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The plague of tobacco deaths wasn’t just due to the mass manufacture and marketing of cheap cigarettes. Tobacco companies actively sought to make their products even more craveable by spraying the sheets of tobacco with nicotine, and additives like ammonia, to provide a bigger nicotine “kick.” The food industry employs taste engineers to accomplish a similar goal: maximize the irresistibility of their products.
Taste is the leading factor in food choice. Salt, sugar, and fat are used as the three points of the compass to produce “superstimulating” “hyperpalatability” to tempt people into impulsive buys and compulsive consumption. Foods are intentionally designed to hook into our evolutionary triggers and breach whatever biological barriers help keep consumption within reasonable limits.
Big Food is big business. The processed food industry alone brings in more than $2 trillion a year. That affords them the economic might to manipulate more than just taste profiles, but public policy and scientific inquiry as well. The food, alcohol, and tobacco industries have all used similar unsavory tactics: blocking health regulations, co-opting professional organizations, creating front groups, and distorting the science. The common playbook shouldn’t be surprising, given the common corporate threads. At one time, for example, Philip Morris owned both Kraft and Miller Brewing.
In a single year, the food industry has spent more than $50 million to hire hundreds of lobbyists to influence legislation. Most of these lobbyists were “revolvers,” former federal employees in the revolving door between industry and their regulators, who could push corporate interests from the inside, only to be rewarded with cushy lobbying jobs after their “public service.” In the following year, the industry acquired a new weapon—a stick to go along with all those carrots. On January 21, 2010, the Supreme Court’s 5 to 4 Citizen’s United ruling permitted corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on campaign ads to trash anyone who dared stand against them. No wonder our elected officials have so thoroughly shrunk from the fight, leaving us largely with a government of Big Food, by Big Food, and for Big Food.
Globally, a similar dynamic exists. Weak tea calls from the public health community for voluntary standards are met with not only vicious fights against meaningful change, but massive transnational trade and foreign investment deals that cement protections of food industry profits into the laws of the lands.
The corrupting commercial influence extends to medical associations. Reminiscent of the “Just what the doctor ordered” cigarette ads of yesteryear, the American Academy of Family Physicians accepted millions from the Coca Cola Company, in part explicitly to “develop consumer education content on beverages and sweeteners.”
On the front line, fake grassroots “astroturf” groups are used to mask the corporate message. In the footsteps of Get Government Off Our Back (memorably acronymed GGOOB)— a front group created by RJ Reynolds to fight tobacco regulation— Americans Against Food Taxes may as just well be called Food Industry Against Food Taxes. The power of front group formation is enough to bind bitter corporate rivals: the Sugar Association and the Corn Refiners Association linking arms with the National Confectioners Association to partner with Americans for Food and Beverage Choice.
Using another tried-and-true tobacco tactic, research front groups can be used to subvert the scientific process by shaping or suppressing science that deviates from the corporate agenda. Take the trans fat story. Food manufacturers have not only long denied that trans fats were associated with disease, but actively worked to limit inquiry and discredit research findings.
At what cost? The global death toll from foods high in trans fat, saturated fat, salt, and sugar is at 14 million lost lives. Every year. The inability of countries around the world to turn the tide on obesity “is not a failure of [individual] will-power,” said the Director-General of the World Health Organization. “It is a failure of political will to take on the powerful food and soda industries.” She ended her keynote address before the National Academy of Medicine, entitled “Obesity and diabetes: the slow-motion disaster,” with these words: “The interests of the public must be prioritized over those of corporations.”
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