Food Marketing and the Under-Discussed Causes of Obesity

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Something that is not up for debate: childhood obesity rates in the United States are skyrocketing. The prevalence of childhood obesity has nearly tripled since 1980. The percentage of obese children has been on a steady incline, with the national obesity rate among youth ages 2-19 years old climbing from 13.9% in 1999 to 18.5% in 2016. These cold hard facts seem to be some of the only aspects of childhood obesity that both ends of the political spectrum can agree upon. However, the agreement ends there. “How do we address childhood obesity as a society? What is the government’s responsibility in ending childhood obesity? What role do food corporations play in combating this issue?” Depending on who you ask, there are about as many answers to these questions are there are sugary foods lining our grocery store shelves. Some believe that the power of food industry’s marketing is too strong for parents and children to ignore, and that the government should oversee the marketing tactics used. Some believe that the solution is a combination of individual responsibility and corporate responsibility to self regulate. Some believe that no one besides mothers and fathers should be dictating food choices, and that governmental regulation of food marketing is an overstep in responsibility. I could list all of the viewpoints here, but I’d be writing a novel, not a blog post. There are many different complex causes of obesity, and it’s difficult to point to one change in society that would explain the sharp increases, but without some general consensus on how to best approach this issue, we’re left twiddling our thumbs on how to address it while children continue to experience higher levels of diabetes, high blood pressure, and rising cholesterol levels.

These contradictory viewpoints were put on display in a 2011 Congressional hearing on food marketing and the role of government regulation in food marketed to our children. They sought to answer an unanswerable question: Can "voluntary" government restriction improve children’s health? The responses from (majority) conservatives seem to highlight some common understanding of nutrition: that food products are a sum of their parts. Low(er) sugar= good. Low(er) calories= good. Low(er) sodium= good. Their response is that the nutrients are clearly defined on the labels, and it’s up to parents to decide if their children are allowed to consume them or not. In his statement before the committee, Texas Congressman Joe Barton argued “The problem is not government guidelines. The problem is not knowing what is nutritious. The problem is that in our world today we just don’t take the time to do what we know we need to do, and we can’t regulate that. You can’t mandated that.” Tennessee Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn echoed many of the same sentiments, after expressing fears of government regulations of food marketing turning the United States into a “nanny state,” by telling a story of her own regulation of her grandchildren’s sweet intake: “One of the favorite incentives I have for my 2 grandchildren is an old Mr. M&M. And when you flip his hand, he dispenses a little M&M. After they eat the appropriate amounts of meat and veggies and a little bread and drink their milk, Mr. M&M gives them that candy token that they are looking for as their reward for doing things right.” Congressman Fred Upton brought up the effect that shifting the food industry might have on jobs, and referenced a study by IHS Consulting that stated that following stricter marketing guidelines would lead to a loss of as many as 74,000 in just 1 year and perhaps 378,000 jobs over 4 years. Most of the statements contain some combination of these ideas; that health is about individual choice, that government regulation of marketing is threatening to our economy and job creation, and that regulation won’t solve the issue of obesity.

Something that is not discussed in these responses are the all of the ingredients that are not neatly printed on the back of the box- preservatives and chemicals used in nearly all mass produced foods in order to keep them shelf-stable on their cross country journeys, and something even more invisible in these discussions, is the emotional and addictive power that these “not so healthy” foods have on children’s minds. It’s no mystery that these foods are appealing- we wouldn’t have a childhood obesity epidemic if these foods tasted like cardboard. A child would eat the cardboard, say “Yuck, this tastes like cardboard, I don’t want to eat the cardboard,” and we’d move on. But they don’t taste like cardboard. They taste chemically and scientifically delicious, as they are engineered to be. It would terrible for the bottom line of the food industry to prioritize healthy, less delicious foods, over delicious ones, so they don’t. But these under-the-surface discussions end up remaining under the surface, and the attention tends to be directed towards more obvious causes of obesity, and solutions that don’t necessitate a complete rethink of the food industry as a whole.

Another element that was almost completely ignored in this discussion was the element of class (and because of its tight link to class, race). William H. Dietz, the Director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, brought some of these issues to the floor by referencing studies that have found that there are ethnic and racial disparities in obesity prevalence among children. As Dietz presented to the hearing,

“Hispanic boys aged 2 to 19 years old were significantly more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white boys, 24.4% compared to 15.7% respectively, and non-Hispanic black girls were significantly more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white girls, 22.7% compared to 14.9% respectively.”

Dietz brought some inarguable facts to the hearing that pointed to some pretty damning disparities between the obesity rates of white children and children of color, and if you ask many of the Congressmen and Congresswomen what the causes of these are, it would essentially boil down to individual choice and responsibility. Congresswoman Blackburn’s story about her regulation of her grandchildren’s sweets is intended to highlight an action that she takes that everyone should be able to take, but doesn’t acknowledge some other underlying factors: what if low income parents who can only afford unhealthy, readily available foods don’t have the option of treating sweets as an added bonus to am otherwise healthy meal? And they are even farther away from discussing the powerful psychological effects can have on portions of the population that are disproportionately more likely to experience rates of trauma. Studies have found that Black Americans and Latinos experience much higher rates of trauma and depression when compared to the general population, and as seen above, these populations also experience much higher rates of obesity.

Is it such a stretch to believe that these rates are linked, and not as some might say, purely an act of choice and individual responsibility? Is it a stretch to attempt to hold the food industry accountable, to some degree?

The industry’s response to these questions is: obesity exists. There is no doubt about that. Obesity exists because folks don’t have access to healthy foods. So we will add whole grains to our already existing products in order to make them healthier, and fortify them with nutrients that will make their nutritional label more attractive, and embrace more pastoral imagery in their marketing, that emphasize organic ingredients and feature idyllic pastures that look far from the industrial farms that these ingredients actually come from. As Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, RD of Public Affairs of Monsanto has said on Monsanto’s role in fighting obesity, “Food production starts with a seed, and this is where much of Monsanto’s business is focused. We produce a wide variety of seeds for all types and sizes of farms around the world. As members of our families and communities, our people care about how we can help contribute to a balanced plate for people all over the world. While we do not produce or sell food directly, we have a vegetable seed business (for commercial growers and home gardeners) where we seek to make vegetables and melons more appealing to and convenient for consumers.” Kapsak’s answer to this question highlights under-explored aspect of the “whole grains” and “natural ingredients” trend that these companies have embraced: these ingredients are still coming from conventional farms that by-and-large prefer to use glyphosate, aka Monsanto’s roundup, in order to give their crops. Among many other side effects, glyphosate has been linked to higher rates of obesity through its harmful effects on gut bacteria. Food Democracy Now! and The Detox Project (follow the link for some seriously scare tacticy imagery alongside the study, including an amazing image of a baby drinking Roundup instead of milk) teamed up to examine the amount of glyphosate residue on conventional products, and found Original Cheerio’s (a General Mills product that, according to its own website, is “fed by the sun and grown into the earth,” and “jam-packed with positive energy) had the highest level of residue. The study also found some surprising high-scorers; Frito Lay’s Stacy’s Simply Naked Pita Chips, Raisin Bran, Lucy’s Gluten Free Oatmeal Cookies, Whole Food’s 365 Golden Round Crackers, and Crispy Cheddar Crackers from a brand called Back to Nature.

This example is not to say that Big Food is causing obesity through their use of pesticides, but rather to highlight just another facet of the not-so-simple link between food intake, personal responsibility and obesity.

So, all this to say, where do we start with acknowledging the effect that processed foods has on our bodies, especially young, developing bodies?

A study conducted by the Obesity Project highlighted the complex, interwoven possible causes of obesity that complicates the formula of the personal choice of healthy options + action = less obesity, almost to an unsettling degree. While the study remains hopeful that change can be made, it also doesn’t shy away from the fact that this argument is a delicate dance. They do not highlight any fast solutions, nor do they shy away from oversimplifying their chart that highlights potential contributors to energy storage.

Potential contributors to obesity. © The Obesity Society

Potential contributors to obesity. © The Obesity Society

As you can see, the causes above are as simple and easy to understand as “larger portion sizes” (people generally tend to understand that larger portion sizes = more calories) and some under-recognize contributors, such as “living in crime-prone areas,” “pre-natal air pollution,” and “social anxiety.” The study also discusses a line that is difficult to walk, and that is the line between empowering obese individuals to make change within themselves and recognize their own agency, and the very real factors that their environment have over their individual choice (as we can see above). While reading this study doesn’t leave me with any shiny, Disney-fied feeling of hope that obesity is a fight that can be won easily (in fact, it’s quite heavy with its realistic look at how much complexity there is in this debate, and how many approaches must be taken to decrease the many factors), it does feel heartening that there is an organization out there who prioritizes acknowledging what a beast tackling this issue is instead of providing an over-simplified look at how to solve the issue.

My hope is that writing like mine, as amateur and exploratory as it may be, can be an example of one person’s journey to better understand food from “farm to fork,” as The Obesity Society says, and its (say it with me, now!) COMPLEX relationship to our lives. Maybe Big Food is an unslayable dragon, but we can try, can’t we?!

Maggie Mullins