How to Unravel the Food Industry's Playbook and Reclaim Your Health
By Vani Hari
The United States is sick. Compared to 16 other developed nations, it comes in last place for health outcomes. The kicker? It spends two and a half times more on healthcare than its peers. So what’s going wrong – why are Americans in worse health despite living in one of the world’s most affluent societies?
Nutrition expert and healthy eating advocate Vani Hari has an answer: Big Food, the conglomerate of huge, multinational corporations like Nestlé and Monsanto, that grow, produce, and market the food Americans eat every day.
Despite all the claims that they’re doing us a world of good, these products are packed with toxic additives, lethal doses of sugar, and an array of untested chemicals.
In this blog, we will blow the lid off the lies we’ve been fed about what we eat. Along the way, you’ll learn about the real nutritional value of everyday products, the science we base our food choices on, and the marketing tricks Big Food uses to smuggle poison onto our tables.
You’ll also find out
• why “low-calorie” alternatives are often just as bad as full-calorie products;
• how producers tricked Americans into buying sugary cereals for their kids; and
• why you should consider switching to organic foods.
Soda is a key driver of obesity,
but manufacturers manipulate public opinion and the law to evade responsibility.
According to the National Institute of Diabetics and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, over two-thirds of all Americans were obese in 2017. This number underscores something that’s been known to public health experts for a while now: America is in the grips of an obesity epidemic. But what’s driving this crisis? Well, there are multiple factors but one culprit is clear – soda.
Around two-thirds of American children consume at least one soda a day while a third drink at least two. This is bad news for their health; a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that drinking one can of soda per day increased the risk of heart attack by 20 percent. The Center for Disease Control, meanwhile, links heavy soda consumption with Type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, and asthma.
Despite all this evidence, the American Beverage Association – ABA for short – refuses to admit that its products pose a health risk. Instead, the trade association advocates exercise, which is demonstrably less effective as a weight-loss tool than a healthy diet. Coca-Cola, one of ABA’s members, has even introduced a calorie-counting app called “Work It Out,” designed to help the company sell its low-calorie ranges, including Diet Coke and Coke Zero. Ironically, so-called “diet sodas” are every bit as dangerous and fattening as regular sodas.
"These measures are part of an all-out war on public health authorities’ efforts to change consumer behavior and warn them of the dangers of sugary drinks."
Another is the Sugar Association. Like its ally the ABA, it actively spreads food industry propaganda and attempts to manipulate politicians by making large donations to their campaigns. These efforts have a huge influence on government policy. Since 2009, for example, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and the ABA have spent $67 million on efforts to prevent both the introduction of a sugar tax and health warnings being put on their products.
Even more worryingly, these associations are so influential that government agencies actually use them as policy consultants. The Departments of Health and Human Services, for instance, took advice from the ABA when it issued dietary guidelines!
Big Food pays for research to be manipulated.
Let’s start with two uncontroversial statements. First, everybody wants to be healthy. Second, the best way to increase your health is to pay attention to your diet. Why then is it so hard to figure out what a “healthy diet” actually looks like in practice?
Blame it on Big Food – the largest food-producing corporations in the United States. For decades, Big Food has been on a mission to deceive the public and hide the truth about its toxic bestsellers. The way it does this is by manipulating research.
Take a 2007 article by Doctor Lenard Lesser in the journal PLOS Medicine. Lesser found that research funded by large food corporations was four to eight times more likely to be favorable to claims made by Big Food than independently-funded research.
When Kraft teamed up with the Academy of Nutrition, for example, the latter endorsed Kraft Singles – a cheese snack with a maximum of 51 percent cheese – as a “healthy” snack for kids. It was only after a public outcry that this misleading claim was dropped!
Not even higher education is immune to the corrupting influence of Big Food. One of the most notorious cases of a food producer advancing its dubious claims by leveraging the prestige of an elite institution involved a man called Frederick Stare.
"Stare, the chairman of Harvard University’s Department of Nutrition, spent the 1950s arguing that there was no scientific link between sugar consumption and heart disease and diabetes. Between 1952 and 1956, 30 papers disputing these links were published at Harvard – with Stare’s approval."
But as a 2012 article in Mother Jones revealed, Stare wasn’t acting in good faith; throughout his career, he had taken payments from Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s. General Foods, the producer of Kool-Aid and Jell-O, had even paid for a new building for his department.
Stare wasn’t the only academic bending the truth to suit his paymasters. In 1967, the New England Journal of Medicine published an article that concluded that replacing fat with carbohydrates – that is, sugar – was the best diet for a healthy heart. Decades later, it was revealed that the three authors, all of them Harvard-based, had been paid the equivalent of $50,000 by a sugar industry trade association.
This influential paper was the beginning of a lie which many still believe today, and it shows how Big Food shapes public perception to suit its own needs.
Organic food is healthier than non-organic alternatives
– that’s why Big Food hates it. Around 5 percent of the food sold in the United States these days is organic, and that number is constantly rising. No wonder conventional food producers are worried: organic is an attack on the toxic food they’ve been selling for decades, a new front in the war for Americans’ wallets. But before we get to that, let’s take a closer look at organic food. Just how much healthier is it really? Well, a 2014 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that, compared to conventional tomatoes, organic tomatoes contain more vitamin C, antioxidants, and flavonoids – plant chemicals that stimulate detoxification enzymes in the liver. Organic meat and dairy have meanwhile been shown to contain around 50 percent more omega-3 fatty acids than non-organic products. "Then there’s a 2017 research project funded by the European Parliament that suggests that organic food isn’t just more nutritious, but safer. Why is that? Well, non-organic foodstuffs contain traces of potentially toxic pesticides linked to ADHD, lower IQ in children exposed in utero, as well as some forms of cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and a host of allergies." This is why organic farms in the United States are only permitted to use around 25 pesticides, each of which must be approved by the United States Department of Agriculture before it can be certified as organic. Non-organic farms, by contrast, regularly use 900 or more synthetic pesticides! So buying organic is a no-brainer, right? Sure – and that’s why corporations that rely on pesticide sales are so keen to plant seeds of doubt in consumers’ minds. Chemical giant Monsanto, for example, makes billions of dollars selling their products to non-organic farms. One of their bestsellers is a weed killer called Roundup, which is used to grow staple crops like corn and soy. The principal ingredient in Roundup is glyphosate – a chemical originally used to dissolve mineral buildup in pipes; scientists have linked it to an increased risk of celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and cancer. To prevent this kind of information from reaching consumers, trade associations create front groups made up of farmers, nutritionists, and scientists to wage a propaganda campaign against unflattering evidence. These groups often enjoy huge influence. Take CropLife, a group that represents Monsanto. It managed to convince the Environmental Protection Agency to classify glyphosate as safe even though the World Health Organization classifies it as a probable carcinogen!
Food labeling is often misleading
and regulatory authorities are mostly toothless.
Trying to figure out what’s in the food you buy is like trying to read a language you don’t fully understand – you might catch the odd word here or there, but it’s mostly gobbledygook. That’s not accidental, either. All that unpronounceable jargon hides the fact that lots of products are packed with downright nasty ingredients.
Worse, the organization tasked with preventing this – the United States Food and Drug Administration, or FDA for short – is pretty much toothless. In fact, despite the FDA’s existence, the American food industry is still largely self-regulated.
This is because the FDA doesn’t actually get a say in whether additives are safe for consumption – food companies decide that. If those companies’ experts designated a substance as “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, the FDA follows their lead and adds its seal of approval.
"The results speak for themselves. When the FDA was founded in 1958, the food sold in the nation’s supermarkets and stores contained around 800 additives. Today, it’s more than 10,000! "Just how many of these really are safe is an open question. According to the National Resources Defense Council, there are 1,000 unexamined chemicals in the food Americans eat every day.
This problem is compounded by the fact that food labeling isn’t a reliable guide to the true nutritional value or origin of products. Take Starbucks’ so-called “lightly sweetened” Chai Tea Latte: this 473-milliliter drink contains a whopping 31 grams of sugar, the equivalent of 28 Oreo cookies. Starbucks isn’t the only company doing this, either. Any product containing up to 100 grams of sugar can, according to American law, be described as “lightly sweetened.”
Then there’s the adjective “natural.” Sounds healthy, right? Well, all it actually means is that what you’re eating or drinking is originally derived from a plant or an animal, not that it’s free of artificial additives. “Natural Apple Flavor,” for example, doesn’t necessarily mean pure apple juice has been added to a product. Legally, it could contain 100 or more different chemicals derived in this way, leaving the product’s true ingredients a total mystery to consumers.
As you might imagine, this regulatory situation allows companies to hide all sorts of unpleasant truths. Take Castoreum, a product that’s used to give foods an artificial vanilla flavor. Its origin? A substance secreted near a beaver’s anal gland!
Adding nutrients to unhealthy foods doesn’t make them any healthier.
The practice of adding nutrients to foods that naturally don’t contain them began in the United States in 1924, the year producers started adding iodine to salt to address a nationwide deficiency.
These days, however, what goes into the food we eat has less to do with public health concerns and more to do with marketing. Claims like “free from ingredient X” are often given pride of place on food packaging, but they’re rarely more than sleight of hand; in practice, leaving out actively harmful ingredients doesn’t make a product any healthier.
One of the most common examples of this kind of marketing comes from the diet industry, which hypes its products as “low-calorie” or “fat-free.” The truth, however, is that both low-calorie and fat-free diets can be just as unhealthy as calorie-rich, fatty diets and even lead to additional weight gain.
This is because many diet foods contain low- or zero-calorie sweeteners such as aspartame, which has been shown to increase the risk of metabolic syndrome – one of the causes of diabetes and strokes – by 34 percent. Other low- or zero-calorie foods are packed with artificial refined sugars like corn syrup, which contain cellulose, an indigestible substance linked with digestive issues and weight gain.
Eating these foods traps dieters in a vicious circle. In an attempt to lose weight, they’re drawn to “diet foods” that actually increase their weight, and this in turn drives them to buy and consume these products in even larger amounts. In the end, they both fail to lose weight and damage their health.
Another trick Big Food uses to dupe unsuspecting consumers is hiding how unhealthy its products are by advertising the addition of “fortifying” vitamins and minerals. Breakfast cereals, especially those aimed at children such as Lucky Charms or Cocoa Puffs, make all sorts of outlandish claims about their contributions to daily recommended doses of vitamins and minerals. This is often enough to persuade parents to buy the cereals, but the benefits of these contributions don’t outweigh the harm done by sugar and additives.
This kind of marketing isn’t just limited to the kids’ aisle, though. A product like Vitaminwater might sound healthy, but those vitamins come with 32 grams of sugar. Ironically, naturally-occurring vitamins can be absorbed twice as quickly as synthetic ones, meaning that all that sugar doesn't even serve its advertised purpose!