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Big Food Can Do Better: An Excerpt from 'Nourished Planet'

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The following is an excerpt from Nourished Planet: Sustainability in the Global Food System, published by Island Press in June of 2018. Nourished Planet was edited by Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank and produced with support from the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition.


Corporations influence food choices most heavily through advertising, and the advertising of junk food to kids is the worst culprit of all in undermining public health. At an age when children are primed to learn the habits that will have lifelong effects on their health, these ads steer them toward unhealthful foods. Big Food is thus able to create a base of lifelong consumers at the expense of the health of children and the health of the future.

A 2015 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that between 2007 and 2013, "no significant improvement in the overall nutritional quality of foods marketed to children has been achieved" by "industry self-regulation." The study concluded that "the lack of success achieved by self-regulation indicates that other policy actions are needed to effectively reduce children's exposure to obesogenic food advertising." Children and adolescents are now the target of intense and specialized food marketing and advertising efforts. Food marketers are interested in young people as consumers because of their spending power, their purchasing influence, and their potential as future adult consumers.

Extensive meta-analysis reviews, such as those published in 2016 in the journals Obesity Reviews and The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, have demonstrated how the sophisticated marketing techniques of the food and drink industries influence young people to adopt high-calorie, low-nutrient diets and contribute to their unhealthy weight gain, among other negative health outcomes. These studies have confirmed that food advertisers are successful not only at promoting one product over another but at increasing total consumption.

Young children, especially under the age of 5, biologically prefer sweet and salty tastes, making them vulnerable to advertisements for their preferences. As children age, their ability to recognize branded logos increases, and, compared with other children, those who better recognize the logos of unhealthful products have a greater desire for these products. Adolescents between 12 and 18 years old are especially susceptible to online media and, by having more money to spend, are profitable targets for marketers of unhealthful foods and beverages.

Anna Lappé, the author of several books about food and director of the Real Food Media Project, has cited Mixify as an example of Big Food advertising's tenacious focus on young people. This massive marketing campaign was introduced in 2015 by the American Beverage Association and several big beverage companies to deflect attention from sodas' contribution to ill health and to promote the idea that drinking sugary soda is okay if doing so is part of a balanced diet. The campaign included interactive social media accounts and a website peppered with teenage jargon, as well as free events for teens in cities across the country. Of the soda industry's obvious targeting of young consumers, Lappé said, "It's all about communicating that, dear (youthful) reader, we're hip, we're cool, we're one of you—and we don't want you to be worried about drinking our beverages."

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and author of the award-winning book Food Politics, has found that simply knowing certain foods pose health risks is not enough to encourage people to adopt a healthier lifestyle. "Environmental changes are much more likely to be effective," she said, "because education is aimed at changing personal behavior, which is too hard for most people to do. What you really want is to change the food environment to make it easier for people to make healthier food choices."

Nestle notes that "eating less" and "eating better" cannot prevent obesity, because Big Food is determined to sell junk food, regardless of its effects on public health. As ways to counter the influence of marketers, she suggests stricter government regulations on advertisements and better education for consumers on how food is marketed. "People of every age are exposed to food advertisements all day long, so much so that food marketing has become part of the daily environment and is not consciously noticed," she said. "The objective of nutrition education clearly must be to teach critical thinking about food marketing in all its dimensions: advertisements, product placements in supermarkets, vending machines in schools, candy at the checkout counters of business supply and clothing stores, and cafes in bookstores. Noticing how food is marketed is the first step to learning how to resist it."

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