Industry Influence

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Much of what we eat is influenced not only by what restaurants and grocery stores offer, but also by associations that represent various food industries. Well-funded associations can influence legislation, regulations, dietary guidelines, nutritional research, and public messaging.

The sugar, salt, egg, poultry, beef, pork, fish, juice, dairy, and snack food industries have been accused of downplaying the risks of their products, while the nutritional supplements industry has frequently been charged with exaggerating its marketing claims.

Industry associations often underwrite research studies, sometimes producing a “funding effect,” the skewing of results favorable to research funders. Examples include a study showing that jelly beans may help boost sports performance, another demonstrating that kiwifruit may help treat insomnia, and another boosting water’s effectiveness for mental concentration. Partnering with different community groups, some food industries have promoted the message that inactivity, rather than calorie-rich foods, is the main cause of obesity. Sometimes industry-funded studies produce results consistent with non-industry-funded research, as with the chocolate, blueberry, and nut industries. 

Agribusiness has successfully influenced government guidelines on what to eat. In contrast to Greece, where the national health and welfare agency makes public dietary recommendations, in the United States, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) makes the recommendations. Critics say the USDA’s mandate to promote agribusiness can conflict with its responsibility to provide public diet advice.  Reportedly, the 2010 USDA Guidelines Committee had less corporate influence than previous groups, resulting in plant-based foods being emphasized more than ever before.

Meat industry influence may be a reason why antibiotics continue to be used as livestock feed, bacteria standards are less stringent than they could be, and questionable approaches like viruses as a food additive receive serious consideration. Across a number of food types, industry influence has helped keep possibly harmful additives legal, such as trans fats, caramel color, and phosphates. Pesticide regulations, such as those related to Roundup, appear to be based more on economic rather than scientific factors.

The pharmaceutical industry has sometimes questioned the effectiveness of certain plant-based foods as treatment for specific medical conditions. Research funding to explore what plant nutrition can do is likely low at least in part because plants, unless genetically modified, can’t be patented. Traditionally, the pharmaceutical industry has focused on developing drugs with very specific actions rather than overall health promotion.

Proposed California legislation supporting nutrition education for doctors was weakened by apparent medical profession influence. The balance of evidence supporting a plant based diet is often rejected by doctors in the face of prevailing conventional wisdom. The fast food industry promotes a positive image with doctors and patients by locating their restaurants in hospitals and donating to hospital causes.

Topic summary contributed by Linda.