The Skinny on Big Food & Big Pharma

(9 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

A couple of days ago I wrote this diary and copped quite a few unkind comments, mostly from misinformed posters and a handful of hardcore denialists. Yet the problems persist, and shooting the messenger rarely helps. But I’m a tough cookie, comfortable in the knowledge of what I know and write about and in this diary I’m basically tackling the same issues albeit from a different angle: “Big Pharma” and the multinational junk & processed foods companies (“Big Food”) which, worldwide, make gigantic profits on the back of unsuspecting consumers, specifically marketing non-nutritious food appealing to children and adults alike via disingenuous advertising.

Obesity, though some would prefer to call it eating disorders, is a big growth area, not just for the unwitting sufferers, but also for some food companies which contributes so greatly to the problem. “Big Pharma” which works in tandem with “Big Food” would love to “terminate” its main source of competition: the natural products industry and the organic movement.

hydrogenated, oils are heated in the presence of hydrogen and metal catalysts. This process helps prolong shelf life but simultaneously creates transfats, which only have to be disclosed on the label if the food contains more than 0.5 grams per serving. To avoid listing transfats, or to claim “transfat free” on their label, sneaky food manufacturers simply adjust the serving size until the transfat content falls under 0.5 grams per serving. Voila! The Harvard School of Public Health has estimated that at least 30,000 people, and more probably 100,000 people die every year in the US from cardiovascular disease caused by consuming hydrogenated oils, as opposed to natural vegetable oil.  

Remember when some physicians told you about this new wonder drugs that can take off weight without even thinking? One such drug is Sanofi-Aventis’ (SNY) rimonabant, which is marketed as Acomplia in the EU. No such “luck” in the US though, it was rightly rejected for its suicidal tendencies. The medicine supposedly suppresses the receptors in the brain that cause people to crave fatty foods. The other drug is GlaxoSmithkline’s (GSK) Alli, which is now available over the counter.

Alli is essentially the over-the-counter version of Xenical, (generic name is orlistat) a prescription medicine already available. Xenical works by blocking the amount of fat absorbed through the digestive system.

At the time of the Alli’s launch last year, GSK estimated it would eventually sell between five million and six million kits annually, translating to at least $1.5 billion in annual retail. A 60-capsule kit costs about $50 while a 90-capsule pack costs about $60. Does it work? Not enough to spark a run on Brazilian bikini but if you agree to a commitment to living your life in a new way as you must learn to change your eating and activity habits, then it’s for you. But why spend that kind of money when you have to completely change your lifestyle and do all the proverbial heavy lifting? Those taking Alli, btw, have to put up with some diarrhea and flatulence.

And now on the legal front: on 17 April 2008, GSK, along with the American Dietetic Association and the Obesity Society (both regarded by many as fronts for the Big Pharma) petitioned the FDA to try to prevent any dietary supplement product making weight loss claims. The company wants weight loss claims to be re-classified as disease claims, therefore making them the sole domain of treatments with licensed pharmaceuticals. And since GSK’s Alli product is the only weight loss drug that is on the over-the-counter market it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see their reasoning.

A lawsuit aimed at getting soft drinks firms out of US schools on obesity grounds is now ready to go, says one of the leading lawyers involved to, as new research suggests obesity litigation will become the next “tobacco”.

When it comes to using litigation as a strategy to combat obesity, food manufacturers should be most wary of lawsuits based on consumer protection acts, according to a new report that examines the application of tobacco litigation methods to obesity lawsuits.  

The report uses the history of tobacco litigation as a model to evaluate potential legislation against the food industry, which the authors claim is another industry that poses a threat to public health.

Published in this month’s issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the study says

that although national legislation against the food industry would be a “preferable” strategy to protect public health, lessons from the tobacco wars suggest that effective national legislation is currently unlikely.

One of the reasons for this is that the industry has a strong influence on the process, say authors Jess Alderman and Richard Daynard. Like tobacco, the food industry routinely- and often invisibly- seeks to influence both legislators and health professionals to support its agenda while ignoring its potential impact on public health”.

And when it comes to individual personal injury lawsuits against food companies, these also could carry a slim chance of success, although the companies involved are likely to fight litigation at every step.

“Losing such a lawsuit could open the floodgates of litigation by encouraging millions of obese Americans to file similar cases, so it would be advantageous for the food industry to delay or defend every such lawsuit to the fullest extent.”

However, as was demonstrated in the EU recently, lawsuits based on consumer protection acts are likely to be much more effective, as these avoid complicated causation issues and focus instead on deceptive marketing tactics and could fall under consumer protection statutes, together with false advertising, misleading claims and unfairly taking advantage of vulnerable consumers.

Indeed, back in 2005 an American consumer launched a lawsuit aimed at food companies including Kraft Foods, General Mills and Kellogg, alleging that “low sugar” labels on cereals were deceptive as the companies replace the sugar with other carbohydrates, thus offering no significant nutritional advantage. The suit claims that these cereals are misleading because they aren’t any healthier than cereals with regular levels of sugar, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The food industry in general is coming under increasing pressure from food lobby groups and some parents, to “clean up its act” and offer healthier alternatives to help combat the obesity epidemic facing the world. Sugary cereals are frequently cited by these groups as guilty culprits, encouraging children to eat empty calories instead of nutritional whole foods. Will Obama appoint a food “czar”, someone who can and will take on Big Food?

High fruit and vegetable prices may be linked to childhood obesity, says the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), although it suggests that further research is needed in order to confirm the “casual relationship” identified by its recent study.

The USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) findings are based on an examination of the diets and weight of around 7,000 children between kindergarten and third grade.

“Children who lived in metropolitan areas where fruits and vegetables were relatively expensive gained significantly more weight than children who lived where fruit and vegetables were cheaper,” said the USDA, adding that the children who participated in the study had a similar way and standard of living

Data from the Bureau of Labor cites that both American children and parents are spending increased time commuting from work, school and activities. Eating takes place en route from one venue or another, making sitting down to a home-cooked, carefully balanced meal even less of a reality for families. The absence of regulated family eating schedules was cited as one of the main causes of poor dietary habits. But other major concerns cited by respondents should serve as a warning to food makers that they are not about to be let off the hook just yet.

“Children’s eating habits are suffering due to the lack of structured meal time, and this is as big a challenge as the lack of balanced meals,” said Amanda Archibald, analyst and registered dietitian for Mintel. “Compressed schedules and cramped time availability for both children and parents may play a more important role than previously thought in making healthy food choices.”

According to Mintel’s Menu Insights, a menu-tracking system, more than 47 percent of children’s menu items were fried. Chicken fingers led the way on the top 5 children’s menu dishes list, followed by grilled cheese sandwiches, burgers, macaroni and cheese, and hot dogs.

Mintel’s report also cites that overall restaurant portions have also steadily increased over time.

And recently, a number of academic studies presented at the AACR International Conference on Frontiers in Cancer Prevention Research reveal growing evidence that overall cancer incidence and mortality resulting from overweight and obesity is also increasing, something which places more pressure on the food industry, and presents regulators with another headache.

If you’d like to read about Big Pharma cloak & dagger scare tactics, look no further than here.


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    • AAF on November 19, 2008 at 15:29

    how can we make organic, natural foods A) more accessible and B) more affordable.

  1. Big Pharma…. but the fact is I routinely use their products and  they aren’t all bad. People often do stupid things with their medications such as ignoring the instructions or failing to finish out their prescriptions particularly with antibiotics. On the flip side people also need access to affordable medications and often the older line drugs are just as effective ( and frequently cheaper ) than the newer ones that get pushed.

    And besides lifestyle issues, there are genetic components to certain cancers which is why oncology research is getting into the business of trying to find specific genetic markers for various diseases.

  2. … you lost me with this:

    … and copped quite a few unkind comments, mostly from misinformed posters and a handful of hardcore denialists.

    Both here and at the Orange I read some very thought provoking responses to your writing and those responses were neither misinformed, unkind, nor evidence of being in denial.

    I’m not an expert on any of this and I have read your prior work and enjoyed it immensely.

    But when someone disagrees with you, I don’t find it admirable to basically name-call them right at the beginning of your essay instead of either responding to what they are saying or just plain laying out your case.

    It’s not shooting the messenger, and I’m surprised you would take to disagreement in this fashion.

    • RiaD on November 19, 2008 at 17:24

    while both big pharma & big food/big agra have their good points it seems they ARE in cahoots to keep people from consuming healthy, natural homegrown food/medicine…..doing ALL they can to keep people from self-sustainability.

    orangeclouds115‘s wonderful VMD diaries and her (fairly) new blog La Vida Locavore have taught me a lot about this…. how HFCS are used as additives to keep you from feeling full, how big food lobbys to get the standards for the organic label changed, what really is in your food.

    i recently read (sorry, can’t locate the article) that the more processed your food is the less actual nutritional value it has. so that a tomato fresh from my garden has the most nutrients, those i chop & can have less, those i simmer down into tomato paste have less still, and then i bake it on a pizza cooking even more of the nutrition away.

    big food/big agra is in the food processing business. of course they want you to eat more. they are in the business of keeping their business profitable….and be damned to the consumers. they hybridize the seed so it requires their specially formulated fertilizer, looks beautiful and ships hundreds or thousands of miles none the worse for wear…. the thing is though, they’ve hybridized or GM’d the nutrients OUT.

    i think the best description of my idea of what big agra/ big food are trying to become can be found in Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

    a couple of quotes

    The end result was a foodstuff almost indistinguishable from any other except for two things. Firstly, the price, which was slightly higher, and secondly the nutritional content, which was roughly equivalent to that of a Sony Walkman.

    It didn’t matter how much you ate, you lost weight. [Footnote: And hair. And skin tone. And, if you ate enough of it long enough, vital signs.]

    MEALS™ was CHOW™ with added sugar and fat. The theory was that if you ate enough MEALS™ you would a) get very fat, and b) die of malnutrition.

    so… while obesity (especially childhood) may not be caused by overeating….. i think it IS caused by overeating foods that have little or no nutritional value AND the change in our lifestyles that cause lack of exercise to be the norm.

  3. What about Big Pharma and their promotion of “antidepressants” which many of YOU PEOPLE use because you don’t understand that being “unhappy” is most often your body’s way of telling you it doesn’t like whatever it is your are doing and or the situation you are in. And that you should …instead of listening to the world, advertising, doctors, Oprah…do something different and “it” will let you know if you are doing the right thing by “feeling good”. That’s common sense, which is no longer common.

    But of course Big Pharma is telling everyone that every “problem” you have  (meaning bad feelings)  is genetically or hormonally determined…because that’s PROFITABLE.

    So people take drugs and live in contradiction with themselves, muting the body/mind connection so that the “body” (felt sensations)  cannot communicate to the mind.

    Genes are hormones are part of a system…they are not understood. Hormonal imbalance due to defects in the systems which produce them are much more rare than advertised. Genetic “defects” (which can lead to hormonal problems) are not understood as advertised.

    Advertising….not science….that’s what you are getting.

    From a political standpoint, Big Pharma has dummied down the liberal drug taking population so they are no longer able to feel anger, rage, get upset and feel impelled to DO ANYTHING. It becomes an intellectual exercize never rising to the level of PHYSICAL ACTS.

    It isn’t the only reason people are accepting of our political situation, but it is having a bigger impact than realized.

    Taking antidepressants when you find out you have cancer or when something traumatic happens is one thing….taking them because you feel miserable day to day might be  just a way of avoiding coming to a different solution, changing the way you behave.

    It’s not all that simple, changning the way you behave…but….

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