has three points, fat sugar and salt.

    These are combined in unnaturally high amounts in certain known ratios in order to design foods which are intended to maximise consumption. These (junk) foods are then taste tested and the most successful are mass marketed.

    Kessler states that according to logistic regression analysis by the US National Institutes of Health, most of the US obesity epidemic of the past 30 years can be traced back to overconsumption of these foods.

  8. john porritt says:

    You’re absolutely right, but don’t you see, governments will allow people to become obese and to die earlier which will save great costs for home care, hospital treatments and age and disability pensions. Same principle as when the major powers in the 2000s agreed quietly to leave starving Africans to die out quietly rather than institute governmental rescue procedures.

  9. Ken says:

    It’s also ironic that Big Food is pressuring FSANZ to going down the same path that the TGA took with complementary medicines; no pre-market assessment of claims, minimal post-marketing surveillance and a complaint and regulatory system with no teeth: the end result – a market flooded with shonky products! See:

  10. Anne says:

    Thank you for this, Rosemary. It ties in with the Foreign Correspondent program earlier in the week. I am a dietitian and I despair at the lack of real foods in people’s diet. I am also very worried about Big Food sponsorship of our professional association and of so much of the nutritional research done by my profession including the CSIRO.

  11. Janet says:

    Thank you for your excellent expose of the Big Food industry in this Review.
    I am constantly intrigued by the ‘specials’ in our supermarkets – nearly always the high sugar/high fat products. No wonder we grow fatter as a nation!

  12. Donald says:

    Thank you for this great review, Rosemary. I wonder if the Federal government will adopt a goal to increase the quality of our food by encouraging organic farming policies similar to the extent that Germany is doing? Note that the costs to the government would be minimal. .

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