Food, Inc., first a documentary then a book, brought our attention to disturbingly inhumane practices in the raising of animals on corporate farms (now called CAFOs, for concentrated animal feeding operations). Another disturbing farming trend is the government-subsidized monoculture of corn and soybeans (especially the genetically modified versions). Now people are openly asking—must the food corporation’s drive for efficiency require the sacrifice of our national soul and health? The food corporations are as American as the free enterprise system, yet all too often they abandon anchoring values and drift into uncharted waters.
In pondering the nature of food corporations, I have come to three conclusions: First, in the corporate culture, growth, especially the growth of profits, is everything. Second, growth requires change that is never without risk. Third, much of the risk will fall upon the customers who eat the food. So there is an inherent instability at work where we can never be really safe, there is always risk. Protective laws can be passed, but they will lag behind the newest innovation; that old phrase that warns the consumer to beware—caveat emptor—will always be with us.
When I graduated from engineering school the economy was bustling so with a little effort I got a handful of job offers. I chose Procter & Gamble for one reason—they stood head and shoulders over the other companies I interviewed. Though primarily a soap company, they also had food products, including Crisco. Crisco, as everyone now knows, was full of trans fats. Dr. Walter Willett, the esteemed Harvard epidemiologist, added his authority to the many warnings about trans fats in a 1994 paper titled, “Trans Fatty Acids: Are the Effects Only Marginal?” Willet and his associates estimated trans fats were responsible for over 30,000 U.S. deaths each year from heart disease alone. If Willett is right P&G, a venerable and well-managed company, is responsible for a share of those deaths.
I tell this story to confirm a sad truth: even the best of companies in their rush to invent new, more profitable food products will make mistakes and the brunt of those mistakes fall upon the innocent consumer. Did I say innocent? Actually we had been warned. In the scripture known as the Word of Wisdom, we are advised to make out food from herbs (vegetables and legumes), fruits, a little meat, and grains. There is even a warning about “the designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men.” And according to what I have read, companies producing trans fats conspired against the people who first warned about trans fats. It’s hard for the heads of companies to heed, or even hear, criticism about the products that pay for their salaries, bonuses, and stock options.
Few of us live on farms anymore so we need the food companies, at least the better ones. But we also need to open our eyes and realize the nature of the world about us. Food companies spend over $30 billion a year to convince us to buy processed foods. (This comes to about $100 per person—we pay for it whenever we buy their food.) There is arrogance in this, an unspoken assurance they can make us believe and buy whatever they are pushing. The ads are clever, creative, convincing and, in my view, deceptive. Learning to ignore their siren song is part of opening our eyes. Food ads must be viewed with the highest degree of skepticism. My personal rule: Heavy advertising equals unhealthy food.
Do you remember the adage for avoiding tempting but unhealthy foods: “Don’t shop when you’re hungry”? A recent Healthy Change counseled weekly menu planning. We have a corollary that will make you a wiser shopper:
When our kids were growing up I would do the weekly shopping on Saturday night. The confusion of finding things caused me to make a standard shopping list, organized by the aisles of the store. My beautiful wife kept the list handy during the week, checking needed items. We used it for years; it saved time, slashed the need for second trips, and reduced impulse purchases. You could tear part off and give it to a child old enough to help—good training. When the children were older we just gave them the list, the keys to the car, and a ten-dollar bill for their efforts. The weekly list will simplify your life and make you a wiser shopper.
Need a form for your shopping list? I’ll design a standard shopping list this week for general use and make it available on the next post.
Your shopping dollars are like votes. Buying unhealthy foods is a vote to sustain the companies that make them. Use your bucks to vote for those good companies offering healthy (and less processed) products and starve those who don’t. The one thing that could reform the food companies is an aroused public using their dollars to support only healthy foods. The corporations who don’t reform will follow the downward path of the tobacco and fast food companies, selling to a shrinking faction of society.
One closing thought: Perhaps the real solution is to replace the men who head the food corps—men, we all know, are the gender least associated with nurturing—with women. One company has done this. A few years ago PepsiCo was the largest and arguably the unhealthiest of all the food corporations. Besides sugary soda drinks they were pushing fast foods (Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, KFC, all leaders in their sector), and snack foods (Frito-Lay, the king of the chip aisle). Then one bright day, PepsiCo tried a new tact—they hired a woman to fix a sick corporate strategy. Her name is Indra Nooyi, raised in India and educated in America. Under Nooyi’s guidance, PepsiCo got rid of their fast food companies and began to offer healthier products, including the purchase of Tropicana (fruit juices), Quaker Oats, and Naked Juice (more juices). Nooyi was also given the top job at PepsiCo—the position of CEO. Incidentally, growth has soared at PepsiCo under Nooyi’s policy that the corporation has a "duty of care" for their customners. I buy very little of PepsiCo’s products—we try to buy less-processed foods—but I admire Indra Nooyi and PepsiCo’s turn towards reform.
Please share your ideas on how we can advance the cause of food reform.
Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.