Why are tax dollars buying you junk food?

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As our country continues to face an obesity crisis, it is ridiculous to think that the government would be spending even one dollar to subsidize junk food.  According to a report just released by the US Public Interest Research Group, that number actually looks more like $19 billion.

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In the report, Apples to Twinkies 2013, PIRG unveils some seriously troubling issues with our current subsidy model. Here are a few of the key findings:

  • Since 1995, the government has spent 19.2 billion on corn and soy-derived junk food ingredients including corn sweeteners, hydrogenated oils, and corn starch.
  • Over that same time period, only $689 million has been allotted for apple subsidies, which is the ONLY fruit or vegetable to receive a substantial government subsidy.
  • If taxpayers were to receive an annual federal subsidy directly, each person would receive $7.30 to spend on junk food. In other words, every year, your tax dollars pay for enough junk food additives to buy 20 Twinkies, as the recently re-released product contains 17 taxpayer subsidized ingredients including partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening, corn syrup, and high fructose corn syrup.
  • On the contrary, the few dollars spent on apples only amounts to 26 cents per taxpayer per year, which would buy less than half of one apple per taxpayer.
  • The system disproportionately benefits larger commodity crop producers, sending tax subsidies to large, already-profitable companies like Cargill and Monsanto.
  • 75 percent of the subsidies go to just 3.8 percent of farmers, with 62 percent of farms receiving no federal funds whatsoever.

Many of these subsidies are set to expire this year, but not surprisingly, lobbyists for junk food companies want Congress to keep them.  Just last week, the House passed a Farm Bill (H.R. 1947) that will continue the subsidies for the next five years, while an amendment to discontinue certain subsidies for agribusinesses with high incomes failed.

Estimates of obesity-related medical costs have reached $150 billion per year, thanks in-part to cheap and highly accessible processed junk food.   If accessibility and low prices could be offered for healthier foods like fruits and vegetables instead, wouldn’t that help to circumvent the health problems and costs that are associated with junk food diets?

Critics argue that lower prices may not be enough to persuade consumers to choose healthy foods over junk foods, but several studies have shown that this probably isn’t the case.  A systematic review published in Public Health Nutrition concluded that subsidizing healthier foods tends to be effective in modifying dietary behavior.   All but one study in the review showed that subsidies on healthier foods significantly increase the purchase and consumption of promoted products.

“Taxpayers cannot afford to finance empty-calorie products when they foster obesity-related illnesses and raise already high health care costs,” says PIRG’s report. Nor should they want to.  With all of the focus that goes to wasteful government spending, you would think there would be a collective agreement that there are far better uses for taxpayer dollars than subsidizing the ingredients of a Twinkie.

Marion Nestle’s message on Food Politics: We need social solutions

Last week, I had the privilege of participating in a presentation from Marion Nestle at New Haven’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas.  Marion is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at NYU, a renowned food policy advocate, and author of one my favorite books, Food Politics.  Her research examines scientific and socioeconomic influences on food choice, obesity, and food safety, emphasizing the role of food marketing; so you can imagine my excitement about seeing her speak.

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Much of the information that Marion presented was not new to me, however, I still found her messages to be powerful and motivating.

First, Marion outlined how we have gotten ourselves into the obesity epidemic that we currently face:

  • Since 1980, the number of calories available in our food supply have increased to twice the average need per person per day.
  • Dietary intake is up 200 calories per person per day.  This is according to what individuals report, which as we know, is probably lower than what is actually consumed.
  • Federal policy (including corn and soybean subsidies) have lead to processed junk foods that are cheaper than raw fruits and vegetables.
  • Food companies have to report to Wall Street every 90 days.  In this heavily scrutinized and competitive market, companies have to continue to sell more in order to grow, which means increasing the amount of food that consumers take in.
  • Food marketing is loosely regulated (mostly by the food companies themselves),  allowing for a lot of deception and manipulation, especially for our most vulnerable populations — children and minorities.
  • Companies use health claims like “fat-free”, “cholesterol-free”, and “sugar-free” which studies have shown trick consumers into treating the products like they are also “calorie-free”.
  • Junk food products are showing up everywhere: Drug stores, Office supply stores, etc.  There are very few places you can go without at least finding a vending machine filled with candy, snacks and sugary drinks.
  • We live in an environment that encourages us to eat more.  Exercising personal responsibility doesn’t stand a chance in this type of environment.
  • Food companies have drastically increased portion sizes of their meals since the 1950’s.  The CDC released a great infographic to display this:

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  • Even if they wanted to, the food industry can’t make any changes to their products and practices if it will negatively affect their bottom line.

So what does all this mean? Should we all just accept defeat in this obesigenic environment? Not according to Marion.

Her solution is twofold:

1) Vote with your fork:   Exercise your power as a consumer.  McDonald’s doesn’t make cheap hamburgers because laws require them to. They make cheap hamburgers because people buy them. Every time you buy a food product, you are, in essence, voting for the company that produced, packaged, and marketed it.  Every time we spend money, the recipient of our dollars gets the message that we approve of their product and we want more of it. But the opposite is also true.

Even more importantly…

2) Vote with your vote: Changing our food environment requires social solutions, not just personal responsibility.  We need to educate consumers through menu labeling, media campaigns and honest food labels.  We need restrictions like nutrition standards for schools and foods marketed to children.  We need taxes on harmful products like sugary drinks to deter over-consumption.  We need to restructure government subsidies to  make healthful, unprocessed foods cheaper.  We even need the occasional ban for dangerous industry-created substances like trans-fats.

While the concepts are simple, actually implementing them is much more challenging.  For starters, we need legislators and policy makers that are more interested in public health than corporate health, and a constituency to back them up.

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If you haven’t read any of Marion Nestle’s work before, I highly recommend checking out her blog. Michael Pollan ranked her as the #2 most powerful foodie in America (after Michelle Obama), and Mark Bittman ranked her #1 in his list of foodies to be thankful for.  I couldn’t agree more.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Junk Food Industry

When I first decided to become a Registered Dietitian, I was very excited about the opportunity to join the team of nutrition experts that represent the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).  I assumed that the credential (and the professional organization behind it) would provide me with the skills and education necessary to help improve the nation’s food environment through public policy and research. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.  Instead, I find myself struggling to defend my credential, and wanting to distance myself from the very organization I was supposed to be depending on for guidance.

For those who are unfamiliar, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly known as the American Dietetic Association) is the United States’ largest organization of food and nutrition professionals. Comprised primarily of Registered Dietitians, the organization is supposed to help advance the profession through research, advocacy and education.

However, last January, Michele Simon, author of Appetite for Profit and blogger for Eat Drink Politics, unveiled a report disclosing important details about the relationships between the AND and food companies like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Hershey’s. This report provided abundant evidence that partnerships with Big Food make it impossible for AND members to communicate clear and accurate nutrition messages.

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Americans are already bombarded with deceptive claims and misleading information regarding nutrition and health.  Most don’t realize that much of the advice they receive stems from the economic interests of food companies rather than actual nutrition science.   Big Food is not in business to protect or contribute to good health. These companies exist to make profits. Partnering with health organizations like the AND is just another means to put a health halo on products that are fundamentally unhealthful, and provides a false sense of trust to the public that the companies actually care about the health of their customers.

According to Simon’s report, the AND claims,

In its relations with corporate organizations, the Academy is mindful of the need to avoid a perception of conflict of interest and to act at all times in ways that will only enhance the credibility and professional recognition of the Academy and its members.

But, when food companies like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s (known for their junk food products) sponsor the Academy’s conferences and contribute continuing education to Registered Dietitians, it is impossible for the RD credential not to lose integrity in the eyes of the public.  Furthermore, it is hard to believe that there is no bias in the information and research that is presented. You can’t expect an organization accepting funding from fast food companies to tell the public to eat less fast food. Instead, they use messages like, ‘all foods fit’ or ‘everything in moderation’, that continue to confuse consumers.

It is truly unfortunate that the reputation of a credential we have worked so hard for (and deeply value) has become tarnished thanks to some measly monetary contributions by Big Food.  Thankfully, I discovered an organization a few months ago comprised of over 4,000 Registered Dietitians, health professionals and conscious consumers that not only feel as I do, but are striving for change. Dietitians for Professional Integrity was created by several RD’s, working hard to convince the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to cut ties with food companies that contribute to our nation’s poor health. In fact, just a few days ago, the organization released a petition, which will be formally presented to the Academy at their next Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo in October.

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Even if you are not a Registered Dietitian, please consider signing on to this petition. Nutrition professionals, the clients we serve, and the public deserve nutrition information and education free of bias and influence from junk food companies.