Nu­tri­tion

The food in­dus­try has adopted Big To­bacco’s tac­tics in coun­ter­ing health con­cerns, a new book re­veals.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Jen­nifer Bow­den

The food in­dus­try has adopted Big To­bacco’s tac­tics in coun­ter­ing health con­cerns, a new book 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.

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.

“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 in­dus­try­funded 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.

Con­sumers can “vote with our fork” and also in­flu­ence the re­port­ing of nu­tri­tion sci­ence.

Mar­ion Nes­tle

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