As you peer up at the clock at work, the long arrow just moves past 12:30pm. Lunchtime! You’re in a bit of a hurry though, as you have to be back soon for a meeting. That means it needs to be quick and it needs to be tasty. Oh, and you’ve been extra health-conscious lately, so ideally your meal would check that box too. What comes to mind?  For many Americans, Chipotle would seem to fit the bill. Walking through the doors of a local restaurant, you can’t help but notice the freshly charred meats and veggies being taken off the grill. Aromas of those tasty burritos start permeating the room.  It’s no wonder the company is now valued at $35 billion, as of mid-2022.  For both lunch AND dinner, it’s become the go-to fast-food choice for health-conscious eaters. Though, we must admit, calling it "fast" food almost doesn't sound fair, as we typically think of fast food as greasy, pre-prepared junk.  On the whole, Chipotle is known for their fresh ingredients and generally healthy offerings. Sure, you can get a little carried away with the sour cream and cheese, but there's plenty of healthier options like their "lifestyle bowl," which is mainly just vegetables. The company has also gone 100% organic with their ingredients - a rare move of transparency in the food world. In fact, they're the only fast food chain to make that pledge. The consumer shift towards offerings like Chipotle (and other iterations of it like Qdoba) signals a desire for more healthy eating. But the real question is, should we be taking Chipotle (and others) at their word? A recent article from Mashed revealed that sodium is a hidden culprit in many Chipotle menu items. A single tortilla (not even the burrito itself) stands at 600 mg. The daily recommended limit on sodium is 2,300 mg, making it a daily occurrence that many leave their lunch time meal having exceeded the recommended sodium limit, in just one sitting at Chipotle. Now we must confess, this blog isn’t about Chipotle and we’re not picking on them either. The fact is, the problem we’re about to address isn't exclusive to them. As Dr. Marion Nestle, nutritionist and author of Food Politics has noted, our convenience-driven society aims to create tasty, quick food that lasts as long as possible.  How do you do that? Sodium.  But beyond just convenience, food companies know that sodium is highly pleasing and that we're accustomed to its presence in our food. In an effort to sell more, companies pack already naturally salty foods with more salt, as it preserves something's shelf-life and makes it tastier.  Companies have continued upping salt in their products despite a report from the CDC that 90% of adults and children in America consume too much sodium. The CDC's report goes on to say that 1 in 3 Americans have high blood pressure. Heart disease is the number one killer in America, and that's no accident.  But in the end, high sodium foods represent just one tiny chapter in the larger overall story developing right before our eyes: the rise of disease and greed As we peel back the layers of this story, we discover a web of corruption that has some of the biggest global food companies right in the middle. Now before we go any further, we must acknowledge what you might be thinking right now.  Why should I care and how is this relevant to my daily life?  Well, for one, the simple act of what we put in our grocery cart can have ripple effects on our own bodies, systems of injustice around us, and public health as a whole. If that isn’t reason enough, we’ve learned first-hand that simply being aware of this information can make a huge difference in our daily decision-making.  So we encourage you to lean in as we take a behind-the-scenes look into our food system.


If you were to transport back in time to the late 1800s, chances are you would be living on a farm, growing your own food. In fact, over 90% of the American population lived on farms. Today? Just one percent. As Dr. Marion Nestle explains in Food Politics, “The diet of the earliest American settlers depended on foods obtained through farming, hunting and gathering, and – to a limited extent – internal and external trade. What people actually were eating before the twentieth century, however, is only known only from anecdotal accounts or small surveys.”  What we do know is that the turn of the twentieth century saw three key developments related to the overarching conversation of disease and greed.  One, Big Food companies started to emerge. All within a thirty-year time period, Pepsi, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Nabisco and Oscar Meyer rose to prominence.  Two, the number of folks who lived on farms and grew their own food started to decline as population sizes started to explode in major cities across the country. And three, the first dietary recommendations were being rolled out by the government.  W.O. Atwater, the father of modern nutrition, is credited with coming up with the first set of dietary guidelines. Some of his earliest analysis of New England laborers and professionals confirmed: “..the general impression of hygienists that our diet is one-sided and that we eat too much… fat, starch and sugar. This is due partly to our large consumption of sugar and partly to our use of such large quantities of fat meats… How much harm is done to health by our one-sided and excessive diet no one can say. Physicians tell us that it is very great.” Yet when the 14-page pamphlet How to Select Foods was published in 1917, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) “ignored Atwater’s advice to limit intake of fat and sugar.”  Why would they do such a thing?  As Nestle explains, “dietary advice issued by the government never has been purely based on considerations of public health. The agencies that issue dietary advice inevitably have other constituencies as well as the public, most notably the agricultural and food industries.”

When the USDA ignored Atwater’s advice, this was much to the excitement of food manufacturers, as dollar signs flashed before their eyes. Profit-seeking, as it seems, was complicating even the earliest dietary advice.

The impact of this would be capped for a few more decades, largely because advertising in the first half of the 20th century was devoid of psychological manipulation so prevalent today. The functional benefits of a product were often what was emphasized, rather than the product somehow filling a void in your life or bringing you a sense of happiness.  But a shift started to become highly visible after World War II. Quick, ready to eat meals became a staple in a post-war society ready to produce. Who had time to sit down at the dinner table?  Relatively cheap meals with long shelf lives ("TV dinners") began to be produced for the American busybody. Pop a tray into your new microwave and be on your way!  The growing food industry saw an opportunity to pounce on this shift towards convenience, and desires for quick, easy, cheap, and filling meals.  Here's how Bryan McDonald, author of Food Power: The Rise and Fall of the American Postwar Food System, describes the shift:  "In particular, the 1950s represent the rise of “Big Food,” an assemblage of manufacturers that came to be key actors between consumers on one hand, and farmers, ranchers, and fishers, on the other. Companies navigating the consumer landscape faced a number of challenges. Chief among them was the problem that Americans were unlikely to eat more food. To achieve this growth, processors focused not on selling more foods, but on increasing profits through economies of production and scale and by adding value to foods through processing and packing to provide the convenience consumers wanted.” Food companies recognized that the American consumer could only eat so much, and that once they'd gotten sufficient calories from their food source, they'd stop eating. The goal then became efficiency, and creating products with long shelf-lives and instant appeal.  This was a prime example of the rise of disease and greed, as food companies recognized they could fatten up and extend foods with trans fats, preservatives, and other chemicals. Yet they marketed them as "hip," "convenient," and "cool," – some major buzzwords of the 50s.  Simultaneously, we also witnessed the rise of "fast-food."  If you've seen The Founder with Michael Keaton or know the general backstory of McDonald's, the idea of using unskilled labor to crank out a cheap, easy meal caught on like wildfire. The "drive-thru" became a symbol of this convenience, as chains like McDonald's and In-N-Out attracted countless customers on a daily basis. Post-WWII also brought a ton of farm and industrial technology that drove consumerism. The process of making food and distributing it was way quicker, leading to a new, life-changing store called the supermarket. "This placed even greater emphasis on mass-media advertising and led to the development of new marketing strategies, such as coupons, specials, in-store displays, and redesigned packaging intended to attract attention and provide easy-to-read information that helped sell the product," McDonald said.  As you fast forward to today, the food industry has successfully driven up profits at the expense of the health of the general population. The U.S. food retail industry has swelled to $5.75 trillion and so have deaths due to diet-related diseases, as we’ll talk about later.  That mass production has been seen in the shift from small family farms to massive "factory" farms. As the name suggests, factory farming is raising livestock and crops with efficiency and max output in mind. Side effects include inhumane, dismal living conditions for animals, and unnatural crop preserving methods, such as GMOs and pesticides.  While we won't get too deep into the nitty gritty of just how bad these conditions are (as they do in documentaries like "Food Inc."), here are a few snippets that underscore the issue: Animals are often confined to tiny spaces. Animals like cows re meant to roam and graze, which helps their overall health. However, the "factory" method packs them into small spaces where they step in their own waste and get fat on corn-based feeds. Antibiotics and growth hormones are used to make up for the harsh living conditions and prevalence of disease and digestive issues. In turn, these harmful substances show up in what we eat. In-fighting between animals often occurs. Animals often get agitated when they're in these conditions and go after each other. Inhuman practices like "debeaking" chickens or cutting the tails off of cows and pigs are often implemented to discourage fighting. However, this takes away the natural senses of the animal. All of these strategies point in the same direction: profit-seeking. But as we’ll learn, the human body was never meant to eat this much food, especially food devoid of any nutritional value. When we should be told to eat less, the eat more agenda surrounds us at every turn.


Rapper Biggie Smalls once said "mo' money, mo' problems."  Food companies certainly haven't heeded Biggie, as for them more is top priority. As we just talked about, eating more further stuffs their pocketbooks.  Nevermind that all signs point to longevity being linked to eating less. Nutrition author Michael Pollan summed up his ethos on food in a few words:  "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Yet we've seen the opposite shift happen, and we're eating more than ever. As of last year, the average American consumed 3,600 calories per day – a 24% increase from 2,800 in 1961. Furthermore. in the 1950s, just 10% of Americans were classified as obese. Today? That number has swelled by nearly 4x to 36%. So how did the food industry encourage Americans to eat almost a quarter more than they used to?  Fast Food: It seems like a cop-out to just "blame McDonald's," but it's hard to ignore the impact it's had on the "eat more" agenda. We talked about convenience culture, which will only continue to rise with delivery services like DoorDash or UberEats, and low prices for high calories. As mentioned with Chipotle, we've been "conditioned" to salivate over these fatty, salty foods. Getting cheap, filling, and tasty foods at low costs leaves us wanting more, even if we know it's "not good" for us.  Portion Sizes: Speaking of fast food, the average portion size at fast food restaurants in America are significantly higher than their international counterparts. You can check this out for yourself in Food Insider's side-by-side comparison of UK vs. US fast food portion sizes. Common food items like bagels, pasta, and pizza, have doubled in size and calories.  High Fructose Corn Syrup: HFCS, a common sweetener, "increases your appetite and promotes obesity more than regular sugar," said a recent article by Cleveland Clinic. This is troubling, as high fructose corn syrup accounts for over 40% of caloric sweeteners used. In other words, you're hard pressed to find even seemingly "healthy" foods (like granola bars) without it.  Sodium: Ever caught yourself demolishing a bag of salty chips in one sitting? How is that? We kicked things off by discussing the sodium-rich appeal of Chipotle, but didn't dive into why it causes us to eat more. According to research, salty foods can increase how pleasant we find food. This leads to an uptick of 11% more food consumed throughout the day. Doesn't sound like a big deal until we realize that that could mean 350-400 extra calories, given how many calories the average American consumes in a day. Surely Uncle Sam stepped in to put a stop to this, right? After all, aren't government leaders the ones who publish guidelines around how much we should or shouldn't eat?

Yes, the U.S. puts out formal Dietary Guidelines every five years. But like a political candidate's speech, you have to wonder who's really authoring them. Even with good intentions, the committee responsible for putting out the guidelines (which includes nutritionists) can't overpower the interests of Big Food. 

For instance, there's almost always industry pushback against anything that discourages eating. Ambiguous phrases like "reduce consumption" or "eat this instead" aren't telling us not to eat…just eat within these vague parameters.  The ​​1990 U.S. Dietary Guidelines, for example, states that meats, milk, cheese, and eggs "also contain high quality protein and are our best sources of certain vitamins and minerals."  Even if there are strong recommendations against certain foods, companies find a way around these guidelines. Dr. Nestle describes this shift as "removing the bad" to "enhancing the good."  For instance, the ketchup industry has touted lycopene, an antioxidant, as one of its main components to downplay worse ingredients like high fructose corn syrup. In addition to "enhancing the good," food industries also build your loyalty to their brands.  "I'm more on team Coke than team Pepsi." Controversially, many sugary drinks and snacks make their way into elementary schools across the country, creating loyal consumers from an early age.  And if you don't like a specific brand, the food industry makes sure you have options. Whatever it takes for you to eat more, they'll do it.  It's estimated that manufacturers introduce over 20,000 new products into the food system each year, and half of those are sugary snacks or sodas. Worse yet, "40% of calories in the diets of children and adolescents are reported to derive from high calorie sweets and snack foods," Dr. Nestle noted.  In essence, food companies can test products through trial and error to see what sells. "Nutritionally-enhanced products" have become bestsellers, and their presence might lead us to believe the food industry is acting in our best interests. She also detailed some of the other strategies used to get you to eat more, including low prices, proximity, and larger portions. That's basically fast-food summed up in a nutshell. You can supersize your meal for a few dollars, and you don't have to travel very far to get it. They know humans want to take the path of least resistance, and they ensure that you don't have to work hard to consume their products. Another tactic to keep us eating more is confusion. "Don't eat chocolate, it has too much sugar. Actually, do eat chocolate. It has antioxidants!" Without straightforward advice, who are we to believe? We often bank on anecdotes more than we do proven research. We hear that something is a new health craze and partake because, well, everyone is doing it.  Ultimately this deliberate confusion isn't an accident, but rather a byproduct of food companies' massive marketing budgets, as we noted earlier.


Is this actually food?  You may have thought to yourself as you unwrinkled the ingredients list on that Big Texas Cinnamon Roll. Setting aside the 460 calories, 20 grams of fat (10 of which are saturated), and 33 grams of sugar, the even more alarming figure is just how long the ingredients list is.  Aside from flour, the cinnamon roll is full of ingredients you likely can't pronounce. Most of us don't even know what these ingredients are, yet we happily consume them. Polysorbate 60, for instance, is buried near the bottom. The ingredient has been labeled as "safe for limited use" by the FDA, but what does that mean? Why even risk putting in such an ingredient? Even the easy-to-pronounce ingredients aren't much better. The pastry also contains trans fats like palm oil and soybean oil, which are common in most processed foods.  Why use ultra-processed foods and artificial ingredients? In the simplest terms, shelf-life, convenience, and low-costs. First, let's clarify terms:  Ultra-processed: "Formulated mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods. Typically contain little or no whole foods," per the National Institute of Health. Artificial: "Synthetic ingredients, meaning they are not naturally derived, added to food to enhance its appearance, texture, taste, and freshness," per Healthline A recent article from The Guardian outlined the fact that "ultra-processed foods (or UPF) now account for more than half of all the calories eaten in the UK and US, and other countries are fast catching up. UPFs are now simply part of the flavor of modern life. These foods are convenient, affordable, highly profitable, strongly flavored, aggressively marketed – and on sale in supermarkets everywhere. "

The Guardian article also noted that in 2014, the Brazilian government warned its citizens to avoid ultra processed foods outright. This was a response to a rising obesity epidemic (sound familiar?) that urged eating more wholesome meals while being wary of food advertisements. 

The United States has not made such a bold move.  In fact, the prevalence of processed foods and GMOs has gone up in the U.S., and much of this is due to the monopolization of our food system. What are the consequences of this? For one, a lack of options at the grocery store. That heart-healthy cereal you love was likely made by the same people producing the 24 pack of soda cans at the front of the store.  A joint investigation by The Guardian and Food and Water Watch revealed that "almost 80% of dozens of everyday grocery items are supplied by just a handful of companies." A great example of this is Pepsi, commonly associated with sodas such as Diet Pepsi and Mountain Dew. However, Pepsi's other offerings include Tropicana Orange Juice, Naked Juice, Life Cereal, Sabra Hummus, and even Aunt Jemima Pancakes.  So…what's the big deal? Isn't that just smart business to own more companies?  While Pepsi is entitled to grow as they want, we should stop and consider what that monopolization means for our health, and also trace it back to the source. What does it mean for farming and food production in general? Competition and diversification is typically beneficial to the public for both cost and health reasons. If a tiny number of brands dominate the market, it's going to be difficult to get them to change their practices. Not only do they have immense financial power, but they also are strapped with an army of lawyers ready to fiercely protect the brand.  Take Chiquita Brands, importers of most of the bananas you see at your local grocery store. Chiquita has a checkered history with intervening in other countries, most notably when they paid terrorists to protect a volatile farming region in Columbia.  The penalty? A mere $25 million. (Chiquita Brands is worth over a billion dollars.)  Monopolies not only get away with injustices, but also harm the cycle of food production. Farmers are often paid or subsidized to produce specific crops, which sounds like it would be beneficial for the farmers. However, the aforementioned report from The Guardian found that: "Only 15 cents of every dollar we spend in the supermarket goes to farmers. The rest goes to processing and marketing our food."  And more often than not, it's not so much of a "farms vs. big corporations" battle. Farms are often part of a "vertical integration" business model in which big food corporations control every part of the production process, from growing food or raising livestock, to factories, to grocery store shelves. Independence in the farming world is becoming increasingly rare.  Given that "cash is king" for many of these companies, the goal is to capitalize on a cheap production process. Corn is a prime example of this. Corn is America's top crop and in everything, no exaggeration. Farmers are incentivized to grow corn (roughly $116 billion in subsidies given), and roughly 4,000 products in a given grocery store contain corn. Health-wise, this may not seem like a huge deal. Corn on a health level isn't the worst ingredient.  However, this huge demand for corn has led to the rise of monocropping and monocultures, meaning the farming of a single crop. Historically that wasn't the case, as crop rotation was the dominant practice before the boom of industrial farming. Crop rotation entails planting different crops in sequence in order to promote better soil health and biodiversity. On the flip side, monocropping brings more erosion, pesticides, and a loss of biodiversity. In addition to being harmful to the environment (90% of the crop varieties grown 100 years ago are already gone), these greed-driven practices need the rampant use of pesticides, growth hormones, and antibiotics to keep up with the demand and curtail the negative effects of "fast farming."


In 2009, Cocoa Krispies, the classic, chocolatey corn cereal, plastered the claim "helps support your child's IMMUNITY" on its box. Kellogg's, a food industry giant and maker of Cocoa Krispies, claimed that one serving of the cereal contained 25% of daily antioxidants and nutrients, such as vitamins A, B, C, & E.  While technically vitamins were present, those don't negate the 12 grams of sugar present in each cup. So it's "immunity," but at what cost?  Kellogg's eventually rescinded the claims, but any complaints or bad press from that incident hasn't stopped them from pushing other nebulous health claims on their products. When someone has little time to investigate the contents of a food product, they may be lured in by the promise of IMMUNITY in all caps.  There are certain marketing buzzwords that people feel encouraged by. In the past, it was "low-fat" or "calcium-dense," in response to different issues at the time. As we discussed earlier, there was a huge pushback to anything with fat due to pressing health concerns in the 1970s and 80s. Many also were concerned that cereals weren't nutritious. Instead of yanking them from the shelves, food producers responded by "fortifying" them with vitamins, minerals, fiber, calcium and whole grains.  We may not be as concerned or lured in by those buzzwords in today's culture, but the trend of "healthifying" foods has continued. In our social justice driven society in which we have more information about dubious practices / schemes, we love words like "grass fed" or "responsibly sourced." However, understaffed regulatory agencies like the USDA have few options when it comes to ensuring meat is "grass fed," for instance. Everything must be regulated by the Food Safety Inspection Service, which is part of the USDA. However, the USDA is not required to visit those farms. So theoretically a claim could be approved purely on the farmer's word.  The USDA says to get a Certified Organic stamp, "the final product must follow strict production, handling and labeling standards and go through the organic certification process." But with relatively little enforcement, is this just lip service?

Food companies lick their lips at this flawed system, no pun intended. Even if companies do crack down, they find loopholes in the wording and ways to justify it.

For example: most cows eat grass for some portion of their life. What's stopping cattle producers from feeding their cows with a bit of grass and then loading them up on corn. Technically they're "grass-fed," right? That's why it's actually important to get grass-finished beef. Grass-finished cattle have only consumed grass (what cows are supposed to eat) for their entire lives, instead of being fattened up with additives like grain.  This lack of oversight isn't just evident in the meat industry, but also in the vitamin and supplement industry. Think GNC or Vitamin Shoppe.  While these stores aren't inherently harmful, they're reflections of our reactionary (as opposed to proactive) society. In a typical, balanced diet, you get all the vitamins and minerals you need. However, companies like GNC have capitalized on the fact that most people do have a deficiency, hence why they sell supplements. People have most certainly responded, as the vitamin & supplement industry is worth over $30 billion and climbing.  However, there's little regulation and oversight in the supplement industry – arguably less than in the traditional food industry. Given that, GNC and Vitamin Shoppe can market themselves as selling "healthy" products, despite the fact that we barely know what the term healthy even means.  First, let's clarify terms. According to Harvard Health Publishing, a supplement is defined as an umbrella term that includes everything from vitamins and minerals to botanicals and biosimilar products (such as so-called "natural male hormone"). For the most part, though, people use "supplement" to mean an individual vitamin or mineral preparation or a multivitamin (that is, a product that contains 10 or more vitamins, minerals, or both)." Let's say we're dealing with the latter part of the definition. It's true that multivitamins can be somewhat beneficial, but to call them "healthy" is a bit of an overstatement. In the same Harvard Health report, Harvard professor of medicine Dr. JoAnn Manson said that "supplements are never a substitute for a balanced, healthful diet…and they can be a distraction from healthy lifestyle practices that confer much greater benefits." Still, that doesn't stop supplement makers from plastering health claims all over their bottles, much like Cocoa Krispies did with the "IMMUNITY" claim.  In 1990, this would've been illegal. Any kind of claims about health benefits were strictly prohibited by the FDA. However, as we'll get to in the next section, the government agency caved to lobbyists, food companies, and public pressure.  The FDA Modernization Act (FDAMA) stipulated that the FDA had to review health claims within 120 days, otherwise they'd have to be authorized. In the landmark case Pearson v. Shalala, the court ruled that "the lack of support for 'significant scientific agreement' was no reason to deny a health claim.  This opened the floodgates, to the point where you can walk into a GNC yourself and see some of these bold claims. To clarify, this doesn't mean supplement manufacturers can simply put anything and get away with it. There are requirements when making a claim, such as “This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease." However, companies are adept at finding loopholes, such as changing the language to make the products seem more appealing. For instance, you can't make an absolute claim like "relieves chronic constipation," but you can say that it "supports digestive tract health," which in some people's minds means the same thing.  Though the FDA has fought for more control and oversight, they face the same issues most government agencies do: understaffing and strong-arming by private interests. As Dr. Nestle put it "ultimately, the supplement industry had succeeded in removing the government from any meaningful control over its products."


You may be scratching your head in disbelief, asking yourself "how is this legal?" This is America – land of the free and the "most modern country" in the world. Much of these decisions can be traced back to lobbying, which by definition is an attempt to "influence a politician or the government and, for example, persuade them to support or oppose a change in the law." The creation of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines are a great example of lobbying's detrimental effects. One section of the guidelines reads: "lower intakes of meats, including processed meats … have often been identified as characteristics of healthy eating patterns.” However, they don't explicitly say not to eat meat.  Additionally, the guidelines don't outright say "don't eat sugar," but instead say "less than 10% of your daily calorie intake should be from added sugar." It's crazy that we, the consumer, would have to mentally calculate percentages of what we're eating instead of them spelling it out for us. These watered down claims are nothing new, but we should look at how they get created in the first place. The USDA and the HHS (Health and Human Services) department have a stake in the guidelines' creation. The USDA's involvement in this process is questionable, as they are susceptible to outside lobbying interest of major agricultural producers.

"I was told we could never say ‘eat less meat’ because USDA would not allow it," Nestle said.

Another lobbying effort, now known as the "ag-gag" rule, pushed hard to hide the unflattering circumstances of factory farming. In response to people filming the harsh conditions, laws were introduced to prohibit recording at industrial farms. The law was supposedly designed to prevent "misleading" investigations, but has been criticized as yet another way of Big Agriculture flexing its muscle.  To be fair, lobbying can be  a way of creating meaningful change, such as advocating for employee minimum wage or health benefits. However, more often than not, it's used to satisfy financial wants of big corporations.  Coca-Cola is one of the biggest lobbyists, spending about $5.62 million on lobbying in 2021. That's chump change for a company worth $286 billion, but it can pay massive dividends for them in the long run.  While more rules and regulations have been developed around lobbying, there are certainly gray areas that can be taken advantage of. What's stopping a Coca-Cola lobbyist, for instance, from wining and dining with a congressman and covering the check?  Influencing the government for the purposes of customer advocacy is one thing. But what happens when these companies are full-on in bed with each other?  There's a famous story of Alfonso Fanjul Jr., a sugar baron (and Democratic Party donor), calling up then-President Bill Clinton to complain about then-VP Al Gore drafting a sugar tax for environmental purposes.  The sugar tax was quickly shelved. As one observer recalled, "that's access."  Corruption isn't always so cut and dry or obvious, but that situation showed the presidential administration was more concerned with satisfying wealthy donors than public health or the environment. It's a reminder that yes, laws and policies can be directly affected by powerful individuals and corporations. The aforementioned Dietary Guidelines, produced every five years, have huge implications on public health. Their goal is to "provide advice on what to eat and drink to meet nutrient needs, promote health, and prevent disease," per the USDA.  In 2015, the Dietary Guidelines Council concluded that "a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.” This recommendation was going to be in the US Dietary Guidelines…until it wasn't.  A report from Bloomberg revealed that 60 food lobbying groups pushed back on the guidelines, especially the urgences to reduce meat consumption.  One of the biggest food lobbying groups is Monsanto, an "agricultural biotechnology" corporation known for its genetically engineered foods. You likely heard of Monsanto for their 2012 opposition to California's Proposition 37, which sought to mandate the disclosure of GMO crops in products. Monsanto spent over $8 million opposing the proposition, and other major food companies chipped in a collective $437 million more. Unsurprisingly, the law was ultimately rejected, and to this day, GMO labeling is not required.  It's not always so cut and dry, as in the case of Alfonso Fanjul and Bill Clinton, or Monsanto and California. However, both of these cases underscore the sheer distances companies will go to spend and get what they want.


If you've ever been to a Dave & Buster's (a.k.a adult Chuck-E-Cheese), you're probably familiar with how the process works. You pay the cashier for some tokens and get unlimited access to a host of arcade games and prizes. There's no skill requirement to enter Dave & Buster's – you just have to pay up. Sadly, many players in the food industry view health professionals and dietary research in the same "pay for play" way. If the research isn't trending the way they want, they'll pay to get it moved in the right direction. There's a variety of ways this is achieved, one of which is sponsorships.  Marion Nestle encountered this firsthand when the American Dietetic Association approached her about speaking at their annual conference. She had a chance to debate food biotechnology (GMOs) in front of leading health experts and food industry execs, and the trip was all expenses paid for…by Monsanto. Dr. Nestle wrestled in her mind: "If I refuse such invitations, I lose an opportunity to explain my views to an influential audience. If I decline the funding, I'm out considerable costs of travel and hotel accommodations. But if I accept the invitation, will my views be compromised by the partnership?" This dilemma, as we mentioned earlier, is common for leading nutritionists. Much like lobbying, the idea of having nutritionists speak at a conference, even one sponsored by a big food company, isn't inherently bad.  It gives nutritionists a platform, even if they do feel awkward about contradicting the views of their food industry hosts. Moreover, there isn't a cut and dry "right" answer. Some nutritionists will never accept such an invitation, but in turn lose out on a platform. Others accept, but are criticized by their peers as "corruptible."  Nestle also noted that physicians sponsored by pharmaceutical companies were more likely to prescribe medications of said companies. "Major US studies have revealed accepting payments from pharmaceutical companies is associated with increased rates of prescribing those drugs," said an ABC News article.  The dubiousness of sponsorship can be debated, but the larger factor at play is how food companies shape nutrition research in general. Researchers strapped for cash need some kind of funding source, and many big food companies are happy to pay.  Some researchers combat outside corruption by disclosing where their funding sources come from. Though this transparency is helpful, it doesn't solve everything.  In 1988, the American Heart Association decided to create a "heart-healthy" label for foods. This would serve as both an education piece for the public and a funding source. Food companies would have to pay fees to the AHA to get the heart-healthy certification, sometimes up to $1 million  depending on the company's size.  You can see where this is headed. The FDA was skeptical of this "pay for play" type program, saying "your proposed program could very easily result in the endorsement of products…that quite simply do not represent the kinds of foods that ought to be promoted to achieve healthy hearts." Nevertheless, the AHA persisted and retooled their program to generally meet FDA labeling guidelines, and reduced fees to get the label. Among the recipients of the heart-healthy certification? Frosted Flakes. The Chicago Tribune famously reported on the absurdity of this in 1997. "Somehow it seems difficult to write 'Kellogg's Frosted Flakes' and 'heart-healthy' in the same sentence. But the American Heart Association has managed to approve the conceptual pairing, right on every box featuring Tony the Tiger." The AHA defended the labeling process, citing that the fees went to "educational efforts about preventing the disease." But isn't telling people what's healthy or unhealthy in a grocery store a form of education? Critics argued that the label could mislead people into thinking that certain foods were healthier than others. (Many oatmeals, arguably healthier than Frosted Flakes, don't have the healthy-heart check mark, for instance.) The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) is also a major player in food / nutrition education. The A.N.D. represents the interests of 70,000+ nutrition professionals, with goals of “improving the nation’s health.” However, they have troublingly close ties to the food industry. One of the organization's core stances is that "there's no such thing as good or bad food." Their coziness with many food industries is yet another example of dollars doing the talking. The A.N.D. will often put out "nutrition fact" sheets that are often directly funded by food industry sources. The publication "Eggs: A Good Choice for Moms-to-Be" was unshockingly sponsored by the American Egg Board.

Some other big names that have historically partnered with the A.N.D. include Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Wendy's. Their current sponsors include other food titans like Mondelez International, makers of Chips Ahoy! & Oreos. Not exactly paragons of health. 

Private organizations aside, one of the biggest drivers of what people eat is the aforementioned nutrition guidelines. We talked earlier about some of the attempted science-based changes in the 2015 guidelines, and how those changes were canned last minute.  The 2020 nutrition guidelines endured a similar fate. The Dietary Guidelines Committee penned an 835 page document recommending lower sugar intake and limited daily alcohol consumption. They also cited the impacts of climate change on the food supply and how we can adjust accordingly. The Federal Government hit them with a not-so-subtle "thanks, but no thanks," and omitted the recommendations. It's almost comical how unsurprised people were by the omissions. It's become common practice for the food industry to control these guidelines, not scientists. And ultimately it's not nutrition professionals or scientists who have the final say over the guidelines: it's politicians In the case of the 2020 guidelines, HHS Secretary Alex Azar and USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue held the stamp of approval.  Perdue (who has no relations to the food giant Perdue Chicken) controversially walked back some of the nutrition standards in school lunches. Here's how it was detailed in a report the Union of Concerned Scientists:  "To food industry applause, it promised to make it easier for schools to get waivers from some of the law’s requirements, including the mandate that all bread and other grain-based products served in schools be whole grain rich, defined as containing at least 50 percent whole grains. Perdue’s proposed rule also delayed the implementation of new low-sodium limits until after 2020 and allowed schools to serve low-fat flavored (i.e., sugar-sweetened) milk." Perdue also has documented ties to Big Agriculture and Big Food.  Point being, the foremost, foundational nutrition guidelines that permeate areas of American life from school lunches, to grocery store offerings, to food labels, typically concede to industry interests.  Until more research-based approaches and recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines Committee are actually implemented, this hamster-wheel process will likely continue. According to Dr. Nestle, there must be a shift from vague language to firm directives. "“There’s a big difference between saying ‘eat less foods containing salts, sugar, and saturated fat,’ and ‘eat less meat, drink fewer soft drinks, and don’t eat snack foods,’” she said.


Perhaps this is all new information for you, and you feel overwhelmed. Perhaps you already knew most of this information and this has made you more cynical. "Corporations and Government are in bed together? Shocker." As with any of these blogs, the goal isn't to drive you to insanity, but to action and awareness.  You may feel a sense of helplessness: "If the official government nutrition guidelines can be swayed by big food companies or executives, or if some nutritionists are complicit in the system, what can I do?" The first step is to remember you're not alone in this, nor are you powerless. While it's true that most of us aren't farmers and can't 100% ensure that our food is organic, pesticide-free, and humanely raised, there are still everyday practicals that can orient us in the right direction. Fighting fire with fire isn't the solve here.  The reality is most of us don't have the deep pockets or time to challenge the deep-seated corruption that exists. But in some ways, we still have a "vote." At the end of the day, you are the customer. Without you, who eats the products put out by the food industry? Food industries are well aware of the fact that they simply can't do whatever they want, and often walk a fine line between appeasing customers and satisfying their own pocketboots. There's an ancient saying that goes: "how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time." With that in mind, what are some of the "little" steps you can take daily to effect change in the food landscape? With many of these ideas you may have to inconvenience yourself or change-up your typical routine. 

Vote with Your Fork

Author Michael Pollan talks about this idea in many of his books and columns. You can't always change the way the federal government spends your taxes, for instance, but you can stop participating in systems that perpetuate injustice. We've talked about this idea in other blogs, referencing the porn industry and food industry. In both, there's an established "system" that stacks the cards against you. However, saying no to what the system offers is a huge step.  Voting with your fork essentially means making basic choices that don't perpetuate those systems. For instance, you can buy local and in-season produce. Eating in-season means consuming the foods meant to be grown at that time of year. Not every food is grown locally, but try to control what's within your means to control. If the same exact berries are grown in your area, why pick the ones that come from halfway around the world? From a health standpoint, you can also avoid processed foods. Given the above information, we know that processed foods have more to them than meets the eye. Seeing through their marketing tactics and false claims can give us a better picture of what's actually healthy vs. not.  Additionally, look out for the "Fair Trade" logo. If we're talking about fighting injustice, we need to consider every part of this system. One often overlooked area is the very workers who harvest or pick these crops. They often work in borderline slavery conditions with little awareness or say about their situation. Fair Trade certification means it was purveyed in an ethical manner, and that the workers received fair compensation and value for their efforts.  It may not seem like these choices make a huge splash or difference to these companies, but there's power in collective buy-in. In 2010, Nestle promised zero deforestation in their supply chain after a campaign by Greenpeace raising awareness about their palm oil harvesting practices.  The point in this isn't to be the moral police by abstaining from Frosted Flakes. The goal is to better your own personal health and send a message that despite incomplete dietary guidelines, deceptive marketing, and subsidized food output, you're shifting the power into your own hands. 

Buy Organic and Non-GMO

As we discussed in a previous blog, many have the misconception that buying organic or non-GMO foods is outrageously expensive. While it's true that organic products on the whole contain higher price tags, it is still possible to buy organic on a budget. Knowing the "Dirty Dozen," for instance, can help you prioritize organic food purchases. Moreover, you can shave off some money by buying organically in bulk. (Costco, for example, actually has a great selection of Organic foods.)  Buying organic will send the message that there's a demand for real food free of pesticides and shady farming/livestock raising practices. As for GMOs, it's tricky to always know what foods contain them. (There's a lack of strictness around GMO labeling, as we discussed earlier.) However, you can look for a little butterfly label titled "Non-GMO Project Verified." Unlike the USDA, the Non-GMO project is a nonprofit with no ties to the government, if you were worried about a conflict of interest or an unreliability with the label.

Supermarket Swap

 Changing up what grocery store you go to isn't always an option, as we discussed in our investigation into Food Deserts. However, if you have access and the means to shop at different grocery stores, it could be worth swapping allegiances.  Co-Ops, for instance, can help you achieve your goals of supporting local farms and eating Organic/Non-GMO. They're owned by the people who shop there, putting more control in the public's hands. "Co-ops are rooted in the local communities they serve. Compared to traditional supermarkets, food co-ops give more money back to the local economy. Grocery cooperatives do business with farmers in the area, stocking up on fresh produce and specialty items you can’t find at a conventional store," says the National Cooperative Business Association.  If you're concerned about funneling more money into Big Food, or want to know exactly where your food comes from, Co-ops are an excellent option.

Support Local Farms

Needless to say, we've become quite disconnected from where we get our food. Buying food from local farmers takes out the middleman and buying from sustainable sources. Moreover, you're putting your dollars directly into the hands of the producer instead of a big corporation. In many countries outside of the United States, this is how the majority of people get their food. This was even the case in the U.S. until the suburban supermarket boom came along.  Most towns and cities have weekly (if not daily) farmer's markets. If you don't have a way of getting to these, there are actually a ton of delivery services out there that will bring fresh, local produce to your doorstep. And while that may sound more expensive, it'll actually help you save money by helping you get what you actually need. Going to the grocery store has a way of leading to "browsing" and getting sucked into buying products.  And if you're really on a budget, consider something like Imperfect Foods. They'll deliver sustainably sourced produce that wasn't up to grocery store standards straight to your door. That could mean getting ripe but weirdly shaped strawberries for half the cost.

Contact Your Local Representatives

If food industry groups can lobby, why can't you? Sure, you may not have the same financial backing or time availability as a professional lobbier, but it is within your rights as a citizen to contact your local state and congressional representatives to make a difference. Their job, despite corruption that exists, is to look out for the interests of their constituents and the very people that elected them.   It's only fitting to end with an encouraging quote from Dr. Marion Nestle, whom we cited extensively throughout this blog. Despite knowing the uphill battle we face, Nestle also believes we aren't powerless. "Despite the overwhelmingly greater resources in defending their own interests, we shall see that consumer advocates sometimes can be highly effective in convincing Congress, federal agencies, and courts to take action in the public interest."


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