By Dr. Mercola
Two weeks ago, I wrote about how the junk food industry undermined first lady Michelle Obama's efforts to improve children's nutrition. Initially, her focus was really honed in on organic gardening, eating real food and protecting children from harmful food ingredients, including excessive amounts of sugar.
She was right on target, poised to become a formidable force for children's health — until Big Food stepped in and started pulling political strings.
Food industry pressure completely altered the first lady's plan to tackle childhood obesity through healthier food, shifting the focus to exercise and the importance of "energy balance" instead — a strategy based on fake industry-funded science promoted by industry front groups and their paid academics.
A Page From the Junk Food Industry's Playbook
For example, Coca-Cola Company alone paid $2.1 million directly to health experts, mostly dietitians and academics, during one five-year span. It spent another $21.8 million on pro-industry research, and $96.8 million to various health organizations.
The reason for all this generosity? To influence public health recommendations related to consumption of sugary beverages and other junk food. As noted by Kyle Pfister in his 2015 article on Medium.com:1
"I wanted to dig deeper into this network of influencers to learn more about the strategy. Why were they chosen? What do they have in common? …
I was able to find 63 percent are active on social media — and as a group they have over 180,000 followers on Twitter and 150,000 likes on Facebook. That doesn't include the organizations they work for, just their individual accounts …
[U]pon deeper inspection, many are effective communicators whose influence reaches deep into our culture. That's the whole point …
Many of the dietitians seem to be members of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics recruited around the campaign to promote the new mini Coke cans as a healthy snack."
Moreover, it's quite clear that any commitment the soda and junk food industry has to lower calories is simply a ploy to expand the use of artificial sweeteners, which are fraudulently advertised as a diet and diabetes aid since they actually impair your ability to lose weight and manage your diabetes.2,3
Big Food Now Has a Damage Control Expert Inside the Organic Community
On October 5, a couple of weeks before my article about Mrs. Obama came out, Michael Pollan published a damning article in The New York Times about the Obamas' failure to take on corporate agriculture.4
In it, Pollan mentions Scott Faber, who in 2010 — when Mrs. Obama implored the food industry to clean up its act to protect children's health — was the chief lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA).
In a shocking twist, Faber was hired by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) to represent the organic industry during closed doors negotiations with Congress to undermine the GMO labeling effort.5
In an apparent effort at damage control following Pollan's piece, Faber wrote an article published by the EWG on October 17, in which he lists 10 "Obama food policy wins."6
On this list, he includes improving food safety, clearer food labels, banning trans fat, expanding access to healthy food through new programs, healthier school lunches and creating voluntary sodium restriction guidelines for food makers, among others.
"In particular, first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign encouraged all Americans — especially our children — to make healthier food choices. Although we have a long way to go, evidence7 shows that American eating habits have gotten better since Mrs. Obama launched the initiative in 2010."
Where's the Evidence?
The evidence Faber cites to back up the idea that Americans are making healthier food choices is a 2015 New York Times article,8 which specifically points out that:
"Americans are still eating far too few fruits and vegetables and far too much junk food, even if they are eating somewhat less of it, experts say."
And that's precisely the point. Eating less junk is not the same as eating healthier foods. Moreover, Faber leans on research9 published in 2014 that claimed childhood obesity trends had stalled, remaining stable between 2003 and 2010.
The researchers used the same data source as the former study, but added another four years' worth, covering the span between 1999 and 2012 instead of 2003 and 2010.
Using this expanded data set revealed that all classes of obesity, but in particular severe obesity — which poses the greatest risk to a child's long-term health — actually increased over the past 14 years. As noted by Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center:11
"This paper will come as a sobering reality check for any who believed the recent headlines about childhood obesity rates plummeting. Severe obesity in children is rising … [and] this is a critical piece of information."
Faber's 'Evidence' Shows Failure of 'Let's Move' Campaign
So have American eating habits really gotten better as a result of the "Let's Move" campaign? Using Faber's own evidence, the answer is no. Just look at the dates.
The "Let's Move" campaign launched in 2010. The NYT article Faber uses as evidence of the campaign's success cites a study that looked at obesity rates between 2003 and 2010, meaning the results have no bearing at all on the campaign since it doesn't include data after the campaign was launched.
That's problem No. 1. Problem No. 2 is that the study that DID include data up to 2012 shows children are fatter than ever, with severe childhood obesity having risen since the launch of the campaign.
Hence, his own evidence base proves he's wrong and the campaign is a failure. This was to be expected, since the campaign does not focus on the source of the problem (toxic, high-sugar and processed foods) and recommends solutions that don't work (just exercise more).
Faber Paints a Rosy Picture Out of Step With Reality
Similar criticism can be applied to other "food policy wins" Faber lists. For example, while banning trans fat is a clear win, can the same really be said for voluntary sodium reduction guidelines — a move that, incidentally, came only after the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) sued the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), demanding mandatory standards?12
This example — which Faber chose to highlight — simply supports the notion that the food industry and the FDA rarely do anything that might be beneficial for public health unless forced, either by lawsuits or boycotts.
(Also, in this case, a far more important issue than the amount of sodium is the type of salt used in processed foods, but that issue is in no way addressed.) And what about the claim that school lunches have become more nutritious?13
Here, Faber and the "Let's Move" video narrated by Mrs. Obama (below) appear to be oceans apart from reality. Minor improvements have been made, such as reducing or eliminating sodas in most U.S. schools.
But school lunches are still far from healthy because, again, less junk does not necessarily mean healthier fare is being offered. Just take a look at these articles, "YUCK! A 4th Grader's Short Documentary About School Lunch," and "High School Students Boycott Junk Food School Lunches."
School Lunches Are All About Processed Foods
Processed foods and grain-based snacks are still foundational staples in school lunches, for example, along with low-fat and high-sugar milk products.
And let's not forget that one strategy used to boost the image of school lunches was simply to lump tomato paste (on top of pizza) and French fries in with vegetables. Voila, healthier lunches! And who do we have to thank for this stroke of genius? Why, Big Food, of course. As noted by The Hill in 2014:14
"If you want to know how pizza becomes a vegetable, don't look to the amount of tomato sauce used. Follow the money. Much of the pizza sold in schools comes from a privately held Minnesota company called Schwan Food. In 2011, Schwan was able to leverage its clout in Congress to pass a rider that let pizza basically count as a vegetable in the school lunch program, thanks to its smear of tomato paste.
Potato-state politicians from Idaho and Maine likewise regularly go on offense for that industry, fighting successfully in 2011 to preserve French fries as a regular option in school meals."