Big Food: The Public Library of Science Examines Health Impact

Published on
June 27, 2012

Over the next couple of weeks, the Public Library of Science is publishing a series of eight articles looking at the health impact of “Big Food,” which they define as “the multinational food and beverage industry with huge and concentrated market power.”

The big multinational food companies control what people everywhere eat, resulting in a stark and sick irony: one billion people on the planet are hungry while two billion are obese or overweight.

Depending on your political orientation, you'll either find them infuriating or exhilarating; food industry and free market perspectives are intentionally absented from the discussion.

As PLoS editors said in their introductory essay

We decided not to provide a forum for the industry to offer a perspective on their role in global health, since this point of view has been covered many times before and fails to acknowledge their role in subverting the public health agenda, thus ignoring the deeper issues that this series aims to uncover.

Here are some key points and potential story ideas from the first set of articles.

Marion Nestle and David Stuckler explain in their essay, "Big Food, Food Systems, and Global Health," how the paradox of malnourishment and obesity can co-exist.

… food systems are not driven to deliver optimal human diets but to maximize profits. For people living in poverty, this means either exclusion from development (and consequent food insecurity) or eating low-cost, highly processed foods lacking in nutrition and rich in sugar, salt, and saturated fats (and consequent overweight and obesity).

Also, what we end up eating is dictated by a handful of businesses. According to the authors, the 10 largest food companies in the United States control more than half of all food sales.

For too long, Big Food has avoided public health interventions for a couple of reasons, the authors write. First of all, there has been a slow acceptance regarding the link between sweetened beverages and processed foods with diseases like diabetes and hypertension. Financial ties between Big Food companies and government is another reason.

Nestle and Stuckler highlight three potential remedies for the situation. One is voluntary self-regulation by the industry. Next is for public health to partner with industry, teach them to create healthier food and market unhealthy food more responsibly. Finally, there is more public regulation, which not surprisingly, the authors support. They contend that it is impossible to ask a profit-making business to volunteer to take actions that might reduce profits.

They said that change will be made only when public health professionals place as high a priority on nutrition as they do on things like HIV and infectious diseases.

The second article is "Soda and Tobacco Industry Corporate Social Responsibility Campaigns: How Do They Compare?"

From 1997 to 2004, children in the United States more than doubled their caloric intake from sugary beverages, to 13 percent of their total calories in 2004, the authors note.

As beverage conglomerates like Coca Cola have received increasingly bad press, the businesses began to adopt tactics similar to that of tobacco companies to improve their image. These include: “distorting science, wielding political influence, deploying financial tactics, influencing legal and regulatory actions, promoting their own products and services, and investing heavily in public relations,” the authors argue.

Part of the spin includes social responsibility campaigns like the Pepsi Refresh Project and Coke’s Live Positively. The authors say these campaigns tend to shift responsibility from the corporation to the consumer and are used as an excuse to prevent greater industry regulation. They are also profitable for the companies because, unlike tobacco, soda makers can market toward youth by providing grants to schools, parks and other programs.