Why Junk Food Can’t End Obesity: It’s the Food System, Stupid

Source: clagnut
Source: clagnut

In a recent article in The Atlantic, David Freedman argues that demonizing fast food may be dooming many people to obesity and disease and that embracing fast food could make us all healthier.  Freedman’s How Junk Food Can End Obesity uses the familiar journalistic trope of man-bites-dog to make the case that what he calls “the whole food movement” (aka Pollanites, after Michael Pollan) is the obstacle to reducing obesity while junk food companies willingness to modify their products is the solution. 



Freedman makes some important observations:  he highlights the class composition of the some parts of the food movement, he calls attention to the limits of making processed food the villain of the American diet, and he faults the food movement for rarely considering the scale of changes needed to make healthy food available throughout the country, much less the world. 



But for the most part, Freedman so ignores the political and economic realities of America that his arguments are silly, like your contrarian cousin who claims Rand Paul ought to be President. I’ll focus on three gaps in his arguments.



First, Freedman ignores the role of market forces.  He writes that fast food companies should be encouraged to use food technology to market healthier products, claiming that “these roundly demonized companies could do far more for the public’s health in five years than the wholesome-food movement is likely to accomplish in the next 50.”  But how has that strategy played out in the last five years?    



In 2008, with much fanfare, Indra Nooyi, the Chair and CEO of beverage and snack manufacturer PepsiCo, announced plans to double the revenues from its nutritious products by 2020, from 20 percent to 40 percent. She invested in product reformulation, increasing the research and development budget by 25 percent between 2008 and 2010, while PepsiCo’s advertising emphasized images of health.(1)



When these new products failed to quickly deliver profits, however, investors and the Board of Directors demanded change. Their argument was mathematical: surveys showed that while 65 percent of Americans indulge in high fat, sugar and salt snacks, only 25 percent choose “healthy snacks”.(2)  PepsiCo shifted gears to re-focus on its more profitable and indulgent brands. Products that PepsiCo calls “good for you” still account for only about 20 percent of revenue. The bulk of the money still comes from drinks and snacks the company dubs “fun for you,” including Lay’s potato chips, Doritos corn chips and Pepsi–by far the company’s biggest seller with about $20 billion in annual retail sales globally.(2) Sixteen of the company’s 22 “billion-dollar” brands are “fun-for you” (but make you sicker quicker) high sugar or fat products and three are diet sodas.(3)  By confusing Big Food hype for their actual practices, Freedman misleads his readers. 


Beyond Pollanites: Brooklyn Food Coalition activists    Source: 350.org
Beyond Pollanites: Brooklyn Food Coalition activists
Source: 350.org



Second, Freedman doesn’t consider the political record of Big Food in resisting democratic efforts to hold them accountable for their business practices. According to a 2012 special investigative report by Reuters, between 2009 and 2012, more than 50 leading food and beverage companies and trade associations spent $175 million to lobby the Obama Administration against the federal effort to write tougher — but still voluntary — nutritional standards for foods marketed to children.(4) This expenditure was more than double the $83 million spent in the previous three years, during the Bush Administration.  The food and media companies hired Anita Dunn, Obama’s former White House communications chief, to run their media strategy.  In contrast, Reuters found, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, widely regarded as the lead public health advocacy organization lobbying against the food industry, spent about $70,000 lobbying last year — roughly what those opposing the stricter guidelines spent every 13 hours.(4) And Freedman wants to leave these companies to decide how to improve the American diet and reduce obesity? Who’s being naive now?



Finally, Freedman writes as if one segment of the food movement, what he calls the “wholesome foodies”, is the entire food movement.  What about the white, Black, Latino and Asian parents from low and middle income neighborhoods in Brooklyn working with the Brooklyn Food Coalition to improve school food in New York City?  The fast food workers organizing in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and elsewhere?  The many groups looking to convert SNAP from a subsidy for Big Food into a force for health for poor and hungry Americans?  By demonizing one admittedly influential sector of the food movement as if its views were monolithic, Freedman missed an opportunity for constructive debate within the movement. By parroting the slurs on the food movement that Big Food executives like to use at their shareholder meetings (elitists who look to take choices away from poor Americans), Freedman ends up reinforcing those stereotypes. 



In the final analysis, it’s not processed food, it’s not McDonald’s and it’s not soda that are the chief reasons our food system contributes so much to poor health.  Rather, it’s a food—and economic — system that values the profits of a handful of big companies more highly than the health and nutritional needs of the population or the well-being of the environment that sustains life. 





1. Bauerlein V.  PepsiCo chief defends her strategy to promote ‘good for you’ foods. The Wall Street Journal.June 28, 2011. Available at:http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303627104576412232408827462.html. Accessed August 9, 2012.

2. Esterl M, Bauerlien V.  PepsiCo wakes up and smells the cola. The Wall Street Journal. June 28,2011:B1.

3. PepsiCo. PepsiCo Welcomes our newest Billion-Dollar Brands. Advertisement. New York Times, January 26, 2012, p. B5.

4. Wilson D, Roberts J. Special Report: How Washington went soft on childhood obesity. Reuters. Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/04/27/us-usa-foodlobby-idUSBRE83Q0ED20120427. Published on April 27, 2012. Accessed on August 21, 2012.