June 22nd, 2000

Fight on Obesity Faces Hefty Commercial Problems

By Marion Nestle
New York Newsday

Americans are getting fatter by the minute, and federal agencies held the National Nutrition Summit at the end of May to discuss the problem. Whether the summit will do any good remains to be seen, but it had two built-in handicaps.

It was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an agency plagued by conflicting missions-to promote consumption of American food products and to advise the public about diet and health. It also included vast representation from the food industry, which has only one mission: to sell more food. These handicaps undermine national efforts to reverse the obesity epidemic. Overweight is no mere matter of elastic waistbands and larger seats on subways. Excess pounds derange metabolism, raise blood pressure, blood cholesterol and blood sugar, and cause adult-type diabetes in even very young children. If obesity were as easy to deal with as other risk factors-such as stop smoking -we already would have a national campaign in place. But it is not; to lose weight, people must eat less, move more or do both. Moving more is rarely sufficient. So, if people want to lose weight, they have to eat less.

And therein lies the problem. Eating less directly confronts the missions of USDA and the food industry. So it was no surprise that the summit kicked off with two cabinet secretaries extolling the virtues of balance, variety and moderation as keys to healthful diets. With that beginning and with the industry pressing for partnerships and alliances to promote those bland precepts, there was little chance of agreement on policies that might help people eat less of snacks, high-calorie junk food or just food in general.

Such policies might contradict the interests of an industry that encourages people to eat more, for example through $ 30 billion in annual advertising and promotion. A single popular candy bar has a $ 50-million-a-year advertising campaign behind it; Classic Coke is backed by more than $ 115 million a year, and McDonald’s by more than half a billion dollars. The million dollars or so that the National Cancer Institute spends for public education about the benefits of fruit and vegetables is not even in the same stratosphere.

The intensity of food marketing results from a little-known fact: We enormously overproduce food in this country. Our food supply provides a daily average of 3,800 calories for every man, woman and child-more than twice what is needed by most people. Overproduction means that food companies fiercely compete for food dollars through advertising and other enticements: thousands of new products, growing portion sizes, ubiquitous vending machines and marketing targets that now include preschool children and infants.

If people really ate less, food producers, retailers and community institutions-restaurants, fast-food places, sports arenas, movie theaters (think supersize popcorn), bookstores and other food outlets-all would lose business. Schools might have to forfeit dollars they receive from companies marketing fast foods and soft drinks.

That is why food companies take full advantage of their connections in Congress and federal agencies to make sure that anti-obesity campaigns focus on individual food choices, not food marketing practices. We need look no further than the sugar recommendation in the new dietary guidelines released at the summit. Sugar is no poison, but it does add unnecessary calories. Last September, the draft guideline said: "Go easy on beverages and foods high in added sugars." Complaints from the sugar industry led to the February draft, "Choose beverages and foods that limit your intake of sugars," and eventually to the summit version: "Choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugars." Gone were "go easy," "added" and "limit."

The lesson is that government agencies can never issue advice to cut down on snacks, soft drinks, candy bars, junk food, fatty meat or fried foods. That’s why our government never has supporteda campaign to prevent overweight.

The summit made it clear that we need to find ways to place health considerations above commercial interests. Useful suggestions made during this meeting included banning food advertising from schools and from television programs aimed at children, requiring information about calorie content on commercial foods and taxing soft drinks and other high-calorie junk foods to fund new initiatives. Without public support for more effective measures, government agencies and people battling overweight will continue to cave in to overwhelming industry pressures to eat more.

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