Despite the overwhelming importance diet and nutrition have in our lives, most people show very little interest in food other than satisfying their hunger or taste buds. Perhaps this is because people are too busy doing other things, perhaps it’s too complicated or maybe it’s because of all the conflicting information ‘out there’. For many people it’s simply too confusing, and this confusion is brought about in part by the vested interests of those companies marketing our food stuffs.
To make their products competitive, the cheapest ingredients available are usually used, whether they are sources locally or internationally. Unfortunately, energy-dense grains, fats and sweets represent the lowest-cost dietary options to the consumer. Good taste, high convenience, and the low cost of energy-dense, in conjunction with larger portion options and low satiating power, are the principal reasons for overeating and weight gain.
The breakfast food people tell us to buy their product so that we’ll be eating a nutritionally balanced breakfast, but most of the nutrition in their products comes from the vitamins and minerals they add. The soya food industry and dairy industry tell us their products are healthy for a whole other set of reasons and the confusion deepens. This is complicated by the fact that we (including many doctors) usually have a poor understanding of even the basics of nutrition. Most people receive their information from the advertisements on television and from the food packets. It’s literally in our faces all the time, from when we first get up and stare at the breakfast food packaging, to the multitude of ads on television.
For the past 50 years we have had misleading information and as a result the public are confused about what they should be eating to stay healthy. Even people who spend their time trying to keep up with the information are confused. If you followed the recommendations on the food pyramid for the past 20 years there is a very good chance that you would have ended up with diabetes, had a heart attack or stroke, gotten cancer or had some other major chronic illness. Hence the high levels of chronic illness now experienced in developed countries. Even the new version, MyPlate, while a little easier to understand, will still increase your risk of chronic illness.
The food pyramid, which was developed in 1992 by advertising and marketing researchers to develop an image the consumer could identify with and easily understand. It was never intended to be a health guideline it was developed to sell agricultural produce. The pyramid was then widely distributed and has been used as an educational tool, basis for dietary assessment, and part of policy documents. To highlight the strong influence of industry on US food guidelines, in 2011 the US Department of Agriculture, the same organisation who created the food pyramid, labelled pizza as a vegetable because it has tomato paste. Any wonder the food pyramid was so wrong.
Most food guidelines are controlled by vested interests seeking only short-term gains through promoting nutritionally undesirable eating habits. For example, Nutrition Australia, the controlling body of the healthy food pyramid, has a number of corporate members, such as Dairy Australia, an industry group, as well as the company Tefal (which sells the number one deep fryer in the world). These corporate members may influence decisions made within Nutrition Australia. There are examples of the sugar and salt industry manipulating food guidelines and even protesting against claims of adverse health effects of their products; the main reason for this is protection of profits. Thus questions must be asked about the effects that these corporate members have on changes to the healthy food pyramid. If changes occurred would they work in favour of the corporate members or would they work in favour of human health?
Industry can manipulate food guidelines by using them as marketing tools. The Heart Foundation Tick (HFT), a common food logo, has guidelines developed by the Australian Heart Foundation. However, the HFT is a voluntary system having a minimum fee of $3,000, meaning food companies purchase the HFT after passing its guidelines, although the HFT can be placed on fruit and vegetables for free. As the HFT is voluntary it may not represent the best choice for the consumer; for instance a competitor’s product may be more nutritious but if the company has not paid for the HFT it is not endorsed by the Heart Foundation. Yet less nutritious products can be endorsed. The American version of the HFT, the HeartGuide Food Endorsement Program, lasted just two months with consumers, nutritionists and even the U.S. government rejecting the system as biased. Similarly, both the Canadian and British heart associations dropped their food endorsement programs to remain independent, leaving Australia one of the only countries maintaining the HFT. Recently the Heart Foundation Tick was given to a number of McDonald’s products as well as 48 sugary breakfast foods. The foundation seems to have not seen the growing body of literature on sugar and chronic illness, including heart attack, or maybe it did and simply ignored it. It should also be noted that the Heart Foundation has received millions of dollars from drug companies who have a vested interest in heart disease. Not so independent. Amongst many donations the drug company Pfizer made to supposedly independent health advocacy groups in Australia were $227,409 in 2008 and $126,000 in 2009 to the Heart Foundation. So much for independent heart health advice.
Perhaps the best example of industry’s vested interests is food claims upon products. Claims such as “low in fat,” “all natural” or “light” can often be misleading and trick consumers into buying something they think is healthy when it may not be. Industry suggests these claims are a source of information for consumers; however, these claims are often only a marketing tool influencing consumers, not a health promotion strategy. If the packaging on a food product makes a nutritional claim, it may be best not to eat that food.
If you search in the scientific literature for foods that improve your health, that is, foods which reduce the risk of diseases and give long term benefits, you’ll discover that fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds (and many vitamin, mineral and other supplements) are the healthiest and most nutritious of all foods. Most of the grains we consume are over processed carbohydrates with so little nutritional value that the food companies are forced to add vitamin and minerals to make them a little healthy. These foods also have a high glycemic index, which means they raise blood sugar levels very quickly, damages the blood cells and is converted to fat.
Everything you eat will either accelerate illness, or will work to health, strength and vitality. An excess of processed, grain-based food is debilitating to your body, as are all the over-processed foods. This and other dietary issues have been clouded by the focus on calories. Despite the obsession with calculating the energy units in food, the general population continues to put on weight and get sick from diet-related diseases. Instead our focus should be on the nutritional content of food, not on calories.