Childhood Obesity, Conflicts, and Deception

Yogurt = finger paint

This summer, Dan Harris and Maggy Patrick of ABC News put together a devastating report on the question, “Is ‘Big Food’s’ Big Money Influencing the Science of Nutrition?” The food industry has been accused of “deceptive science and advocacy,” a charge repeated by Jeffrey P. Koplan, M.D., and Kelly D. Brownell, Ph.D., in the pages of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Deceptive advocacy is when suppliers of products, commodities, or services create bogus groups to support or oppose an issue, pretending to be on the other side. It’s supposed to look as if inspired by concerned citizens, but, really, the group is either founded or funded by corporate interests. Because it is a fake entity that imitates a grassroots movement, “astroturf” is a term applied to the bogus organization. The tobacco industry and the Net Neutrality struggle, to name just two prominent examples, are rife with astroturf.

The ABC team quotes a University of North Carolina food researcher, Barry Popkin, who gives examples of this phenomenon: the Center for Consumer Freedom and Americans Against Food Taxes. But deceptive advocacy has been around forever. A very large percentage of advertising falls under the heading of deceptive advocacy. Like it or not, it’s here to stay.

The charge to really worry about is “deceptive science.” Science is meant to be impartial and operating on a moral plane that is above mundane fiscal concerns. Unfortunately, another thing the tobacco business and the food industry have in common is their bad habit of buying results, and even buying the occasional scientist.

Popkin told the reporters,

I’ve been offered $5,000 to go speak to this meeting or that meeting… You get $2,000 to $5,000 a day. They’ll fly you on business class tickets to exotic places. They’ll take you to Paris or Rio…

Is this kind of thing ethically okay or not? It’s a tough question, with good people on all sides. One position is, if a corporation happens to manufacture the very products that contribute to the problem in the first place, their money is dirty money, and honest researchers, agencies, etc., should not touch it.

For example, the report says:

The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia was criticized for taking $10 million for obesity research from the soda industry, and after the American Association of Family Physicians took money from Coca-Cola, some members ripped up their membership cards.

Another point of view sees no problem if a corporation can be shamed or legislated into helping to repair the damage caused by its products. In a society that measures everything by money, the corporation’s virtue is thought to be demonstrated by its willingness to fork over a miniscule portion of its takings.

An organization that is willing to accept such offers is described by the report:

The American Dietetic Association took money from Hershey to collaborate on a ‘Moderation Nation’ website… Some obesity experts were appalled that it included recipes such as ‘Fudgey Fruit Pizza’ and ‘Crispy Chocolate Ice Cream Mud Pie,’ which has 14 teaspoons of sugar in each slice. In a statement, the ADA defended the program, saying that website helped deliver healthy eating messages to a wider consumer audience than it otherwise could.

That kind of thing can happen. And another feeling people have is that professionals paid for their expensive educations and worked hard for their credentials, and they deserve to get some return by selling their expertise as a product and earning consultation fees.

Here is a randomly picked, typical news story about a good corporate citizen, Dannon the yogurtmakers. The company gave a “Next Generation Nutrition” grant to the Open Door Medical Center in Port Chester, New York. This was not Dannon’s only contribution to the funding of nutrition programs, with the purpose of reducing childhood obesity. The recipients, we are told, must show evidence of gaining the attention of children and families, and of actually making a difference.

The story says,

This year, Dannon awarded $30,000 to Open Door for the medical center’s ‘Fit for Life’ program, which is ‘tailored to curb the alarming recent trend in children’s health.’ … [T]he company praised Open Door’s efforts to educate kids and families on nutrition, exercise and all-around healthy lifestyles.

On the other hand, the website Diet Spotlight broadcasts this warning about the corporation’s Activia yogurt:

Not ideal for diabetics contains excessive sugar… [C]onsumers should be aware of the heavy sugar content and some unnatural ingredients added to their yogurt.

Apparently, the “lite” variety contains aspartame, which isn’t that great either. And some people’s systems react very badly to the product.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Is ‘Big Food’s’ Big Money Influencing the Science of Nutrition?,” ABC News, 06/21/11
Source: “Open Door Earns $30k Grant From Dannon,” Port Chester, NY Patch, 08/10/11
Source: “Activia Review,” Diet Spotlight
Image by smoorenburg (Angie Garrett), used under its Creative Commons license.

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