There are now more than 700 million obese people worldwide, 108 million of them children, reported the New York Times in 2017. In Brazil, food giant Nestle sends vendors door to door hawking its high-calorie junk food and giving customers a full month to pay for their purchases. Such a deal. Nestle calls the junk food hawkers, who are themselves obese, “micro-entrepreneurs.” Right.
Big Food is increasingly targeting poor countries as “emerging markets” to please Wall Street and shareholders—perhaps because getting people fat and hooked on junk food in rich countries has plateaued.
Supplanting the indigenous diets of people in poor countries with fast food, packaged goods and soft drinks is unethical for many reasons. In addition to creating obesity, diabetes, heart disease, chronic illnesses and dental degradation, the junk food supplants subsistence agriculture crops with GMO corn and soybeans. Even philanthropic groups like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have drunk Big Food’s Kool-Aid about GMOs “feeding the world.” Actually, GMOs drench the fields of poor communities with toxic pesticides and pollute their waters.
Nestle’s exploitation of the poor goes back more than 40 years when it convinced poor mothers to reject their own breast milk—the one thing poor mothers actually have to give their babies—in favor of its infant formula. Activist groups say babies die in poor areas of Asia, Africa and Latin America because their mothers bottle-feed them with Western-style infant milk.
“The single largest donor to congressional candidates was the Brazilian meat giant JBS, which gave candidates $112 million in 2014,” reports the Times about Big Food’s influence in Brazil. (JBS acquired Swift & Company, the third largest US beef and pork processor, in 2007 and slaughters an astounding 51.4 thousand head per day.) In 2014, Coca-Cola gave $6.5 million in campaign contributions in Brazil and McDonald’s donated $561,000.
A few years ago, Reuters reported that the World Health Organization’s Pan American Health Organization takes hundreds of thousands of dollars and “obesity” advice from junk food and soft drink companies. No wonder the advice stresses “exercise” and gives aggressive marketing to children a pass. Was anyone surprised when Coke became Mexico’s top-selling soft drink under its former president and chief executive who was also Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox?
Coca-Cola has bought itself a huge economic footprint. It provides funding to the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, the American College of Cardiology, the American Academy of Pediatrics and Harvard Medical School/Partners in Health. It donates to major universities, recreation and fitness groups and organizations serving ethnic and minority groups whose members are especially challenged with obesity.
Coca-Cola also donates to the CDC itself through the non-profit CDC Foundation created by Congress in 1992 to encourage “relationships” between industry and government.
Even the press is affected. Last year, the BMJ reported on Coca-Cola’s secret influence on medical and science journalists through funding of journalism conferences including those held by the prestigious Washington, D.C.-based National Press Foundation. No wonder “obesity is caused by lack of exercise” not by junk food like Coke is heard not just from governments and medical professionals but from reporters. (Disclosure—I was once invited by Big Food on an expense-paid press junket to view industrial egg farms in Colorado and then disinvited when they read my reporting.)
In the 2014 movie “Fed Up”, Katie Couric exposed how the US government admonishes people to eat right, while pushing the foods that make them fat, and how school lunchrooms have also been bought by Big Food. The film reveals how the egg, sugar and other Big Food industries revised guidelines generated from the 1977 McGovern Report that recommended people eat less foods high in fat and sugar to favor them, overruling Sen. McGovern.
In 2006, a similar Big Food triumph occurred. Faced with the United Nations’ WHO food recommendations that were similar to the McGovern Report, then Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Tommy G. Thompson actually flew to Geneva to threaten WHO that if the guidelines stood, the US would withdraw its WHO financial support. Yes—supporting agriculture is more important to the US government than the health of its people.
Last summer, the New York Times revealed the devastating toll that junk food, obesity and diabetes have on poor people in Appalachia, most of whom have minimal or no health care. People in Appalachia are sicker than in Central America, noted Dr. Joseph Smiddy, a health volunteer in Virginia. “In Central America, they’re eating beans and rice and walking everywhere. They’re not drinking Mountain Dew and eating candy. They’re not having an epidemic of obesity and diabetes.” Of course he was talking about areas not yet invaded by Nestle, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.
In Chicago last year, there was a bitter fight over a penny-per-ounce tax that had been levied on sweetened beverages. The beverage industry spent more than $1.4 million on television ads trying to reverse the tax and won. The industry cast the desire to drink high-calorie, obesity-, diabetes- and dental cavity-causing soft drinks as “consumer choice.” The biggest supporters of the tax repeal were poor communities in Chicago—the ones most hurt by soft drinks and “food deserts” where better food is not readily available.
Someone on a typical 2,000-calorie-a-day diet should derive only 200 calories a day from sugar—equal to one 16- ounce soda. Yet most Americans consume at least twice the recommended amount and few people who have the soda “habit” only drink one soft drink a day. Some admit they are addicted.
Once upon a time, “sugar” meant sugar from sugar cane or sugar beets. But since 1980, soft drink producers have favored high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and they have been followed by most major food producers and processors. Trade restrictions in other countries to protect local sugar production made sugar more expensive to use even as US farmers were growing copious amounts of corn because of farm subsidies and GMO seeds. HFCS is also cheaper to produce, store and ship.
HFCS is linked to obesity, diabetes, liver damage, memory problems and even possible mercury but that does not mean artificial sweeteners are better. An increase in the use of aspartame, found in Diet Coke, and sucralose, found in Pepsi One, actually correlated with a rise in the number of people who are obese, reported the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine.
Big Food spends millions marketing junk food to consumers and more millions telling them that is not why they are fat. Does anyone believe that?
Martha Rosenberg is an award-winning investigative public health reporter who covers the food, drug and gun industries. Her first book, “Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health,” is distributed by Random House. Rosenberg has appeared on CSPAN and NPR and lectured at medical schools and at the Mid-Manhattan Public Library.