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Issue No. 251: Follow the Money

Affordable, no-code apps for health, fitness, and wellness creators.

Our nation’s nutrition policies are often written by the highest bidders.

The Fall of Food

No secret, the standard American diet consists mainly of unhealthy ultra-processed foods (UPFs) shown to be addictive, obesogenic, and downright lethal.

  • 68% of the US food supply is categorized as “hyper-palatable,” made with levels of sugar, sodium, or carbohydrates that make them addictive to humans.
  • In recent years, consumption of UPFs as a percentage of daily caloric intake has risen to 57%, while whole foods eaten dipped to a low of 27%.
  • 1.6K Americans die daily from chronic diet-related illnesses, primarily obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Adding to this preventable loss of life, the food we eat is also devastating our economy, environment, and healthcare system. Yet, despite this reality, the individual and societal harms of subsisting on toxic foods continue to be ignored.

While personal responsibility and food scarcity are not to be discounted, it’s important to examine the policies and playbooks that make choosing healthy options harder.

Under the Influence

Big Food and Bev companies go to great lengths to keep us hooked on their products.

In the latest instance of impropriety, The Washington Post uncovered a shady social media campaign led by industry insiders.

The report found that American Beverage Association, the lobbying group behind brands like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, paid dietitians, physicians, and fitness influencers to post about the #safetyofaspartame.

This coordinated effort was meant to combat the World Health Organization’s recent warning about potential health risks of the artificial sweetener, a key ingredient in diet soda.

Marketing misinformation. Not an isolated instance, The Post said this tactic is part of a new playbook where the food and beverage industry uses dietitians and other credentialed experts to spread contradictory health information:

“Companies and industry groups paid dietitians for content that encouraged viewers to eat candy and ice cream, downplayed the health risks of highly processed foods and pushed unproven supplements — messages that run counter to decades of scientific evidence about healthy eating.”

Nothing new, entrusting our health to online fitfluencers and wellness gurus is a bad idea. However, further evidence that basic nutrition is being intentionally manipulated for the benefit of junk food brands should be a wake-up call.

Most troubling, these ploys are hitting their mark with a captive, trusting audience.

  • 40% of Americans regularly see food and nutrition content on social media.
  • 67% of consumers trust the food and nutrition info they receive from influencers.
  • 60% follow their recommendations, but 68% report seeing conflicting claims on which foods to eat or avoid.

Following precedent. Unfortunately, this is just the latest instance of the nation’s guiding institutions turning a blind eye to our deadly diet.

In the 1960s, the sugar industry paid Harvard scientists to downplay the link between sugar and heart disease, instead vilifying saturated fat as the culprit — the study, published in New England Journal of Medicine with no disclaimers, was used in the development of US food guidelines.

And Big Food still spends big bucks to shape nutrition policies — including payments to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and American Academy of Pediatrics, among others.

Along those lines, earlier this month, a STAT report detailed Big Food’s persistent efforts to infiltrate government agencies in order to peddle influence with policymakers — a scheme that has proven successful.

Punchline: Willpower debates aside, Americans are burdened with deciphering food fact from fiction in a world where data is manipulated for dollars. Short of policy intervention, steering people toward healthier choices starts with transparency.

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