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How the food industry adopted the tactics of Big Tobacco

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The food industry is adopting Big Tobacco’s tactics by interfering in the nutrition science field, a new book by Marion Nestle reveals.

What have Russian hackers and the 2016 US presidential election got to do with nutrition research? The collateral damage of that infamous hacking scandal was a most fortuitous (and super-sized) revelation of how food companies actively interfere in the nutrition science field, says Marion Nestle in her new book Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat.

Along with the electronic messages from Democratic Party officials that were posted on the WikiLeaks website, the hackers (linked to the Russian Government) also stole emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign team and posted them on a new website, DC Leaks. In the process, they uncovered a trail of emails between Michael Goltzman, a vice-president of the Coca-Cola Company, and Capricia Marshall, an adviser on Clinton’s campaign who was also doing consulting work for Coca-Cola.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

The emails revealed the tactics they used to ensure the company’s business interests were protected from public-health efforts. These included keeping tabs on certain academic researchers, Nestle among them – perhaps not surprisingly, given Nestle, professor emerita of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, previously wrote a book, Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning).

But more surprising were the details of Coca-Cola recruiting dieticians to promote soft drinks on social media and their attempts to pressure and influence reporters and editors of major media outlets such as the Associated Press and Wall Street Journal to prevent publication of any negative stories about their beverages.

The company was also funding university scientists to produce scientific studies that suggested, among other things, that simply walking 7116 steps a day was enough to keep adults in energy balance.

While this study may appear to be basic research on exercise physiology, “it implies that physical activity – and not all that much – is all you need to control your weight, regardless of how much Coca-Cola you drink,” Nestle writes in Unsavory Truth.

The company also actively lobbied to influence federal nutrition advice. For example, it expressed concerns about the academic advisory committee for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans discussing possible taxation of sugar-sweetened beverages. Coca-Cola’s director of government relations later assured colleagues not to worry, as they were working closely with Congress “to ensure that policy recommendation on a soda tax is not included in the final guidelines”. Did it work? The word “tax” does not appear anywhere in the 2015 dietary guidelines, Nestle notes.

Marion Nestle. Photo/Bill Hayes

“Overall, the hacked emails offer a rare glimpse into how this beverage company, simply in the normal course of doing business, attempted to influence nutritionists, nutrition research, journalists covering this research, and dietary advice to the public.”

Nestle’s book is about more than Coca-Cola, though. The company’s hacked emails are just one public example of how various food, beverage and supplement companies fund nutrition researchers and practitioners, along with their professional associations, with the ultimate goal of boosting sales of their products.

For anyone old enough to remember when smoking was allowed in restaurants, pubs and aeroplanes (but only if you were seated in a smoking row on the plane), the similarities between the tobacco industry’s battle and the modern food industry are uncanny.

That’s because industries producing products of questionable health benefit all use a well-worn playbook, Nestle says, that requires “repeated and relentless use” of these strategies:

  • Cast doubt on the science
  • Fund research to produce desired results
  • Offer gifts and consulting arrangements
  • Use front groups
  • Promote self-regulation
  • Promote personal responsibility as the fundamental issue
  • Use the courts to challenge critics and unfavourable regulations.

The tobacco industry’s use of the playbook included the endless repetition of statements, such as, “cigarette smoking is a matter of personal responsibility”, and “government attempts to regulate tobacco are manifestations of a nanny state”, among other things.

Both of which bear an uncanny resemblance to the current line coming from Coca-Cola New Zealand about personal responsibility on a page entitled: Do soft drinks cause obesity? “Like all food and beverages, soft drinks with sugar can be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced lifestyle as long as people don’t consume them to excess.”

The inference is clear – Coca-Cola has absolved itself of blame for obesity because it’s your personal responsibility to ensure you don’t consume its product to excess.

Meanwhile, suggestions that we regulate sugar-sweetened beverages are met with cries such as, “Kiwis just want to get on with their lives without being dictated to by nanny state zealots,” from Cameron Slater’s Whale Oil blog.

But, before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, it’s worth considering the value of industry-funded research. At the end of the day, it costs money to conduct clinical trials and observational studies. And if the food industry is prepared to fund independent research, what’s wrong with that?

In truth, absolutely nothing is wrong with that if the research is truly independent. However, as Nestle suggests, even the smallest of gifts from a food company to a health professional can have a subconscious impact on the behaviour and decisions that health professional then makes. And it doesn’t end there – food industry sponsorship of nutrition conferences has been shown to influence the conference agenda and speakers who are invited, thus the food industry directly influences access to nutrition information for health professionals attending the conference.

Nestle believes that controlling the inappropriate practices of food companies is the role of government and quotes ethicist Jonathan Marks, “Governments, not corporations, are the guardians of public health … It is time for public health agencies and regulators to ‘struggle’ a little more with corporations, creating structural incentives for healthier and more responsible industry practices, and calling companies to account when they fail to comply.”

As for consumers, we can “vote with our fork”, and also influence the reporting of nutrition science by directly questioning media outlets and reporters about the source and funding for any studies they report on, and by letting our local MP know how we feel about corporate influence on matters of nutrition and public health.

Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat can be bought online. It will be on New Zealand shelves in January 2019.

This article was first published in the November 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.