The Nutrition Wars and Downfall of Big Food

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Story at-a-glance -

  • People are becoming increasingly cognizant of the connection between food and health, and are seeking out healthier fare. They’re also paying closer attention to labeling, favoring companies that provide clear disclosures
  • The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which was found guilty of money laundering and has fought hard against GMO labeling across the U.S., has lost some of its most prominent members, including Nestlé and Campbell’s
  • Food industry rifts have also become evident in the field of nutrition, with dietitians who support organics saying they’re being publicly shamed and harassed by their more industry-friendly peers
  • Online incivility has gotten so bad among dietitians, the American Dietetic Association published social media guidance for its members and is urging dietitians to sign a pledge of professional civility
  • To increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, Partnership for a Healthier America has launched a fruits and vegetable campaign (branded as FNV) to improve public perception and acceptance of real food

By Dr. Mercola

As consumer food preferences are rapidly changing, with more people looking for and buying healthier foods, the food industry is struggling to come up with a coordinated response to win back consumer confidence and recoup sagging sales. As noted by Politico,1 "As legacy brands lag, food companies have two options: Change to compete or buy up the new brands that are already growing rapidly."

Nestlé's recent departure from the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the largest and most powerful lobbying group for the processed food industry, is just one piece of evidence signaling the development of a deep rift within the industry. According to the featured article, "Long the attack group for large companies like Kraft and General Mills on legislative and regulatory issues, GMA now has members like Nestlé opposing some of its positions."2 Mars Inc. has also confirmed it will not renew its membership with GMA.3

Leaving the GMA is not the only way Nestlé is changing. The processed food giant recently purchased Atrium Innovations — the Canadian parent company of the organic supplement brand, Garden of Life — for $2.3 billion.4 Garden of Life is said to make up the largest chunk of Atrium’s annual sales.

The irony of the buyout is pretty obvious. As noted by Reuters,5 “Nestlé [is] expanding its presence in consumer health care as it seeks to offset weakness in packaged foods.” Atrium will become part of the Nestlé Health Science division, which already sells nutritional products. The purchase reflects Nestlé’s new “strategic priority,” namely consumer health.

GMA Losing Key Members

Other major players have also chosen to part ways with GMA, suggesting Big Food is in fact starting to pay attention to consumers' demand for honesty and transparency. Three years ago, I wrote about how the GMA was suing states for the right to deceive you, and how it got caught laundering money during the Washington campaign to label genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The association was ultimately fined a record $18 million for its illegal side-stepping of the state's campaign finance laws, but by then the damage was already done and Washington did not get the votes required to enact GMO labeling. (The GMA has contested the guilty verdict, so the legal wranglings are not yet over.)

Around that same time, I also dubbed GMA "the most evil corporation on the planet," since it consists primarily of pesticide producers and junk food manufacturers who have gone to great lengths to violate some of your most basic rights, just to ensure that subsidized, genetically engineered (GE) and chemical-dependent, highly processed junk food remains the status quo.

The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) also called for a boycott on every single product owned by GMA members, including organic and natural brands, to send a clear message to the industry that we will no longer tolerate being bamboozled by their deceptive and illegal strategies. Since then, some of the heavy-hitters have indeed left — or are considering leaving — the GMA. This suggests your participation in the GMA boycott has indeed been wildly successful. According to Politico:6

"… Campbell decided to stop fighting and instead embrace GMO labeling early last year, believing that consumers want more information about what's in their food and where it comes from — not less. Other major food companies are also eyeing the door: Dean Foods, the largest dairy company in the country, has quietly decided to leave the association. Several others ... are considering it …

'Companies that get it have said, 'Why are we paying GMA more than $1 million a year to lobby for things that our brands don't support?'' said Jeff Nedelman, founder of the public relations firm Strategic Communications that works with health and wellness brands, and a former VP of communications at GMA during the 1980s and '90s.

'To me, it looks like GMA is the dinosaur just waiting to die,' Nedelman added … As more millennials become parents, food companies will have to adapt and change even more … as the majority of shoppers will be looking for brands and companies and products with aligned their values."

Changing Consumer Tastes Have Thrown Food Industry Into Disarray

People are becoming increasingly cognizant of the connection between food and health, and are seeking out healthier fare. American consumers are also paying greater attention to labeling, favoring companies that provide clear disclosures. Organics, grass fed meats and products that do not contain artificial colors are all becoming increasingly popular.

Just a few years ago, the industry saw "real food" and organics as a niche market, and there were even attempts to squash it by labeling people who sought out such foods as wealthy food snobs. It's now becoming clear that such derogatory labels don't work (and don't fit the majority of organic consumers). According to a recent market analysis, the top 20 food and beverage companies in the U.S. lost $18 billion of their market share between 2011 and 2017.7

In an effort to stop the bleeding and recapture sales, many started buying up popular organic brands. PepsiCo bought Naked Juice and Coca-Cola snapped up Honest Tea, while General Mills acquired Larabar and Kellogg's bought Kashi. The question is whether these processed food giants really have the "heart," not to mention financial incentive, to maintain the quality and purity consumers came to expect from organic brands.

The food industry is also at odds over the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) updated Nutrition Facts label,8 which will require manufacturers to list added sugars, both in grams and percentage of total daily calories. While Nestlé and Mars supported the change, others vehemently opposed it.

One of the main arguments against listing added sugars on the label is that it will confuse consumers, but in all reality, the only thing that will happen is that it will allow consumers to actually see and compare how much sugar is in their beloved staples, which just might trigger a switch to less health-harming foods.

Food companies have until January 2020 to comply with the label changes, but some have stated they will voluntarily update their labels well before that deadline, all in an effort to appease consumer demand for transparency.

Plant Based Foods Association — The New Kid on the Block

After leaving GMA, Campbell joined the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA), which presently claims to have 92 corporate members.9 The association's stated mission is "To ensure a fair and competitive marketplace for businesses selling plant-based foods intended to replace animal products such as meats, dairy and eggs, by promoting policies and practices that improve conditions in the plant-based foods industry, and educating consumers about the benefits of plant-based foods."10

While most people would certainly benefit from eating more plant foods, I can foresee the potential for trouble with such a narrow industry mission. Organic, grass fed animal foods have a unique and valuable place not only in the human diet but environmentally as well, as livestock is an important part of regenerative agriculture.

PBFA also represents manufacturers of meat substitutes, and while the industry claims getting rid of animal meat altogether is the answer to many of our health and environmental problems, the evidence suggests this simply isn't true.

A healthy ecosystem needs grazing animals, and there's very little if any evidence to support the idea that meat substitutes are in fact healthy. For example, the FDA has raised concerns about Impossible Burger's meat substitute made from soy, wheat, coconut oil, potatoes and plant-based "heme" derived from genetically engineered (GE) yeast.

Safety concerns also surround Quorn, another meat substitute made from a fungus-based ferment. I find it difficult to understand how a manufactured food product that has been accused of causing death could ever be sold as a healthier option than grass fed beef raised on a regenerative farm.

Why Junk Food Is Still Advertised to Children

Over the years, it's become increasingly clear that the processed food industry has little concern for public health. It's really all about maintaining sales, even when this means twisting the facts to make a product appear healthy — logic and science be damned. As noted by Scientific American in 2013,11 Congress commissioned the Inter-agency Working Group (IWG) to develop standards for the advertising of food to children in 2009.

Its report, released in 2011, turned out to be a devastating blow to food companies, as foods marketed to children had to contain "at least 50 percent by weight one or more of the following: fruit; vegetable; whole grain; fat-free or low-fat milk or yogurt; fish; extra lean meat or poultry; eggs; nuts and seeds; or beans." According to General Mills, the guidelines would bar 88 of the 100 most commonly consumed products in the U.S. from being advertised to children.12

Moreover, General Mills estimated that if all Americans ate a healthy diet, the food industry would lose $503 billion in annual sales.13 If you've been paying attention to what your children are told to eat while watching their favorite program, I'm sure you'll agree none of the items conform to the guidelines suggested by the IWG. That's because the industry fought the guidelines, and won.

Dietitians Lectured on Social Media Conduct

Food industry rifts have also become evident in the field of nutrition. The Washington Post recently ran a story about Rebecca Subbiah, a registered dietitian and organic farmer who recounts being harassed and shamed by other dietitians online.14 According to the article, Subbiah "unwittingly stepped into an online debate about industrial farming practices. She tweeted that she personally prefers organic foods because she believes they're better for the environment."

She describes the responses she received as "terrible" and "very toxic," saying the name-calling and questioning of her intellect made her cry. According to The Washington Post, the conversation about organics has "grown so heated that the country's certifying body for dietitians issued guidance to its members asking them to avoid 'belittling' or 'humiliating' colleagues in online discussions," and to sign a public pledge of professional civility.

Six other dietitians interviewed for the article agree that harassment "has become common in the field," and believe the "hostility reflects deepening ideological divides in both the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the professional group — and in nutrition, in general." It's quite sad when an organization has to actually instruct its members to remember to interact professionally when engaging in online discussions about nutrition.

It's also a potent reminder to patients and clients — your dietitian may well be mired in outdated and unhealthy opinions cultivated by the processed food and chemical technology industries. This isn't so surprising when you consider the fact that junk food companies have a hand in educating dietitians on what's healthy and what's not.

Dietitians Have Become an Increasingly Divided Lot

The American Dietetic Association's (ADA) annual conference has long been monopolized by the likes of Coca-Cola, Mars, Kellogg's and General Mills. Rarely if ever will you find organic food experts included in the speaker lineup at these events.

One cannot help but wonder if the harassment of dietitians who support and promote organics and a nonprocessed food diet doesn't originate from junk food purveyors and pesticide companies in the GE seed business. After all, the industry has become expert at secretly employing professionals and academics who then spread the corporate gospel under the cloak of independent opinion and expertise.

Melinda Hemmelgarn, who was attacked on social media for months after giving a public talk about the "unintended consequences of GMOs," told The Washington Post she believes online "incivility is just a symptom of the actual problem: deep divides between dietitians regarding the state of the modern food system."

As noted in the article, dietitians historically did not get involved with issues such as the environmental impacts of food production, but in recent years, such topics have become increasingly important to consumers, and hence the industry of nutrition. The issue was further brought to the fore when, in 2015, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee specifically noted that eating more plant foods would be beneficial for the environment.

Don't Let Your Diet Be Dictated by Corporate Agendas

It's really unfortunate that so many dietitians are still under the delusion that you can eat a processed food diet and regain or maintain good health, but such is the power of corporate brainwashing. For instance, many dieticians still believe artificial sweeteners are a sensible alternative to sugar, and that low-fat, low-calorie microwavable meals are a "healthy" dinner, when this could not be further from the truth.

Fortunately, at the forefront of any revolution is knowledge, and that is the stage many are at right now with regard to the food system. Finally, many are beginning to realize that the bulk of the packaged, processed foods found in supermarkets are not real "food" at all, but cheap concoctions of subsidized farm crops and chemicals manipulated to taste and look edible.

The easiest way to break free of this trap through your diet is by focusing on whole — ideally organic, or better yet, biodynamic — unadulterated foods, meaning foods that have not been processed or altered from their original state. I've compiled many tips on how to do this without breaking the bank in these past articles:

Coming Attraction: Fruit and Veggie Marketing Machine

Also remember that if a food is heavily advertised, there's a good chance it is unhealthy. Real foods like grass fed beef, raw butter, organic cage-free eggs, organic vegetables and the like are not the subject of commercial jingles or billboards, but they are the types of foods that will support optimal health. You can find more examples of real, healthy, non-corporate food in my nutrition plan.

Fortunately, signs of change are evident here as well. In an effort to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) has started a fruits and vegetable campaign15 (branded as FNV16) to improve public perception and acceptance of plant produce. The video above is a preview of FNV's "fruit and veggie marketing machine" — ads that are as enticing as those produced by junk food manufacturers.

According to the PHA, the new campaign is already starting to change behavior. Toni Carey, senior manager, communications and marketing for PHA, told Forbes that "80 percent of people bought or consumed more fruits and veggies after seeing FNV advertising" and that "over 90 percent have a favorable impression of FNV and would engage with the brand in some way."17

Where to Find Healthy Foods

While many grocery stores now carry organic foods, it's preferable to source yours from local growers whenever possible, as much of the organic food sold in grocery stores is imported. If you live in the U.S., the following organizations can help you locate farm-fresh foods:

Demeter USA

Demeter-USA.org provides a directory of certified Biodynamic farms and brands. This directory can also be found on BiodynamicFood.org.

American Grassfed Association

The goal of the American Grassfed Association is to promote the grass fed industry through government relations, research, concept marketing and public education.

Their website also allows you to search for AGA-approved producers certified according to strict standards that include being raised on a diet of 100 percent forage; raised on pasture and never confined to a feedlot; never treated with antibiotics or hormones; born and raised on American family farms.

EatWild.com

EatWild.com provides lists of farmers known to produce raw dairy products as well as grass fed beef and other farm-fresh produce (although not all are certified organic). Here you can also find information about local farmers markets, as well as local stores and restaurants that sell grass fed products.

Weston A. Price Foundation

Weston A. Price has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can easily purchase organic foods, including grass fed raw dairy products like milk and butter.

Grassfed Exchange

The Grassfed Exchange has a listing of producers selling organic and grass fed meats across the U.S.

Local Harvest

This website will help you find farmers markets, family farms and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass fed meats and many other goodies.

Farmers Markets

A national listing of farmers markets.

Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals

The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, hotels and online outlets in the United States and Canada.

Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA)

CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.

FoodRoutes

The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs and markets near you.

The Cornucopia Institute

The Cornucopia Institute maintains web-based tools rating all certified organic brands of eggs, dairy products and other commodities, based on their ethical sourcing and authentic farming practices separating CAFO "organic" production from authentic organic practices.

RealMilk.com

If you're still unsure of where to find raw milk, check out Raw-Milk-Facts.com and RealMilk.com. They can tell you what the status is for legality in your state, and provide a listing of raw dairy farms in your area. The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund18 also provides a state-by-state review of raw milk laws.19 California residents can also find raw milk retailers using the store locator available at www.OrganicPastures.com.

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