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Is the food industry putting profit before America's health?

Harold Mandel's picture
Avoid junk food

Obesity associated with poor nutrition has been a growing health problem across the United States and worldwide. It appears that in spite of the growing awareness of this serious health problem far too many people are continuing to eat unhealthy junk food while leading sedentary lifestyles. Overall it appears the food industry is making this problem worse due to a focus on profits before health.

Food companies generally do not prioritize healthy communities over healthy profit margins

It has been observed that corporations generally do not prioritize healthy communities over healthy profit margins even though their profits are dependent on community acceptance reported the journal Social Currents. In their efforts to be viewed as legitimate citizens, some corporations use the rhetorical tactics which are typically associated with social movement organizations in order to frame their profit-maximizing practices as appearing to be a solution to the serious problem of obesity.

Via an apparent partnership with interests which focus on healthier communities food companies claim they are in the forefront of fighting obesity. Yet, the bottom line is the primary focus is aimed at having the public buy their products. Psychological marketing tactics may make it appear a primary concern for health is the bottom line when in fact profits are the bottom line vital interest which drives these firms.

When people eat less profits go down

Consider that efforts aimed at combating obesity may pose a threat to businesses that produce and sell food reports The George Washington University. Their bottom line profits are more important to them. When people eat less profits will go down. However, the food industry paradoxically can not afford to appear to be nonresponsive to the public health crisis of obesity. A study by a George Washington University professor shows these firms employ several tactics to maintain legitimacy while positioning themselves as a vital part of the solution for the obesity problem while also protecting profits.

Ivy Ken, associate professor of sociology, says food firms have been framing a conceptualization by consumers of obesity as an issue dealing with the choices which people are making instead of the choices they are being offered. The companies promote the idea that the solution is for the public to purchase their other products, which they have voluntarily agreed to offer in addition to continuing to offer their full-sugar, full-fat options.

Ken studied food companies which are affiliated with two the nonprofit organizations:

1: The Alliance for a Healthier Generation

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2: The Partnership for a Healthier America

She explored the commitments, websites, speeches, annual meetings and other public materials which the firms and their partners distribute. Ken claims these organizations could more appropriately be referred to as the ‘Partnership for a Healthier Bottom Line.’ Ken points out that the activities of these firms only appear to be prioritizing that they are ‘working together’ with the public, while ‘partnering,’ and ‘collaborating’ to solve the problem of obesity. As this message is being delivered by well known public speakers such as former President Bill Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama there are careful attempts to divert attention away from how these token gestures are actually aimed at keeping junk food providers on good terms with the public.

Profits are high from sales of low and high calorie food

Ken says this strategy has met with a great deal of success. The acknowledgment of obesity as a social problem while also offering lower-calorie products as the solution to this problem has been meeting with great profits. Between 2006 to 2011 a group of firms that account for one-quarter of food sales in the United States had increased sales of $1.25 billion from just lower-calorie products. However, Ken points out that the sales of their higher-calorie products did not decline as a result of this. Instead, sales of these products also increased by $278 million during this period.

Ken says that clearly offering healthier products may in fact be an important step in tackling the obesity problem. However, he notes that the majority of the companies which are making minor modifications to their products such as PepsiCo, J&J Snack Foods, Nestlé, and dozens more are the same firms which are making the harmful products which are contributing to obesity and other health and environmental problems to begin with.

Profits are increasing at the expense of the public's health

These firms have been getting a lot of attention and praise for their supposed efforts to fight obesity, which has been helping them avoid regulation and public disapproval according to Ken. However, he feels enormous problems have been created by the efforts of these companies to increase their profits at the expense of the public’s health. Ken has taken the position that people who are genuinely interested in fighting these problems and combating obesity should avoid being lured into working along with these companies when it may be necessary to work against and around them.

The interesting paradox of conflicting interests of profits, health needs and respect for the freedom of consumers to make their own choices is raised by this research. Although the average American consumer will usually emphasize the desire to have their basic freedom of choice protected, in all good conscience it must be recognized that this presents perplexing legal and ethical issues when these so called free choices are based on misinformation or even brain washing techniques associated with mass advertising of products which may not in fact be good for their health.

It appears what is really needed is a real alliance between the food firms, the public, public health officials and lawmakers aimed at insisting that health concerns must at all times be tied directly into concerns for profits. Better laws may in fact be necessary to make such an affirmative alliance a reality. In the meantime efforts should be made to aggressively keep the public as well informed as possible about the truth behind health value of all of the foods they are offered daily in order to assist them in making more well informed choices about what they choose to buy and consume.

Photo courtesy of iosphere/Freedigitalphotos.net



I think this is an important issue - yet people will tell the government to stay out of it and they want to make their own choices. It's a merry-go-round. The best option it seems to me is constant public health messages vs government regulation of sugar or taxing junk food or other.