Food Fight: Can Food Companies Help Battle Obesity?

Published September 19, 2014

This week may be a turning point in the food fight that has been taking place in this country for over a decade.

An analysis published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine this week (Sept. 17) found that major food companies exceeded their pledge to Michelle Obama that they’ll reduce the calories they sell to consumers.

The pledge, according to the first lady, mattered. When it was announced in 2010, she made what turned out to be a controversial proclamation, arguing that “Solving the obesity epidemic requires far more than anything government can do alone and today’s announcement represents an important step forward to providing Americans with healthier choices so that they can choose to lead healthier lives.”

This didn’t sit well with NYU’s in-house nutrition activist Dr. Marion Nestle. Nestle, the author ofFood Politics, is one of the most widely quoted voices about nutrition and obesity policy.

For her and others who urgently demand more government intervention with how we eat, obesity seems less like a public health problem, and more like a news hook. To activists, every report about obesity is a justification to increase food and beverage taxes, lobby for more taxpayer-funded programs, and call for restrictions on advertising of foods they don’t want us to eat.

Regulation-hungry thought leaders like Dr. Yoni Freedhoff of the University of Ottawa blame obesity on the failure of public health officials and lawmakers to “legislate change” – not enough statutes, regulations, public monies spent, or taxes on foods that he thinks are bad.

However if it were really just about solving a serious public health problem, these smart people would be able to come up with more narrowly-tailored and useful solutions than the one-size fits all big-government regulatory approaches they’ve been trying to shove down our throats. And instead of demonizing industry, they’d realize that companies that sell food aren’t the enemy, they are a necessary partner.

While a conciliatory approach is the sensible one, it isn’t a strategy that helps sell books, raise funds, motivate their base, get media attention, and cajole politicians.

Nestle reflected about the first lady’s ongoing anti-obesity campaign in an interview with The Nation’s Bridget Huber in 2012, “Looking back on it, it’s enough to make you weep. So little has been able to be achieved.”

To activist groups, partnering with industry is akin to signing a pact with the devil. Huber framed the underlying controversy accurately. “It also raises fundamental questions about whether the goals of public health and those of the food industry are at irreconcilable odds. Should those who seek to address the obesity crisis treat food companies as collaborators or as adversaries?”

The study published Wednesday suggests an answer to Huber’s question. And it puts the Marion Nestle’s of the world on the wrong side of history. This isn’t just my view, but it seems to be the take of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, no bastion of free-market policy advocacy.

In a commentary published alongside the report in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, RWJF president Risa Lavizzo-Mourey and colleagues wrote, “Through the HWCF and similar initiatives, industry is demonstrating that it can be part of the solution. So we both congratulate these companies and call upon them and other industry leaders to join together with the health community to go even further to help all children achieve a healthy weight.”

Those who care about public health, rather than scoring political body blows should agree. But the call should go further. We should urge public health groups to realize that the way towards progress for healthy eating is to encourage this type of voluntary dialogue backed up by results.

Activists in the public health community should latch onto this positive example of private-sector driven progress and put an end to divisive rhetoric that demonizes food companies rather than helps consumers be healthy. Think of it this way: When it comes to addressing obesity, carrots work better than sticks.

[Originally published at Pundicity]