The Los Angeles District of the California Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics tackled charged issues including corporate sponsorship of academy events and the role of dietitians who work with for profit companies in a mix of controversial topics on April 1st.
As someone who worked with McDonald’s owners in Southern California for over 25 years I was asked to speak to my consulting experience, and I accepted the invitation. When I checked the agenda I found myself sandwiched between public health lawyer, Michele Simon, JD, MPH and Andy Bellatti, a founding member of Dietitians for Professional Integrity. Previous contact with both of these advocates gave me pause.
BIG FOOD INFLUENCES NUTRITION MESSAGING
Michele Simon presented the keynote, outlining all the ways the nefarious food industry dupes the public and distorts scientific debate. In many ways she is spot on. Big food engages in a wide range of efforts to confuse issues regarding food and nutrition, from paying for scientific research to co-opting health groups and hiring health professionals who counter unflattering reports in the press.
I have personal knowledge of American Beverage Association’s PR efforts to hire a “strike team” of dietitians for just this purpose. I was contacted by a representative who shared all the exciting opportunities. I started asking difficult questions and outlined my concerns, and declined the invitation. Let’s say it wasn’t a good fit. Today I recoil when I see tweets from registered dietitians who sign on, mostly because the comments don’t sound like a dietitian discussing the issues, but more like a concerted effort to discredit anyone or anything speaking negatively about sweetened beverages.
Special interest groups are also known to sponsor specific dietitians or underwrite educational experiences that the dietitians are asked to share on social media. Dietitians are signed as spokespersons, where instead of consulting for a company the dietitian is paid to endorse their products. Look for #ad #sponsor #client on social media posts.
Big Food also promotes their positions to consumers behind front groups that sound good. Entities like the International Food Information Council Foundation state that their mission is to effectively communicate science based information, however I can’t help but wonder how often their take on the science filters through the lens of their supporters, a list of the biggest players in the food area.
The consequential confusion and misinformation about both nutrition and science poses real harm. Currently we are witnessing the unraveling of the saturated fat/cholesterol/heart disease hypothesis with key information detailing how the sugar industry helped denigrate fat over the last 60 years.
“TRUTH ON OUR SIDE”
Despite reminding the conference attendees that we all are in this together, and that we work for a common goal (a better food supply and access for all), Michele presented a rather polarizing platform. Repeatedly her words positioned her work as good vs evil, emphatically underscored when she closed her presentation by stating, “We have truth on our side”.
While I am fully disgusted with many actions of the food industry, not all players are evil. I have seen first hand how a food advocate’s rigid thinking scorns the companies who do step up to the plate and attempt to improve the nutrition profile of their food, and/or the way they grow food. McDonald’s efforts to expand their range of food choices is one case in point. The changes never seemed to be enough, and to this day Michele Simon conflates fast food with junk food.
WHY IS FAST FOOD CONSIDERED JUNK FOOD?
In her keynote, Michelle spoke of fast food as junk food multiple times, a common tactic used by health groups. They brandish a broad brush to rail against the entire slate of menu options.
Junk food implies empty calories with excessive refined ingredients.. Candy, sweetened beverages, many snack foods and most desserts easily fit the bill. However I don’t understand why meals that include a variety of grilled and fried chicken, beef, and fish with sources of milk, cheese and yogurt, along with a modest range of fruits and vegetables comes under the same category.
WHY ARE SOME FOODS CONSIDERED JUNK?
Just why do nutrition researchers consider pizzas, hamburgers and tacos considered junk food? The nutritional profile of these foods is not all that different than common ingredients used to prepare similar foods at home. We don’t consider a spaghetti dinner with pasta, sauce and cheese junk food. Either is a meatloaf with mashed potatoes. Why do we consider a mix of meat, lettuce, tomatoes on a corn tortilla junk?
Maybe its pairing these foods with soda and fries? Maybe it’s the reality or perception of cheap ingredients? Whatever the excuse, if we call out fast food for selling any items with excessive sugar, salt, refined starch and fat, I wonder why we give sit down restaurants a pass? For that matter, what about your local supermarket? The same place that showcases fresh fruits and vegetables in homey wooden crates is also where consumers purchase sodas, cookies, candy and the like.
ANOTHER WAY TO PRESS FOR BETTER FOOD
I’d like to think there is a better way to help everyone eat better. Rather than singling out fast food as junk food let’s talk about all food sources. It possible to eat poorly at most restaurants and entertainment venues. It is possible to purchase junk food at most supermarkets and convenience stores.
Public health advocates have spent decades demonizing fast food with little impact on public health. What would happen if instead of denigrating fast food, we asked consumers to recognize a far greater truth. When it comes to eating better, it’s not where you eat that counts. It’s what you eat when you get there.