3.15.2015

The Food Issues Book Club: Appetite For Profit, Chapter 7

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Appetite for Profit, Chapter 7: Exposing Government Complicity

Summary:

Government is more likely to support food industry profit than the promotion of public health.  This has been regularly reflected in USDA dietary guidelines, over which the food industry tends to exert undue influence.

2005's revamped "MyPyramid" guidelines both place responsibility for health solely on the consumer and emphasizes exercise - rather than nutrition - as the key to health.  It is ironic to say the least that nutrition guidelines do not emphasize nutrition's role in health.  The redesigned pyramid is also significantly more difficult to understand.  The food industry's support of the new guidelines indicates that they are quite friendly to industry interests.

In 2004, the FDA released a report called Calories Count emphasizing personal responsibility once again.  At a "summit on obesity" the same year, the US Secretary of Health and Human Services encouraged the same, stating outright that "[w]e have to do it ourselves."  He even praised McDonald's for its healthier options.  At the same event, the US Surgeon General provided major food industry players a platform to voice their viewpoints, shutting out all other ideas under a guise of time constraint.  Such focused, industry-friendly messaging is surprisingly common at events purportedly promoting public health initiatives.

"When the federal government is complicit with corporations, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between public and private interests."

Discussion:

Who else grew up with this guy,
and the "four food groups?"
I frequently find myself reminding people that the evening news is not a public service: it is a moneymaking business.  The information presented, and the way in which it is framed, is orchestrated intentionally to boost potential profit.

I think most people realize that nutrition information that comes from food companies is the same.  They're not telling you to eat more protein or increase your whole grain intake for your own good; they're trying to sell you their products that provide "plenty of protein and a full serving of whole grains!"  What many may not realize, though, is that government is also hocking for the food industry.  Even public service announcements are often actually just industry advertisements.

After MyPyramid in 2005 came MyPlate in 2011 (and it has its own Facebook page, bee tee dubs).  The guidelines and icon recommend "protein" and do not specify "meat," but the meat industry didn't quibble with this as it's spent decades making sure that we believe only meats contain protein.  Also, note that it very clearly recommends dairy - and recommends three cups per day at that.  Given that 2/3 of the adult population of the world is lactose intolerant, and that just 1 cup of whole milk contains 8 to 9 grams of fat (5 of which are saturated) and 150 calories, that's just a bit insane.  The dairy industry seems pretty happy about it though.  And of course, you could choose cheese (high in both fat and salt) or yogurt (often high in sugar) instead!  Or skim milk... everyone loves skim milk, right?  But of course this is totally necessary, since there is literally no other possible source of calcium at all ever anywhere.  Just like protein is only found in meat.  EVERYONE KNOWS THAT.

The food plans outlined on the MyPyramid website are vague at best, and because they give amounts of each food type to be eaten in a week, rather than per day or per meal, would require an extraordinary amount of planning to follow.  5 1/2 cups of red and orange vegetables per week?  How do you even work that out?  How much is a cup of oranges anyway?  Last I checked, tomatoes and carrots don't come in cup measurements.  No wonder, as explained in the book chapter, that only 2 to 4 percent of the US population actually tries to follow these recommendations.

When looking at federal nutrition guidelines, it's important to realize that the USDA has conflicting missions: it is meant both to guide the dietary health of the nation, and to support its food manufacturers.  When it's more profitable for the food industry to sell junk food than healthful food (due in large part to government policy...), this conflict becomes deeply problematic.  It seems likely that until a different agency is in charge of providing governmental dietary guidelines, we will continue to receive industry-friendly advice.  I wait with baited breath to see the extent to which the upcoming guidelines are able to buck this trend.

Locally, we have a public health initiative called Fit NOLA begun by the New Orleans Health Department in 2012.  Fit NOLA is, in turn, part of Michelle Obama's Let's Move! national initiative.  Fit NOLA's aim is to become one of the top ten fittest cities in the country by 2018; how it plans to achieve this is not clear, but it does unsurprisingly place responsibility squarely on us: "every New Orleanian will need to commit to being more nutritionally and physically fit."  Sure, we all need to take responsibility for our own health to the extent possible.  For many New Orleanians, though, that extent is small to nonexistent.

Yep, this logo.
While I'm glad that Nola is interested in improving the health of its residents, this program has a major visibility problem.  I literally didn't know it existed, for instance, until writing this blog post, despite the fact that I've been deeply invested in its food and restaurant scene for the past four years.  It also fails Branding 101: it doesn't even have a logo.

Its most visible effort by far is the Eat Fit NOLA program, sponsored by a non-public entity - Ochsner Health System - which owns and operates many of the area's hospitals.  Eat Fit NOLA labels menu items (with a logo!) at participating area restaurants to indicate choices that meet certain parameters.  I am skeptical of this program - in no small way because of the food options I've found in its facilities - but need to look into it further.  Have you tried Eat Fit NOLA choices at any area restaurants?  If so, please tell us about the experience in the comments.

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