Bigger, juicier, saltier, sweeter, crunchier. Most of all, more. The food industry and its nonstop marketing has been tabbed by many experts as a major player in the obesity epidemic. “The result of constant exposure to today’s ‘eat more’ food environment,” write Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim in their upcoming book Why Calories Count, “has been to drive people to desire high-calorie foods and to become ‘conditioned overeaters.'”
Even as the food industry takes steps seemingly in the right direction—by launching campaigns to bring healthy products to schools, for example—wellness initiatives are often just marketing ploys, contends David Ludwig, a pediatrician and coauthor of a commentary published in 2008 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that raised questions about whether big food companies can be trusted to help combat obesity. Ultimately, he has argued, makers of popular junk foods have an obligation to stockholders to maximize profits, which means encouraging consumers to eat more—not less—of a company’s products. Health experts including Ludwig and Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, both of whom have long histories of tracking the food industry, spoke with U.S. News and highlighted 10 things that junk food makers don’t want you to know about their products and how they promote them. Here’s a peek behind the curtain:
1. Junk food makers spend billions advertising unhealthy foods to kids. According to the Federal Trade Commission, food makers spend some $1.6 billion annually to reach children through the traditional media as well the Internet, in-store advertising, and sweepstakes. An article published in 2006 in the Journal of Public Health Policy puts the number as high as $10 billion annually. The bulk of these ads are for unhealthy products high in calories, sugar, fat, and sodium. Promotions often use cartoon characters or free giveaways to entice kids into the junk food fold. On TV alone, the average child sees about 5,500 food commercials a year (or about 15 per day) that advertise high-sugar breakfast cereals, fast food, soft drinks, candy, and snacks, according to the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Compare that to the fewer than 100 TV ads per year kids see for healthy foods like fruits, veggies, and bottled water.
2. The studies that food producers support tend to minimize health concerns associated with their products. In fact, according to a review led by Ludwig of hundreds of studies that looked at the health effects of milk, juice, and soda, the likelihood of conclusions favorable to the industry was several times higher among industry-sponsored research than studies that received no industry funding. “If a study is funded by the industry, it may be closer to advertising than science,” he says.
3. More processing means more profits, but typically makes food less healthy. Minimally processed foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables obviously aren’t where food companies look for profits. The big bucks stem from turning government-subsidized commodity crops—mainly corn, wheat, and soybeans—into fast foods, snack foods, and beverages. High-profit products derived from these commodity crops are generally high in calories and low in nutritional value. Ultraprocessed foods, for example, lack fiber, micronutrients, and healthful plant substances called phytochemicals that protect against heart disease and diabetes, Ludwig wrote in a 2011 JAMA commentary. Consider: A 10-ounce, 90-calorie portion of strawberries has 5 grams of fiber, abundant vitamins and minerals, and dozens of phytochemicals, while a 1-ounce portion of Fruit Gushers also has 90 calories, but virtually none of the fruit benefits.
4. Less-processed foods are generally more filling than their highly processed counterparts. Fresh apples have an abundance of fiber and nutrients that are lost when they are processed into applesauce. And the added sugar or other sweeteners increase the number of calories without necessarily making the applesauce any more filling. Apple juice, which is even more processed, has had almost all of the fiber and nutrients stripped out. This same stripping out of nutrients, says Ludwig, happens with highly refined white bread compared with stone-ground whole-wheat bread.
5. Many supposedly healthy replacement foods are hardly healthier than the foods they replace. In 2006, for example, major beverage makers agreed to remove sugary sodas from school vending machines. But the industry mounted an intense lobbying effort that persuaded lawmakers to allow sports drinks and vitamin waters that—despite their slightly healthier reputations—still can be packed with sugar and calories.
6. A health claim on the label doesn’t necessarily make a food healthy. Health claims such as “zero trans fats” or “contains whole wheat” may create the false impression that a product is healthy when it’s not. While the claims may be true, a product is not going to benefit your kid’s health if it’s also loaded with salt and sugar or saturated fat, say, and lacks fiber or other nutrients. “These claims are calorie distracters,” adds Nestle. “They make people forget about the calories.” For example, tropical-fruit flavored Gerber Graduates Fruit Juice Treats show pictures of fresh oranges and pineapple to imply that they’re made from real fruit, according to a 2010 report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. In reality, the main ingredients are corn syrup, sugar, and white grape juice concentrate. And Keebler’s Townhouse Bistro Multigrain Crackers boast that they’re made with “toasted whole wheat,” although sugar content far outweighs the whole wheat. “‘Made with whole grains‘ should send up a red flag,” says registered dietitian Marisa Moore, a spokesperson with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “If you’re eating packaged food, like cereal, bread, or pasta, check the ingredient list to verify that the first ingredient is in fact a whole grain.” (Think of the first ingredient listed on a package as the main ingredient; those listed farther down are included in smaller amounts.) Although the government is working to develop guidelines for front-of-package labels, no consensus has been reached.
7. Food industry pressure has made nutritional guidelines confusing for consumers. As Nestle explained in her 2003 book Food Politics, the food industry has a history of preferring scientific jargon to straight talk. As far back as 1977, public health officials attempted to include the advice “reduce consumption of meat” in an important report called Dietary Goals for the United States. The report’s authors capitulated to intense pushback from the cattle industry and used this less-direct and more ambiguous advice: “Choose meats, poultry, and fish, which will reduce saturated fat intake.” Overall, says Nestle, the government has a hard time suggesting that people eat less of anything.
8. The food industry funds front groups that fight antiobesity public health initiatives. Unless you follow politics closely, you wouldn’t necessarily realize that a group with a name like the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) has anything to do with the food industry. In fact, Ludwig and Nestle point out, this group has lobbied aggressively against obesity-related public health campaigns—such as the one directed at removing junk food from schools—and is funded, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, primarily through donations from big food companies such as Coca-Cola, Cargill, Tyson Foods, and Wendy’s.
9. The food industry works aggressively to discredit its critics. According to the 2008 JAMA article, the Center for Consumer Freedom boasts that “[our strategy] is to shoot the messenger. We’ve got to attack [activists’] credibility as spokespersons.” On its website, the group calls Nestle “one of the country’s most hysterical anti-food fanatics.”
10. “Pink slime” is on its way out—but it’s not gone. Ground meat is commonly bulked up with what critics call “pink slime,” butchering scraps that have been cleansed with ammonia. While the industry insists that its “lean, finely textured beef trimmings” are harmless, some experts are questioning the safety of the ubiquitous filler. Following a public outcry, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced this month that school districts can choose between receiving beef with the trimmings or without, but at a higher fat content. A growing number of grocery stores, including Safeway and Supervalu, have announced that they’re ditching so-called “pink slime.” Still, it remains USDA-approved, and the food industry is free to use it.