This week’s blog post is going to be about the 5 reasons why the food industry (also known as big food) is toxic. Firstly, why is this an important conversation for fitness-lovers? We are some of the most health-conscious people. In order for us to prioritize our health, however, we need to be aware of how even health products like cereal bars, diet products and protein bars are actually quite harmful for us.
Does the healthy package aesthetic match the ingredients inside? Furthermore, are we unknowingly consuming foods that can contribute to diseases like diabetes and obesity?
Other questions that are going to be answered in this blog post are: who are the healthy food companies? What are their interests? How do they operate? We, as food consumers, have the right to know what food choices can benefit our quest for health and longevity.
What is Big Food?
For the sake of this article, I will refer to the food industry as Big food. The aim of Big Food is to maximize their profits and increase shareholder interest. Food companies’ primary objective remains to drive profit by selling food. Big Food controls businesses and brands in agriculture, sugar and ingredient industries.
What is the issue with Big Food?
It is mostly an issue of the foods being delivered with maximum profitability/palatability over actual health. Furthermore, it extends to the foods being full of ingredients that are harmful yet marketed in a fashion that suggests they optimize our wellbeing.
“Without taking direct and concerted action to expose and regulate the vested interests of Big Food, epidemics of poverty, hunger, and obesity are likely to become more acute (Stuckler & Nestle, 2012).”
Big Food Brands:
These are the household names found at most supermarkets around the globe.
List of Big food brands:
- General Mills
- Associated British Foods
- Big Ben
Baking products, cereals, ice-cream, organic products, pastries, fruits, pasta, vegetables, pet products, dairy, plant-based foods, water and nutrition, soft drinks, chocolate, health care, nutrition, tea, energy drinks, rice.
Methods of capitalizing on products/gaining profit:
a) Horizontal marketing: two companies in unrelated business categories join together in order to gain economies of scale.
Ie: 2015 Heinz/Kraft merger
b) Vertical marketing: company controls steps within its own supply chain.
2. Companies are legitimized through private/public partnerships with public health organizations designed to help improve people’s health and wellbeing.
Big Food toxic behaviors/practices:
1)Aggressive lobbying of regulators/governments.
2)Co-opting domestic and international nutrition experts.
3)Deceptive and illegal marketing to children.
4)Tactical targeting of minorities + energy economies.
5)Undisclosed conflicts of interests.
6)Shifting responsibility of overconsumption from corporations to individuals.
8)Promotes brand loyalty and sales.
“Big Food attains profit by expanding markets to reach more people, increasing people’s sense of hunger so that they buy more food, and increasing profit margins through encouraging consumption of products with higher price/cost surpluses (Monteiro, 2012).”
A Closer Look at Big Food
According to expert on the subject, Marion Nestle, Big Food learns the tactics of industries like Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco. These industries are notorious for their use of aggressive tactics to make their products legitimized, addictive and popular.
Additionally, Nestle says that the “food industry plays politics better than anyone.” Furthermore, Big food, like Big Tobacco and soda companies, utilize countless corporate social responsibility campaigns. Poorer people are more vulnerable to these practices because of lack of access (‘food desert’) to supermarkets and the higher costs of organic/whole-foods. They are therefore excluded from proper development and have to eat Big Food’s low-cost, highly-processed foods (full of sugar, salt and saturated fats).
Big Food has a global impact, they’ve invested 2.22 billion dollars on their advertising. They spend equally large sums of money on mass-marketing campaigns and taking over domestic food companies. Other cultures now have access to processed foods and their vulnerable populations are even more prone to developing diseases like diabetes, high-cholesterol and obesity.
The Brazil Case Study
Big Food has penetrated multiple global markets, have they been successful in altering domestic behaviors/purchasing habits?
A study investigated this in Brazil where transnational companies aimed to penetrate their markets. Brazil’s tradition of shared family meals remained strong and safeguarded Brazilian eating habits from the national and regional food systems.
With transnational companies’ expansion comes the risk of expanding populations’ susceptibility to obesity and major chronic diseases. In Brazil, factors like culture, meals, family, national identity, community life and local economy also safeguard against the overconsumption of those foods.
As a result of Big Food’s market penetration, the Brazilian government has introduced legislation in order to protect the traditional food system.
We can look at the Brazilian case study to assess our own strengths against Big Food and our fight against preventable diseases like obesity and diabetes. An emphasis on our local diets, home-grown foods, strong values and a collectivist sense can be useful in the preservation of our health.
Blame-shifting the obesity crisis
An important point is that the framing of obesity and diabetes should not render any company that is so largely influential blameless. Big Food completely shifts the responsibility of these diseases from themselves (responsible for creating/marketing and distributing these foods to countless populations) onto the consumer. This blame-shifting is highly toxic but it works in creating a false narrative that absolves them of their responsibility.
The Big Food game is essentially one of power, understanding this framework allows us to closely examine how their practices are purely toxic. Here are 5 reasons why Big Food is toxic:
Reason #1: They create horrible factory conditions for animals.
In order to reduce production costs, Big Food produces greater amounts of product at the lowest possible price. The heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers are harmful to the environment and Big Food uses them quite regularly. From an environmental perspective, this is an ethically questionable practice.
Furthermore, animals are actually stuck in their cages in their own filth. They are put in factories straight after birth. All of this, of course, is hidden, and their practices are ‘humane-washed’ and packaged as ‘sustainable ‘and ‘responsibility sourced’ with pictures of happy animals.
Reason #2: Misleading food labels and packaging.
Big Food, just like any billion-dollar industry, invests millions on their advertising and package design for their products. Be aware of how susceptible one may be to aesthetic-looking labels, language and satiating looking food.
Big Food uses findings from studies that suggest that visually appealing food is perceived as healthier/more sustainable than other foods (ie: ‘ugly foods’). They capitalize on this fact by making food appear extra appealing in advertisements.
Reason #3:Toxic ingredients/processed foods.
Big Food’s products contain unnecessary fillers. They use salt, sugar and fat to make the foods taste good. These fillers increase our risk of diabetes, heart disease and obesity. They also make their foods cheap, fast and convenient to make. Other ingredients that we can find are carcinogens and trans fats. Beware of processed diet foods like cereal bars, protein bars and pastries as these are mostly going to be filled with these fillers as well.
“ Three-fourths of world food sales involve processed foods, for which the largest manufacturers hold over a third of the global market . The world’s food system is not a competitive marketplace of small producers but an oligopoly. What people eat is increasingly driven by a few multinational food companies  (Monteiro, 2012).”
“Many products made by Big Food are made from heavily processed ingredients. Processing foods can reduce the nutritional value of the raw ingredients and links have been suggested between ultra-processed foods and obesity as well as chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease (Stuckler & Nestle,2012).”
Big Food’s products are made to look like they are healthy and organic. In reality, they are not actually wholesome (they are mostly filled with fillers) with additives aimed at extending shelf life. They are also made to eliminate the need for cooking and prep time which makes them an ideal choice for many populations.
The ingredients found in their snacks are cheap to make or are leftover animal parts. Other types of additives are sugars, fats, oils, preservatives, etc.
Finally, the foods are made to exaggerate palatability, increase their addictiveness and to trick our bodies’ appetite signals and system.
“A lot of time and money is spent by food manufacturers on making crisps addictive because they want us to eat more and more of them. They are also made with highly refined carbohydrates so they don’t give you slow-release energy. It’s about quick fixes (Owusu,2016).”
Reason #4: Targeting vulnerable/low-income populations.
Lower socio-economic status groups and those with lack of access to healthy, non-processed and organic foods. These groups are less-educated, may have language barriers, have a low-income, tend to be from racial/ethnic groups in the US or other countries. These individuals are even more prone to buying Big Food’s processed foods because of issues like organic foods being more expensive, the lack of access to higher-quality foods (by location or lack of transportation) and issues like food taking a long time to cook.
“For people living in poverty, this means either exclusion from development (and consequent food insecurity) or eating low-cost, highly processed foods lacking in nutrition and rich in sugar, salt, and saturated fats (and consequent overweight and obesity).”
Other vulnerable groups include children. Children in schools are given sugary drinks in order to get addicted early on. Despite policies against sugary drinks, schools are still serving it to the children. These drinks can contribute to obesity and diabetes.
Reason #5: Increasing obesity/diabetes through excessive sugar/salt in their snacks.
Big Food largely denies the role that they have played as a powerful actor in the food industry. They are a small minority that controls the majority of food options in supermarkets yet somehow scapegoats the issue of obesity as being one’s lifestyle choice. Why then do they add excessive salt and sugar into their foods knowing that these make them more addictive? Yes, obesity is caused by overconsumption of food, however, pushing sales of cheap processed foods that satiate and increase hunger to those who cannot afford higher quality foods certainly is not helping.
“This craving for fat, salt and sugar, which is sometimes called ‘hedonic hunger’, is a phenomenon that afflicts an increasing number of people. We eat more for pleasure than for satiation than at any point in human history, and that’s proving to be a big problem (Owusu,2016).”
Furthermore, how can it help these industries to admit that an organic, whole-food based diet is actually the healthier more sustainable choice of eating? It does not. Arming ourselves with the knowledge of how this industry operates alerts us to their motivations and to the toxic practices that are involved on a large scale. Scapegoating the issue of obesity into that of laziness or overconsumption is simply absurd. These industries use experts, legislation, lobbies, million-dollar marketing campaigns, behavioral research and psychology experts to make us hooked on their cheap/over processed food products.
“Big Food is a driving force behind the global rise in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) and processed foods enriched in salt, sugar, and fat . Increasing consumption of Big Food’s products tracks closely with rising levels of obesity and diabetes  (Monteiro, 2012).”
A direct link between the consumption of sodas and processed foods to lifestyle related diseases:
“Evidence shows that SSBs are major contributors to childhood obesity ,, as well as to long-term weight-gain, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease ,. Studies also link frequent consumption of highly processed foods with weight gain and associated diseases  (Stuckler & Nestle, 2012).”
How to tackle Big Food’s influence on our food choices:
The best way to become a smart and educated food consumer throughout our fitness journeys is to stick to purchasing minimally processed, whole, and organic foods. The closer the food is to nature, the higher likelihood it has of being nutritious and good for your body.
In conclusion, the food industry (aka: Big Food) utilizes several unethical and toxic methods to maximize profits and shareholder interest. Optimal health is not this industry’s goals as is evident by their use of multi-million dollar marketing campaigns, misleading advertisements/food labels, filling of processed foods with sugar, oils, salts and the targeting of vulnerable populations among many other methods. The best method to combat any industry is recognizing our individual choices and our right to access to healthy foods. Always choose to buy organic/whole foods when grocery shopping!
I hope that you enjoyed this post on the 5 reasons why the food industry is toxic, please let me know what you thought about it in the comments below.