Head of Demon with Mountains

The Moral Hazard of Demonizing the Food Industry

The global food industry is huge – so big that people have a hard time putting firm numbers on it. But roughly, it’s worth about ten trillion dollars. It’s also very diverse. The top ten multinational food and beverage companies add up to only half a trillion dollars of those sales. Nonetheless in public health literature, advocates write a great deal that depicts this industry as a monolith standing in firm opposition to important public health goals. We have to ask, though, does this impulse for demonizing the food industry serve public health well?

Or instead, should we insist upon participants in the food industry living up to a responsibility for nourishing people and promoting good health?

Two New Papers: Don’t Trust the Food Industry

The gist of two new papers in this vein is quite simple. Do not accept what the food industry says about the business of producing and promoting food.

The first of these papers appears in PLOS Medicine. Kathrin Lauber and colleagues analyze business input into the formulation of restrictions on advertising unhealthy foods on London transport systems. They found that companies in food, food service, and advertising businesses opposed these regulations. But “they offered little evidence in support of their own claims.” The authors concluded that policy makers should be skeptical of arguments that these policies won’t work or will have unintended negative consequences.

The second paper appears in BMJ Global Health, also by Lauber and colleagues. It is an analysis of food industry input into global public health policy. Her conclusion is quite simple:

“Ultra-processed food industry respondents made far-reaching claims which were rarely supported by high-quality, independent evidence. This indicates that there may be few, if any, benefits from consulting actors with such a clear conflict of interest.”

In other words, don’t listen to those people.

The Bias to Deny One’s Own Biases

Psychologist Adam Grant offers a word of caution:

“People generally assume that they are less biased than others. This is my favorite bias. ‘I am not biased. Everybody else is biased. I am objective. I see things with perfect neutrality.’

“The higher your intelligence, the more likely you are to fall victim to that bias.”

U.S. Trends in Sugar Consumption and ObesityHe has a point. Given the sorry record of public health efforts to reverse trends of rising obesity, a little humility would be wise. We spent decades fighting high fat foods as a prime cause of obesity. Low-fat foods proliferated. Obesity rates climbed. We’ve now spent two decades telling folks to cut back on sugar. Sugar consumption has fallen, but obesity prevalence continues to rise.

Now Lauber writes with certitude about “unequivocal“ evidence that advertising for foods high in fat, sugar, and salt harms children and contributes to obesity.

The Moral Hazard of Certitude

Brandishing such certitude and demonizing the food industry could be hazardous. Because the truth is that we do not yet know what it will take to reverse rising obesity trends. Everyone in this discussion has a bias. The food industry has a bias to sell more food. Health advocates have the bias conferred by a righteous cause. It is the bias of believing oneself to be perfectly objective and correct.

Everyone in this debate needs to grow more curious. The food industry needs to get curious about ways to grow their businesses without overfeeding people. Food policy advocates need to get curious about alternatives to the very tired good food versus bad food dichotomy.

Chasing demons is a waste of time.

Click here and here for the papers by Lauber et al. For more on the bias of believing oneself to be unbiased, click here and here.

Head of Demon with Mountains, painting by Mikhail Vrubel / WikiArt

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September 5, 2021

5 Responses to “The Moral Hazard of Demonizing the Food Industry”

  1. September 05, 2021 at 8:53 am, John DiTraglia said:

    Amen except for “The food industry needs to get curious about ways to grow their businesses without overfeeding people.” Overfeeding is not the cause of obesity.
    I’m still waiting for Coca-Cola to pay me to proclaim that they are not the cause of obesity.

  2. September 05, 2021 at 9:29 pm, John Dixon said:

    Bias is natural, and of course it fits well with the blaming shaming approach to this obesity pandemic. We all need to be more CURIOUS and examine our own assumptions (often biased) regularly.

    It’s so important to challenge what has not worked, and examine carefully what appears to work.

    Ted, ConscienHealth is a joy to read. I find it a great help in exposing and exploring bias (especially mine). Please keep up your excellent work. A shining light in a sea of fog.

    • September 06, 2021 at 4:21 am, Ted said:

      John, you’re very kind to say so, especially because I know you to be such a sharp critical thinker. We need all the critical thinking we can get in this field of work.

  3. September 08, 2021 at 11:11 pm, Eldad Einav said:

    I have read the article and I believe this is a legitimate criticism of the food industry representatives in the process of restrictions to advertising foods which are high in fat, sugar and sodium.
    The study does not try to prove that these foods are harmful but rather looks at the arguments presented by certain actors and their conduct in the process. Hence your criticism has totally missed the main point of the publication. However, it does feel like you do have a strong agenda (although unclear) behind your arguments.