Bigger, juicier, saltier, sweeter, crunchier. Most of all, more. The food industry and its nonstop marketing has been tabbed by many experts as a major player in the obesity epidemic. "The result of constant exposure to today's 'eat more' food environment," write Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim in their upcoming book Why Calories Count, "has been to drive people to desire high-calorie foods and to become 'conditioned overeaters.'"
Even as the food industry takes steps seemingly in the right direction—by launching campaigns to bring healthy products to schools, for example—wellness initiatives are often just marketing ploys, contends David Ludwig, a pediatrician and coauthor of a commentary published in 2008 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that raised questions about whether big food companies can be trusted to help combat obesity. Ultimately, he has argued, makers of popular junk foods have an obligation to stockholders to maximize profits, which means encouraging consumers to eat more—not less—of a company's products. Health experts including Ludwig and Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, both of whom have long histories of tracking the food industry, spoke with U.S. News and highlighted 10 things that junk food makers don't want you to know about their products and how they promote them. Here's a peek behind the curtain:
1. Junk food makers spend billions advertising unhealthy foods to kids. According to the Federal Trade Commission, food makers spend some $1.6 billion annually to reach children through the traditional media as well the Internet, in-store advertising, and sweepstakes. An article published in 2006 in the Journal of Public Health Policy puts the number as high as $10 billion annually. The bulk of these ads are for unhealthy products high in calories, sugar, fat, and sodium. Promotions often use cartoon characters or free giveaways to entice kids into the junk food fold. On TV alone, the average child sees about 5,500 food commercials a year (or about 15 per day) that advertise high-sugar breakfast cereals, fast food, soft drinks, candy, and snacks, according to the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Compare that to the fewer than 100 TV ads per year kids see for healthy foods like fruits, veggies, and bottled water.
2. The studies that food producers support tend to minimize health concerns associated with their products. In fact, according to a review led by Ludwig of hundreds of studies that looked at the health effects of milk, juice, and soda, the likelihood of conclusions favorable to the industry was several times higher among industry-sponsored research than studies that received no industry funding. "If a study is funded by the industry, it may be closer to advertising than science," he says.
3. More processing means more profits, but typically makes food less healthy. Minimally processed foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables obviously aren't where food companies look for profits. The big bucks stem from turning government-subsidized commodity crops—mainly corn, wheat, and soybeans—into fast foods, snack foods, and beverages. High-profit products derived from these commodity crops are generally high in calories and low in nutritional value. Ultraprocessed foods, for example, lack fiber, micronutrients, and healthful plant substances called phytochemicals that protect against heart disease and diabetes, Ludwig wrote in a 2011 JAMA commentary. Consider: A 10-ounce, 90-calorie portion of strawberries has 5 grams of fiber, abundant vitamins and minerals, and dozens of phytochemicals, while a 1-ounce portion of Fruit Gushers also has 90 calories, but virtually none of the fruit benefits.
4. Less-processed foods are generally more filling than their highly processed counterparts. Fresh apples have an abundance of fiber and nutrients that are lost when they are processed into applesauce. And the added sugar or other sweeteners increase the number of calories without necessarily making the applesauce any more filling. Apple juice, which is even more processed, has had almost all of the fiber and nutrients stripped out. This same stripping out of nutrients, says Ludwig, happens with highly refined white bread compared with stone-ground whole-wheat bread.