There are lots of things we want to do in life. Climb a mountain, write a song, watch our grandchildren grow up. But guess what? We can’t do any of those things if we don’t have our health.
Welcome to the Nutrition Facts Podcast. I’m your host Dr. Michael Greger. And I’m here to bring you evidence-based research that takes the mystery out of the best way to live a healthier, longer life.
Today we are going to take a close look at an industry we don’t hear a lot about in the news, the food industry. In our first story we look at how the food industry fought tooth and nail to retain partially hydrogenated oils, even though these trans fats were killing 50,000 Americans a year.
In 1993, the Harvard Nurses’ Study found out that the high intake of trans fat may increase the risk of heart disease by 50%. That’s where the trans fat story started in Denmark, ending a decade later with a ban on added trans fats there in 2003. It took another 10 years, though, before the U.S. even started considering a ban. All the while, trans fats were killing tens of thousands of Americans every year. Why, if so many people were dying, did it take so long for the U.S. to suggest taking action?
One can look at the fight over New York City’s trans fat ban for a microcosm of the national debate. “Opposition came,” not surprisingly, “from the food industry,” complaining “about government intrusion,” likening the city to a “nanny state.” “Are trans fat bans the road to food fascism?” Yes, a ban on added trans fats might save 50,000 American lives every year, which might save the country tens of billions of dollars in healthcare costs. Not so fast, though. If people eating trans fat die early, think how much we could save on Medicare and Social Security. That’s why “smokers may actually cost society less than nonsmokers, because smokers die earlier.” So, “we should be careful about making claims about the potential cost savings of trans fat bans.” “More research is needed on the effects of these policies.” Yes, we might save 50,000 lives a year, but you have to think about “the effects on the food industry.”
How about just “education and product labeling,” rather than the “extreme measure of banning” trans fat? As the leading Danish cardiologist put it, when we discover a food additive that’s dangerous, we don’t label it, we simply remove it. But, we’re Americans! “As they say in North America: ‘You can put poison in food if you label it properly.’” But look, people who are informed and know the risks should be able to eat whatever they want. But that’s assuming they’re given all the facts, which doesn’t always happen, “due to deception and manipulation” by the food industry.
And, not surprisingly, it’s the unhealthiest of foods that are most commonly promoted, using deceptive marketing. It’s not because junk food companies are evil, or want to make us sick. “The reason is one of simple economics. Processed foods simply offer higher profit margins and are shelf-stable, unlike fresh foods, such as fruits and vegetables.” So, their “model of systemic dishonesty,” some argue, “justifies some minimal level of governmental intervention.”
But what about the slippery slope? “Today, trans fats; tomorrow, hot dogs.” Or the reverse, what if they make us eat broccoli? This actually came up in a Supreme Court case over Obamacare. As Chief Justice Roberts said, Congress could start ordering everyone to buy vegetables, a concern Justice Ginsburg labeled “the broccoli horrible.” Hypothetically, Congress could compel the American public to go plant-based; yet, one can’t “offer the ‘hypothetical and unreal possibility of a vegetarian state as a credible argument.” As one legal scholar put it, “Judges and lawyers may live on the slippery slope of analogies, but they are not supposed to ski it to the bottom.”
If anything, what about “the slippery slope of inaction”? “Government initially defaulted to business interests in the case of tobacco and pursued weak and ineffective attempts at education” to try to counter all the tobacco industry lies, and look what happened. The unnecessary deaths could be counted in the millions. “The U.S. can ill afford to repeat this mistake with diet.”
Next up we look at the amazing story about what lobbying millions can do to shut down efforts to protect children.
There have been calls to ban the advertising of sugary cereals to children for nearly a half century: a product that Harvard nutrition professor Jean Mayer referred to as “sugar-coated nothings.” In a Senate hearing on nutrition education, he said, “Properly speaking, they ought to be called cereal-flavored candy, rather than sugar-covered cereals.”
The Senate committee “invited the major manufacturers of children’s cereals” to testify. And they initially said yes until they heard what kinds of questions were going to be asked. “One cereal industry representative candidly admitted” why they decided to boycott the hearing: they simply didn’t “have persuasive answers” for why they’re trying to sell kids breakfast candy.
In the Mad Men age, before the consumer movement was in bloom, ad “company executives were more willing to talk frankly about the purpose of their ads and how they felt about aiming the ads at the ‘child market.’” A quote from an executive director of Kellogg’s ad firm: “Our primary goal is to sell products to children, not educate them. When you sell a woman a product and she goes into the store and finds your brand isn’t in stock, she will probably forget about it. But when you sell a kid on your product, if he can’t get it, he will throw himself on the floor, stamp his feet, and cry. You can’t get a reaction like that out of an adult.”
Sugary cereals are the #1 food advertised to kids. But not to worry, the industry will just self-regulate. The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative was launched, in which all the big cereal companies pledged they would only market “healthier dietary choices” to kids. The candy industry signed on, too. How did that go? They pledge not to advertise to kids, yet after the initiative went into effect, kids actually saw more candy ads. Take Hershey, for example, they doubled their advertising to children, while at the same time pledging not to.
The cereal companies got to decide for themselves “their own definitions of ‘healthier dietary choices.’” So, that should give us some sense of how serious they are at protecting children. They chose “Froot Loops or Reese’s Peanut Butter Puffs, consisting of up to 44 percent sugar by weight”. Those are what they classified as “healthier dietary choices.” What are their unhealthy choices? Turns out what they did is basically just set the limit based more on what they were already selling, than what might be “best for children.”
Now they’ve since revised that down to only allow cereals that are 38 percent sugar by weight. But, even if they were only a third sugar, that means kids are effectively eating “one spoonful of sugar in every three spoons of cereal.” Not exactly a healthier dietary choice.
The Federal Trade Commission tried stepping in back in 1978, but the industry poured in so many millions of lobbying might that Congress basically threatened to yank the entire agency’s funding should they mess with Big Cereal, demonstrating just “how powerful market forces are compared to those that can be mobilized on behalf of children.” The political “post-traumatic stress induced by the aggressive attacks on the FTC led to a 25-year hiatus in federal efforts to rein in food marketing aimed at children.” But, finally, enter the Interagency Working Group, “voluntary principles designed to encourage stronger and more meaningful self-regulation,” proposed by the Federal Trade Commission, CDC, FDA, and USDA, with the radical suggestion of not marketing children cereals that are over 26 percent pure sugar.
Not a single one of the top ten breakfast cereals marketed to children would meet that standard. General Mills shot back that such proposed nutrition standards were “arbitrary, capricious, and fundamentally flawed.” No surprise, since literally every single cereal they market wouldn’t make the cut. To suggest voluntary standards would “unconstitutionally” violate their right to free speech under the First Amendment to which the FTC basically said: uh, let me get you a dictionary. Voluntary. How could suggesting voluntary guidelines violate the constitution? That’s how freaked out the industry is, though, at even the notion of meaningful guidelines. One grocer’s association called the proposed nutrition principles the “most bizarre and unconscionable” they had ever seen.
So, what happened? Again, agency funding was jeopardized; and so, the FTC called the interagency proposal off.
“At every level of government, the food and beverage industries have won fight after fight,” never losing “a significant political battle” in the United States. “We just got beat,” one of the child advocacy organizations said. “Money wins.” And it took lots of money, $175 million of Big Food lobbying, but apparently, enough to buy the White House’s silence as the interagency proposal got killed off. As one Obama advisor put it, “You can tell someone to eat less fat, consume more fiber, more fruits and vegetables, and less sugar. But if you start naming foods, you cross the line.”
“I’m upset with the White House,” the chair of the Senate Health Committee said. “They went wobbly in the knees and when it comes to kids’ health, they shouldn’t go wobbly in the knees.”
Finally today given that diet is the number-one cause of death and disability, nutrition is surely the number one subject taught in medical school, right?
Most deaths in the United States are preventable, and related to nutrition. According to the most rigorous analysis of risk factors ever published, the Global Burden of Disease study, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the number one cause of death in the United States, and the number one cause of disability in this country, is our diet which has bumped tobacco smoking to number two. Smoking now only kills about a half million Americans every year, whereas our diet now kills hundreds of thousands more.
So, if most death and disability is preventable, and related to nutrition, then obviously, nutrition is the number one thing taught in medical school, right? It’s the number one thing your doctor talks to you about. How could there be such a disconnect between the science, and the practice of medicine?
Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine yourself a smoker back in the 1950s. The average per capita cigarette consumption was about 4,000 cigarettes a year. Think about that. In the 1950s, the average person walking around smoked a half pack a day.
The media was telling you to smoke. Famous athletes agreed. Even Santa Claus cared enough about your throat to want you to smoke. I mean, you want to keep fit, and stay slender; so, you make sure to smoke. And eat lots of hot dogs to keep trim, and lots of sugar to stay slim and trim a lot less fattening than that apple there. I mean, sheesh. Though apples do “connote goodness and freshness,” reads one internal tobacco industry memo, which brings up many possibilities for making “youth-oriented” cigarettes. They wanted to make apple-flavored cigarettes for kids.
In addition to staying fit and slender, and soothing your throat, “For digestion’s sake,” you smoke. I mean, “No curative power is claimed for by Philip Morris, but hey, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Better be safe than sorry, and smoke.
Like eating, smoking was a family affair. “Gee, Mommy, you sure enjoy your Marlboro!” “You’re darn tootin’. ” “Just one question, Mom: can you afford not to smoke Marlboros?” In the 1950s, your kids were giving you cigarettes. Even your dog was giving you cigarettes.
“Blow in her face and she’ll follow you anywhere.” “No woman ever says no.” They’re “so round, so firm, so fully packed.” After all, John Wayne smoked them (until he got lung cancer and died).
Back then, even the Paleo folks were smoking, and so were the doctors.
Now, this is not to say there wasn’t controversy within the medical profession. Yes, some doctors smoked Camels, but other physicians preferred Luckies. So, there was some disagreement. “Eminent doctors, on high and impartial medical authority, call for Philip Morris.” Even the specialists couldn’t agree which cigarette was better for your throat. So, best to stick to the science. And, more scientists smoke this brand.
This should not be rocket science, but even the rocket scientists had their favorite: for “the man who thinks for himself.”
We know why the AMA may have been sucking up to the tobacco industry, refusing to endorse the Surgeon General’s report on smoking, after they were handed a ten million dollar check from the tobacco industry.
But, why weren’t more individual doctors speaking out? Well, there were a few gallant souls ahead of their time, writing in, as there are today, standing up against industries killing millions. But, why not more? Maybe, it’s because the majority of physicians themselves smoked cigarettes. Just like the majority of physicians today continue to eat foods that are contributing to our epidemics of dietary diseases. What was the AMA’s rallying cry back then? Everything in moderation. Extensive scientific studies have proven “smoking in moderation”, oh, that’s fine. Sound familiar?
Eating the Standard American Diet today is like being a smoker back in the 1950s. Most everyone you know eats this way. It’s normal, it’s what they feed people in hospitals, for gosh sake. But, you don’t have to wait until society catches up with the science again.
Sometimes, it takes a whole generation for things to change in medicine. The old guard of smoking physicians and medical school professors die off, and a new generation takes its place. But how many patients need to die in the interim?
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Thanks for listening to Nutrition Facts. I’m your host, Dr. Michael Greger.