Intended for healthcare professionals


Food industry obfuscates healthy eating message

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 17 July 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:121
  1. Charles Marwick
  1. Washington, DC

    Food giants are going to enormous lengths to obfuscate US government health messages on healthy eating, according to a recent symposium held in Washington, DC, by a consumer advocacy group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, on how corporations seek to influence science and science policy.

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    “Food is big business, $1.3 trillion [£0.8 trillion; €1.2 trillion] in revenue yearly,” said Dr Marion Nestle from the department of food and nutrition studies, New York University. “It supplies an average of 3900 kilocalories [16.3MJ] daily [the recommended daily intake is 2200-2500 kilocalories a day], and the food industry will do everything to make sure that no regulatory agency and no nutritionist ever suggests eating less.”

    Doing something about obesity means getting people to eat less, said Dr Nestle. “But to get people to eat less, one has to explain what that means and what they should eat less of,” she said

    She argued that, as a result of pressure from food companies, the US dietary recommendations use euphemisms that cloud this message.

    She said that they talk about “healthy weight”; they say “be more active” and “choose.” They say “moderate” when what they really mean is “eat less”—but they don't say so, she said, adding, “No government statement tells people to eat less.”

    Dr Nestle cited examples. One was a recommendation to decrease meat consumption. The meat producers objected so the statement was replaced with the phrase, “choose meats, poultry and fish which will reduce saturated fat intake.” Another was a call to reduce sugar intake. Under pressure from the sugar industry it was changed to “choose beverages and foods that limit your intake of sugar.” Then it was further modified to “choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugar.”

    “The difference between “limit” and “moderate” may not seem very important, but it's an indication of the extremes to which lobbyists will go to make sure nobody eats less,” said Dr Nestle.

    The symposium was part of a project that the Center for Science in the Public Interest is sponsoring—“Clean Science in Regulation.” The project is exploring the proper relation between an independent scientific community and the business community.

    “Science can benefit from the business community's dollars and ideas. On the other hand, excessive business influence can undermine scientific rigour and credibility,” said Michael Jacobson, the centre's executive director.

    The ultimate goal of the symposium was to seek ways to ensure that regulatory agencies get reliable scientific information and advice when implementing health, safety, and environmental laws. It wants to prevent regulated industries from attacking and discrediting valid scientific information and to examine issues, such as bias in advisory committee membership, as well as conflicts of interest in the sponsorship of scientific studies used in product regulation.