There are lots of good reasons to try and follow a healthier diet–you lose weight, you feel good, but the main reason–to live a longer, happy, productive life. Sounds good, right? And though it may sound deceptively easy, the devil is in the details. Welcome to the Nutrition Facts podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Michael Greger.
Today on the show, we ask the question: If you’re a corporation selling a certain product consumed by the American people, why would you ever put the public at risk? I’m thinking about the processed food industries that now use tactics similar to those used by cigarette companies. Here’s the story.
In 1954, the tobacco industry paid to publish the “Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” in hundreds of U.S. newspapers. It stated that the public’s health was the industry’s concern above all else and promised a variety of good faith changes. The “Frank Statement” was a charade, the first step in a concerted, half-century-long campaign to mislead Americans about the catastrophic effects of smoking, and to avoid public policy that might damage sales. What followed were decades of deceit and actions that cost millions of lives.
The processed food industries use tactics similar to those by tobacco companies to undermine public health interventions. They do this by distorting research findings, co-opting policy makers and health professionals, and lobbying politicians and public officials. In his book about his fight with the tobacco industry, former FDA commissioner, David Kessler, recounted similar strong-arm tactics used by the meat industry to try to squash nutrition regulations.
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts on political ads during election campaigns could make things even worse, by working against candidates who support public health positions.
Another similarity between tobacco and food companies is the introduction and heavy marketing of “safer” or “healthier” products. When cigarette sales dropped due to health concerns, the industry introduced “safer” filtered cigarettes that gave health-conscious smokers an alternative to quitting, and sales shot back up. Ironically, the filters originally had asbestos in them.
Less nicotine, less tar, and now with reduced carcinogens! This is an actual ad. And, how could anything be bad for you if it is 100% organic? Sound familiar?
Today, we have leaner pork or eggs with less cholesterol maybe the food industry’s kind of low-tar cigarettes. A KFC ad campaign depicted an African American family in which the father was told by the mother that “KFC has 0 grams of trans fat now.” The father, in the presence of children, shouts, “Yeah! Whoo-hoo!!” and then begins eating the fried chicken by the bucketful.
Or cereal companies touting all the whole grains in their Cocoa Puffs Brownie Crunch. Fruit Loops now provides fiber.
A U.S. district judge overseeing a tobacco industry case put it well: “All too often in the choice between the physical health of consumers and the financial well-being of business, concealment is chosen over disclosure, sales over safety, and money over morality. Who are these persons who knowingly and secretly decide to put the buying public at risk solely for the purpose of making profits, and who believe that illness and death of consumers is an apparent cost of their own prosperity?” Above all, the experience of tobacco shows how powerful profits can be as a motivator, even at the cost of millions of lives and unspeakable suffering.
In our next story, we go back in time to the 1970s – to the release of the first U.S. dietary guidelines –which make it clear why decades of science supporting a more plant-based diet have yet to fully translate into public policy.
George McGovern, who died last year at age 90, was best known for his 1972 presidential defeat to Richard Nixon. But, he also chaired a committee that released the first Dietary Guidelines in the United States, in January 1977. “The simple fact is,” quoting from the press conference, “that our diets have changed radically within the last 50 years, with great and often very harmful effects on our health. These dietary changes represent as great a threat to public health as smoking…The diet of the American people has become increasingly rich–rich in meat, [and] other sources of saturated fat and cholesterol, and in sugar…Most all of the health problems underlying the leading causes of death in the United States could be modified by improvements in diet…Ischemic heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and hypertension are the diseases that kill us. They are epidemic in our population. We cannot afford to temporize….The public wants some guidance, wants to know the truth, and hopefully today we can lay the cornerstone for the building of better health for all Americans, through better nutrition.”
As Dr. Hegsted later recounted in an interview (a founding member of Harvard’s Nutrition Department that spoke at the press conference): “The meat, milk and egg producers were very upset.” And, they weren’t the only ones.
The president and chair of the International Sugar Research Foundation called the report “unfortunate and ill-advised”—all part of the “emotional, anti-sucrose, anti-table sugar tidal wave” conspiracy, evidently. From the official record of the Committee hearings: “Simply stated, people like sweet things, and apparently the McGovern Committee believes that people should be deprived of what they like. There is a puritanical streak in certain Americans that leads them to become ‘do-gooders.’”
The president of the Salt Institute felt “that there is definitely no need for a dietary goal that calls for the reduction of salt consumption.” In fact, the assertion from the report that “improved nutrition may cut the Nation’s health bill by one third” was challenged.
See, what the Committee didn’t understand is that “healthcare expenditures increase if the lifespan is prolonged.” See, if people live longer, because they eat healthier, it could be more expensive. As some researcher pointed out, “…if tobacco were banned…the increase in the expected lifespan would simultaneously increase the cost of care of old people, which comes under the category of healthcare expenditures.” If people eat healthier, the Salt Institute warned, we might have more old people to take care of!
The National Dairy Council likewise recommended the dietary goals be withdrawn, and reformulated to have the endorsement of the food industry. You know, as soon as Häagen-Dazs says they’re okay, then go for it.
The two industries that went most ballistic, though, were the meat and egg producers, who demanded additional hearings were held. Egg Councils requested the distribution of the Dietary Goals be immediately stopped. “The frightening development as far as the egg industry [was] concerned is that the advocates of a modified, low-cholesterol diet now have the credibility and…prestige of the U.S. Senate…”
The president of the American National Cattlemen’s Association described why the meat industry “reacted rather violently,” complaining that “meat is never mentioned in a positive way” in the guidelines. “The only mention of meat are those associating meat consumption with various degenerative diseases. If these ‘Dietary Goals’ are moved forward and promoted in the present form…entire sectors of the food industry (meat, dairy, egg, sugar, and others) may be so severely damaged that when it is realized that the ‘Dietary Goals’ are ill-advised, as surely [they] will be, production recovery may be out of reach.”
“Thus guided by [my] conscience,” said the president of the National Livestock and Meat Board, “I am certain that actions of the animal industries to [ensure] Americans are properly fed with abundant meat and other animal foods is an honorable and morally correct diet course.”
The meat industry recommended the Committee withdraw the dietary guidelines and “issue a corrected report.” They especially didn’t like guideline number two—to decrease meat consumption to lower saturated fat intake. Senator Dole (Kansas Senator Dole) offered to have that amended from “decrease meat consumption” to instead “increase consumption of lean meat.” “Would that taste better to you?” he asked the president of the Cattlemen’s Association, who replied, “Decrease is a bad word, Senator.”
So, what happened? By the end of the year, a revised version of the Dietary Goals was released, indeed. The guideline was changed from “decrease meat consumption” to “choose meats, poultry, and fish which will reduce saturated fat intake.”
That wasn’t enough for the meat industry, though. They wanted the whole Committee on Nutrition eliminated completely, and its functions turned over to the Agriculture Committee. The New York Times, noting that “[T]he Agriculture Committee looks after the producers of food,” not the consumer, editorialized that folding the Nutrition Committee into the Agriculture Committee would be like “sending the chickens off to live with the foxes.” And, that’s what happened.
The Senate Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs got disbanded, and placed within the Senate committee on Agriculture. George McGovern fought until the bitter end, though. When an interviewer confronted him with the Serenity Prayer’s “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” McGovern rejected the notion, saying: “I keep trying to change them.”
Our next story? The safety of food additives. As it turns out, their safety is determined not by the FDA, but by the manufacturers of the chemicals themselves.
November, 2013. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced their plans to all but eliminate trans fats from processed foods, citing a CDC statistic that the elimination of partially hydrogenated oils from the food supply could prevent more than 10,000 heart attacks, and thousands of deaths, every year. Currently, trans fats enjoy so-called GRAS status: “generally recognized as safe.” How did these killer fats get labeled as safe? Who gets to determine that?
“Currently, a [generally-recognized-as-safe] determination is made when the manufacturer…of a food substance evaluates the safety of the substance [themselves]…and concludes that the use of the substance is [safe].” Did I just read that right? The company that manufactures the substance gets to determine if it’s safe or not? “This approach is commonly referred to as ‘GRAS self-determination.’” To make matters worse, not only do they not have to inform the public; they don’t even have to inform the FDA. In a footnote, they explain that a company may “voluntarily” tell the FDA they just came up with a new food additive that they’ve decided is safe, but are “not required to” even do that.
“The cumulative result is that there is an estimated [6,000] current affirmative safety decisions which allow for more than an estimated 10,000 substances to be used in food.” “In addition, an estimated 1,000 manufacturer safety decisions are never reported to the FDA or the public.” “Manufacturers and a trade association made the remaining decisions without FDA review by concluding [on their own] that the substances” that they themselves are selling “were…safe.”
While “[m]anufacturers are not required to notify the FDA of a ‘safe’ determination,” sometimes they do notify the agency, with a little FYI. At least in those cases, where they’re going public with their decision as to what they’re putting in our food, presumably they’re being above board and finding some independent third-party panel. The objective of this study was to find out.
Of the 451 GRAS notifications voluntarily submitted to the FDA, 22% were made by someone directly employed by the company, 13% were made by someone directly employed by a firm hand-picked by the company, and 64% by a panel hand-picked by the corporation, or the firm the corporation hired. Are you doing the math? Yes, that means zero percent of safety decisions were made independently.
“An astonishing 100% of the members of…expert panels…worked directly or indirectly for the companies that manufactured the [food] additive in question.” 100%. And those were just the ones the food companies told FDA about. And, they used the same rent-a-scientist “experts” over and over, leading food industry watchdog Marion Nestle to ask, “How is it possible that the FDA permits manufacturers to decide for themselves whether their food additives are safe?”
“Maybe it’s because many of the companies providing our daily food are [corporate] giants with…political muscles national governments would envy.” “PepsiCo alone” [spent] more than $9 million in [a single year] to lobby Congress.”
The fact that food additives like trans fats have been allowed to kill thousands of Americans year after year comes as less of a surprise to those who realize “[t]hree of Washington’s largest lobbying firms [reportedly] now work for the food industry.”
To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images or studies mentioned here, please go to the Nutrition Facts podcast landing page. There, you’ll find all the detailed information you need, plus links to all the sources we cite for each of these topics.
Be sure to check out my new How Not to Die Cookbook. It’s beautifully designed, with more than 120 recipes for delicious, plant-based meals, snacks, and beverages. All the proceeds from the sales of all my books all go to charity. I just want you to be healthier.
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Thanks for listening to Nutrition Facts. I’m Dr. Michael Greger.
This is just an approximation of the audio content, contributed by Allyson Burnett.