Junkfood Science: The devil’s in the details — obesity, health and food fears as marketing tools

June 06, 2007

The devil’s in the details — obesity, health and food fears as marketing tools

Whenever we are inundated by media giving us only one storyline — especially when it plays on our fears and emotions, and makes claims that are insupportable by the best scientific evidence — we can be pretty sure there is something afoot. We are being sold something. But to figure out what that something is, we need all of our critical thinking skills.

The roots of this story turned out to have nothing to do with what was being reported.

It wasn’t actually about helping the poor, the hungry, the elderly, or school children have greater access to healthy, affordable foods they need; and it had nothing to do with solving the obesity epidemic. Delving into the details, it turned out to be selling a massive set of government legislations and regulations to transfer millions of dollars to a select group of special interests — one that represents 0.5% of the nation’s food producers. This startling discovery once again highlighted that media is marketing and in this case, 99.5% of the media coverage has been busy giving us 0.5% of the story....

We’ve been saturated lately with alarming news about how badly we’re all eating and the unhealthfulness, dangers and injustices of the foods produced by our nation’s food producers. “The cheapest calories are ridden with fat and sugars, meat and dairy products” — all foods, we’re told, that are making us fat and diseased. Our children, elderly and poor have no access to healthy foods and it’s led to rampant obesity among them. The sheer magnitude and frenzy of these stories has been building for years, calling us a “fat food nation.” According to California chef activist, Ann Cooper:

Food makes us sick. Food makes kids sick....And it’s causing obesity, the second cause of preventable death in America. Shame on us....We’re in the middle of an obesity pandemic. We have a public health timebomb. We’re eating ourselves to death. We are feeding ourselves to death....It doesn't take much nutritional deprivation to retard a child's developmental growth, and nutritional problems that affect the young can last throughout their lives.

Since it’s popular to believe that fat people got that way by eating junk, and to fear and impugn modern food production, not a single mainstream reporter has thought to question if any of this is true or if this panic has anything to do with obesity or health. Before we do, here’s an example of the latest sensationalized news...

This week, Investor’s Business Daily reported that fat people are threatening our national financial security and the solvency of the Social Security system! A solution of healthy food is urgently needed, according to the news:

Overweight Americans To Weigh On Nation's Future Health Costs

Wary of tackling Social Security or Medicare reform, members of Congress are pitching a new prescription for the nation's coming fiscal woes: fresh fruit and exercise.... [P]oliticians and policy advocates are arguing that heavier Americans — not just older Americans — pose an urgent fiscal threat.... While there is speculation that obesity might slow or stop longevity gains, experts are much more sure of its link to disability. Higher disability rates are a double negative, driving up Social Security costs while shrinking the potential payroll-tax base.

A failure to address the obesity epidemic would “explode the federal budget," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said at the May 8-9 National Summit on Obesity Policy. Harkin outlined his legislative efforts to trim obesity rates. Much of the focus is on combating childhood obesity. The Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act...

Recent studies show that a focus on nutrition can pay off....A study from Tufts University published this month in the journal Obesity found that a communitywide effort to battle obesity in Somerville, Mass, also produced significant gains.

As we’ve covered here, the evidence for more than half a century has shown that obesity is not due to overeating bad food or sloth — neither explain obesity or the natural diversity in sizes; our diets aren’t nearly as bad as they’re being made out to be; the link between obesity and disability rates is creative fiction; and the massive Somerville experiment promoting fruits and vegetables and exercise could be more reasonably be called a failure. Perhaps, it shouldn’t surprise us, given their demonstrated math skills, that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation had funded the “Evaluation of the Somerville, MA, Active Living Partnership.” RWJF is also among the groups that has awarded grants to “educate state legislators and state leaders about healthy eating and active living issues.”

That’s just the opening to this story, however, as we continue to hear that healthy food is desperately needed to fight this epidemic:

Clinton seeks to directly connect farmers and consumers

Hillary Rodham Clinton has joined forces with fellow United States Sen. Sherrod Brown to introduce a new piece of legislation entitled Food Outreach and Opportunity Development for a Healthy America Act of 2007, otherwise known as FOOD. Clinton says the FOOD act was based on the idea that families need greater access to healthy food, such as fruits and vegetables...

Clinton added. “We need to change their attitudes about eating, but we can't do that unless we have a system.” Clinton and Brown both add that the obesity rate in children and diabetes, heart-disease, and other diet-related diseases in both children and adults are in part due to the lack of fresh food consumption. “There is an epidemic of obesity and young kids being diagnosed with Type Two Diabetes,” Clinton said. “This is a national concern and it affects our quality of life and health care costs.”...

“This is a good means of starting to provide effective programs to get fresh foods to people who don't have access to them now,” Clinton said. The new legislation will be brought by Clinton and Brown for introduction to the Senate. “I look forward to working with Brown to get this bill passed for our farmers and underserved communities,” Clinton said.

This legislation, which will also fund education “to teach children about healthy nutrition,” has the backing of a variety of groups, including the American Public Health Association. APHA is the largest trade organization of public health professionals, environmentalists, healthcare providers and policy makers. With a special focus on obesity, it’s been sponsored by RWJF to raise awareness of the obesity epidemic and conduct media programs on obesity and smoking; and partnered with Pfizer to award grants to focus attention on the obesity epidemic. [For skeptic readers: it also has a Special Primary Interest Group to promote alternative and complementary modalities.]

APHA Supports Legislation To Bring More Healthy Foods To Vulnerable Communities

The American Public Health Association announced its support for legislation introduced by U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown and Hillary Rodham Clinton to expand access to affordable healthy foods for at-risk populations, such as school children, low-income senior citizens and families living in underserved areas. “The Food Outreach and Opportunity Development (FOOD) for a Healthy America Act aims to counteract the increase in diet-related chronic illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease," said Georges C. Benjamin, MD, FACP, FACEP (Emeritus), executive director of the American Public Health Association. “Poor diets result in poorer health, shorter life spans and rising health costs. Individuals in lower-income neighborhoods may lack transportation to supermarkets that sell fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods, leading to higher levels of obesity, diseases and other health ailments."

Tracking down the FOOD for a Healthy America Act revealed that it’s the Senate version of a matching bill recently introduced in the House, called EAT Healthy America Act. These are part of the 2007 Farm Bill which is being written and coming up for a vote. This is a massive piece of legislation that will determine how $300 billion in taxpayer dollars will be spent over the next five years, as well as the policies for all aspects of our food and farm system (plus a slew of unrelated appropriations slipped in). The nutrition parts of the Farm Bill constitute the largest portion.

Much of the media attention over healthy eating and the scares about our food we've been hearing can be traced back to interests behind this Bill. That’s what’s been going on!

The APHA is just one of many organizations that has prioritized the 2007 Farm Bill Reauthorization. According to its promotional literature, the Bill not only includes nutritious school lunch programs, it increases research on nutrition; enhances the food stamp program and WIC to increase food security, and enables healthy eating to prevent obesity among low-income Americans.

But when I went to the Acts, they aren’t about helping poor families, children and elderly have greater access to the range of foods they need for good nutrition and optimal health, nor extending their limited food dollars and access to the most affordable food needed to reduce food insecurity.

Most Americans might wish they actually were addressing these issues, as these would be valuable endeavors. However, the solutions to these larger issues surrounding poverty are unlikely to be found simply in fruits and vegetables.

· Food insecurity continues to be a unconscionable growing problem in our country. Last Thanksgiving, we looked at the faces of hunger and saw that the health consequences of not having enough to eat are far-reaching. Last week, the latest government food insecurity report was released and found that the percentage of low-income households suffering “very low food security” (the new term for hunger), continues to increase, and reached 12.6% in 2005.

Yet, despite the media’s promotion of the stereotype that being poor means being fat and that they’re eating appreciably different foods from the rest of us; and that poor people most need more low-calorie, low-fat fruits and vegetables; that’s not necessarily so. [And of course, this isn't saying the poor don't also need produce like everyone, but that a range of quality foodstuffs is needed for nutrition.] For instance, while New Mexico’s Governor told the nation a few weeks ago that “we’ve tackled childhood obesity,” what wasn’t said is that this state is one of the poorest in the nation, and has the highest rates of hunger and food insecurity in the country. No poor, hungry person there would believe that higher-priced foods, and hence less, is to their benefit so they can look slim.

· In fact, low-calorie, low-fat produce isn’t the most pressing nutritional need for significant portions of our population. As we’ve seen, a notable percentage of our senior citizens are not getting enough calories, fats and proteins, and energy-dense foods and are suffering from poor nutritional status, according to NHANES and medical studies. The medically-documented consequences include delayed wound healing, increased risks of infection, damaged heart and intestinal functions, longer hospital stays and higher rates of complications and higher mortality rates, depression, apathy, functional decline, loss of muscle strength, falls and increased fractures.

While the belief proliferates that low-fat, low-calorie foods mean healthy eating, the evidence demonstrates that it is especially ill-advised and harmful for growing children and teens. Kids trying to “eat healthy” are coming up increasingly deficient in calories and vital nutrients needed for optimum growth and development, an are developing dysfunctional eating that leave them with life-long struggles with food. Far more young people are dying from anorexia than any are from being fat.

· And the claimed benefits of fresh produce, beyond the healthful variety needed for preventing deficiencies, exceed the scientific evidence. A recent examination of the evidence behind the soaring government-funded programs to promote fruits and vegetables, found no relationship between fruits and vegetables and mortality, obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease or with any major chronic disease.

But, most surprising, the Acts under the Farm Bill aren’t even about regular fruits and vegetables or increasing the availability of the safe, affordable and nutritious food grown by 99.5% of our nation’s farmers:

The Acts are about restricting access to foods produced by most American farm families and agribusiness, and subsidizing locally-grown, organic, specialty produce growers and mandating the purchase of billions of dollars of their products.

The nutrition and school lunch programs alone would be directed to spend a minimum of $3.4 billion in the purchase of only local, organic produce. Yet, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture data, only 0.5 percent of all U.S. cropland and pastures are certified organic. Public funds would be awarded to these products at levels that far exceed their 0.5 percent role in our food production.

Under the EAT Healthy America Act, a minimum of $2 billion over the next five years must be spent on nonessential organic specialty food crops, including fruits and vegetables; an additional minimum of $350 million for fresh specialty produce for distribution through the schools; $1 billion for specialty crop research grants; and $25 million to establish a National Clean Plant Network” for organic producers.

The Healthy Farms, Foods and Fuels Act is another part of the “larger, more comprehensive transformation of the U.S. farm policy needed in the 2007 Farm Bill,” according to Ralph Grossi, president of American Farmland Trust. This Act is devoted to “healthy food choices” and mandates the purchase of organic, local produce of at least $302.5 million for food stamp programs; $230 million each for WIC and senior nutrition; $1.5 billion for school lunch programs, $25 million for farmers markets that promote “organic and other environmentally beneficial forms of agricultural production;” and more.

The Act also prohibits the Defense Department from purchasing foods for its programs that offer the best value and maximize taxpayer dollars, but mandates preference be given to locally-grown organic products. It also allots another $400 million to establish a national organic certification and assist organic producers to obtain certification under the program.

California is the leading organic state and its organic farmers grow more than half of all organic produce sold in the United States. Not surprisingly, a California delegation of organic farmers and specialty produce growers, along with the California Coalition for Food and Farming, the Food and Farming, and the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, have been lobbying select congressmen intensely to change federal policy to promote their products. According to the Food and Farming policy director: “California lawmakers need to take the lead in advocating or organic agriculture...to make sure they have maximum impact in the California strategy....and organic farmers get their fair share of federal funding in the 2007 Farm Bill.”

According to the Congressional Quarterly, even those within the specialty food industry aren’t buying the Bill’s marketing, pointing out it won’t actually support local specialty growers.

One issue that threatens to divide the specialty-crop farmers is block grants, which would be given to state agriculture departments to fund projects that best serve local growers. Farm groups in regions such as the Midwest, where fruits and vegetables are a relatively small part of the harvest, worry that boosting block grants for specialty-crop growers would steer more money to produce powerhouses such as California and Florida.

Sadly, it all comes down to fights over money and ideologies — not about healthy eating or addressing health concerns and helping poor people or children, as is being told to the public.

In fact, the Eat Healthy America Act includes funding for all sorts of other things unrelated to eating at all — such as conservation partnerships; renewable energy programs; marketing for specialty organic crops; wetlands and grassland reserves; wildlife habitat incentives; fruitfly research; integrated pest management; sustainable agriculture practices guidelines; programs to address climate change programs, environment and air quality; disaster assistance for specialty crops, and much more.

Even the definition of “healthy” foods being used in these Acts, and being taught to school children as meaning good nutrition, is more beliefs than science. Healthy foods are defined as locally-grown, organic specialty crops. It’s not that those foods can’t be enjoyed in a healthful diet, but agricultural and nutrition science does not support them as defining healthy eating. Not only do people need a variety of other foods for good health, but: “There is simply no evidence whatsoever that a diet high in or exclusively of organic foods is any healthier for your than a diet of regular food,” according to Alex Avery, biochemist, plant physiology expert, and director of research at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global food Issues. As Glenn Cardwell, a dietician and nutritionist in Perth, wrote in The Skeptic, “there is scientific agreement that there is little nutritional difference [between organic and conventionally-grown foods]. While organic produce often costs 20-100% more than conventional produce, clearly it will be within the budget of only the well-to-do.”

As scientists say, the devil is in the details. And when it comes to food fears, it takes especially critical thinking to sift through the all of the marketing and claims. With organics, for example, it’s terribly easy to manipulate data and tests of nutrients in produce — plant varieties, growing and watering conditions, water content, maturity and ripeness, storage time and temperature, etc. The best quality studies in peer-reviewed journals, and expert reviews of hundreds of scientific studies, however, continually find no credible evidence to support claims that organic food is more nutritious, safer or better tasting. And there are many myths surrounding chemical fears in foods. Yet, tragically, there are mothers so afraid of regular food that if they can't afford organics, they would rather feed their children fewer fruits and vegetables. Even those chosing organic because they believe it always better for the planet, might find the studies of the environmental benefits and yield claims, as well as the critical examinations by the scientific community, a surprise.

Sadly, there is so much misinformation and so many scares out there about our foods. How many policy makers and consumers put aside beliefs and fears and try to critically look at the science? Certainly, few reporters have dared say anything against the popularity of healthy eating, let alone all-natural foods. Those who do are instantly targets of ad hominem arguments, one of the most popularly-used logical fallacies that attack the messenger, rather than examine the evidence. Watch for those arguments, as they’re most used by those who don’t have the best science behind them.

Rob Lyons, science writer at Spiked-online in the UK, is one reporter with healthy skepticism who’s looked at the truth about organic food. “The superiority of organic food has been taken for granted in recent years,” he wrote. “It is assumed that organic food is more ‘natural’ and therefore by definition healthier and better for the environment – an assumption backed up by government subsidies for inefficient organic farmers. But is it true?” What he found is a subject “overblown with health fears” and that “the rise of organic food has little to do with a cold assessment of its merits.”

Mr. Lyons, this writer, and much of the scientific community, recommends the new book by Alex Avery, The Truth About Organic Foods, as the most careful, balanced overview and analysis of the peer-reviewed research on organics. It’s a must read and, keeping an open mind, everyone will discover things they didn’t know. Unlike the doom and gloom surrounding us today, readers will come away with a greater appreciation of our foods, better understanding of what goes into growing it, and feel a lot better about whatever they choose to eat.

The freedom to make our own choices, without government telling us what we can and must eat, is a value most Americans share. Regardless of the politics and merits surrounding farm subsidies, it is inherent upon those in our nation’s capitol to give us factual information; spend taxpayer dollars in the most beneficial and efficient manner and — at the very least, base decisions on the soundest science and evidence, not scares and marketing. When governmental leaders fail to do so, they fail us. And the biggest losers in this issue will be the poor, the children, the elderly and the hungry.

© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

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