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By Kristin Wartman
Paula Deen’s public admission that she has Type 2 diabetes and her follow-up announcement that she is also a paid spokesperson for the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, and its diabetes drug, Victoza, has sparked an interesting debate about the deeper issues surrounding our food system—especially the impact it has on the many people diagnosed with diabetes. And according to Deen’s comments on the Today show, she implies to her millions of fans, that the primary ways to deal with this largely diet-related disease are through personal responsibility and pharmaceuticals.
Indeed, when Al Roker, asks her if she is going to change the way she eats and the foods she cooks, Deen says, “Honey, I’m your cook, I’m not your doctor. You are going to have to be responsible for yourself.” Evading the question, Deen puts the onus back on the individual to decide what foods to eat or not, despite the fact that she promotes unhealthful and processed foods on TV. The one comment she does make about food choice is “moderation,” one of the most meaningless and confusing bits of nutrition advice. In fact, this is what the industry giants often use as their defense for harmful, unhealthful foods.
Personal responsibility and consumer choice are solutions heralded by conservatives and liberals alike—the idea being that ultimately good health comes down to what we choose to buy and eat. But it’s not that simple.
There are three main issues when it comes to the myth of personal responsibility about food choice and they get at the root of our nation’s health crisis—The public’s confusion about nutrition, the lack of time and knowledge about real home cooking, and the promotion of quick fixes like drugs, diet foods, and fads in lieu of addressing underlying causes. The Paula Deen diabetes story manages to hit on every single one of these issues.
Americans suffer from nutrition confusion, thanks to an array of conflicting and often inaccurate public health messages, misleading labels and claims on packaging, and a lack of nutrition knowledge by many doctors, dietitians, and other health care providers.
Deen’s cooking, and now her public diabetes announcement, only adds to this confusion. During the Today show interview she repeatedly mentions the amount of fat in her recipes, as do many in the media reporting on the story. “For 10 years, wielding slabs of cream cheese and mounds of mayonnaise,” a New York Times article begins, “Paula Deen has become television’s self-crowned queen of Southern cuisine.”
But real, unprocessed cream cheese and mayonnaise are not the problem. The issue that mainstream media has largely overlooked is that Deen uses the processed, packaged versions of these foods, which are full of chemicals, additives and trans-fats. Actual home cooking would require whipping these foods up herself in her kitchen using real ingredients. And that is the real story behind Deen’s diabetes diagnosis—Her health problems are largely due to her reliance on packaged, processed foods that are the foundation for many of her recipes.
Even though her cooking show is called Paula’s Home Cooking, there’s a lot going on in her kitchen that is as far removed from home cooking as you can get. Many of her recipes include “ingredients” like Krispy Kreme doughnuts, biscuit mixes, cans of mushroom soup, and sour-cream-and-onion flavored potato chips. This is processed food cooking, not home cooking.
Heaping the blame on all the “fat” she cooks with only serves to confuse the public further. A New York Daily News article also cites fat as one of the main culprits in Deen’s cooking and her diet. But the most recent research indicates that when it comes to diabetes, fat is not the problem. The problem foods are sugar, refined white flour, chemical additives, artificial sweeteners and flavors, trans-fats, and the various other chemicals and additives found in the processed foods that abound in Deen’s recipes.
Now Deen is pushing the idea that taking medicine is the real solution to diabetes. On the Today show, she says, “Here’s what I want to get across to people, I want them to first start by going to their doctor and asking to be tested for diabetes. Get on a program that works for you. I’m amazed at the people out there that are aware they’re diabetic but they’re not taking their medicine.”
According to Deen, the reason she waited three years to go public with her diagnosis was because she didn’t have anything to give her fans. “I could have walked out and said, ‘Hey ya’ll, I have been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.’ I had nothing to give to my fellow friends out there. I wanted to bring something to the table when I came forward.” So what is she bringing to the table? A sales pitch for a diabetes drug that costs $500 per month and has some seriously troubling side effects, including thyroid cancer, as Tom Philpott reports.
Just think of the kind of influence she could have wielded had she come out with a new cooking show that focused on using fresh, real food ingredients that cut way back on sugar and refined carbohydrates. In fact, if she had done so and eaten this way for the past three years she might have reversed her own diabetes diagnosis, which is entirely possible given the right diet.
But instead, Deen is getting paid to leave that task to a drug company. This isn’t her first corporate sponsorship (here she peddles Smithfield ham) and I doubt it will be her last. Diabetic and diet foods can’t be far behind in products she’ll attach to her name.
Alas, we can’t fairly discuss personal responsibility without taking into account the under-regulated advertising industry that pushes cheap, convenient, and processed foods on an overworked and cash-strapped population. Add to this the diminishing knowledge on how to shop for, cook, and prepare foods from scratch and we have a serious problem.
As Paula Deen now joins the 25.8 million other Americans suffering with diabetes, she “brings to the table” the ideas of moderation (an essentially meaningless and confusing bit of nutrition advice), personal responsibility, and the drug Victoza as the solutions. She could do so much more with all the power she wields.
Anthony Bourdain put it squarely when he said of Deen, “If I were on at seven at night and loved by millions of people at every age, I would think twice before telling an already obese nation that it’s OK to eat food that is killing us.” And this was before her diabetes announcement. Bourdain has also said that Deen is the “worst, most dangerous person to America.” He might have a point.
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Kristin Wartman is a food writer living in Brooklyn. She has a Masters in Literature from UC Santa Cruz and is a Certified Nutrition Educator. She is interested in the intersections of food, health, politics, and culture. You can follow her on Twitter and read more of her writing at kristinwartman.wordpress.com.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Michele Simon
Given all the defeats and set-backs this year due to powerful food industry lobbying, the good food movement should by now be collectively shouting—I am mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.
If you feel that way, I have two words of advice—get political.
I don’t mean to ignore the very real successes—increases in farmers markets, innovative and inspiring programs such as Food Corps, and an increasingly diverse food justice movement, just to name a few. But lately, at least when it comes to kids' and junk food, we’ve been getting our butts kicked.
And it’s not just because corporations have more money to lobby—of course they do. It’s that too often, we’re not even in the game. Or, we tend to give up too easily. While I know many food justice advocates who understand this is a political fight over control of the food system, sadly I cannot say the same thing about some of my public health colleagues. Too many nonprofits, foundations and professionals are playing it safe, afraid to take on the harder fights.
A politician from Maine I interviewed for my book was complaining to me about how food industry lobbyists were in his state capital every single day, while public health sent the occasional volunteer. His sage advice to us advocates—“You may be out-gunned, but you have to bring a gun.”
Moreover, many groups have shown that you don’t always even need a bigger gun. The small but impressive organization, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, proved that this summer when it won an important victory against Scholastic regarding its corporate-sponsored materials. How did they do it? A combination of smart campaigning and effective media. Not by playing nice.
Many public health folks I know are more comfortable with research and data than politics and lobbying. But if we are to make real progress, that has to change. Back in May, after a series of defeats, my colleague Nancy Huehnergarth wrote a great call-to-action. She noted how public health advocates and its funders are “very genteel” and that when industry lobbying beats us back, advocates just want more science, believing that the new data “will finally convince policymakers and the public to take action.” But it doesn’t work that way, as she explains:
The reality is that when going up against deep-pocketed, no-holds barred opponents like Big Food, Big Beverage and Big Agriculture, public health’s focus on science and evidence is easily trumped by money and messaging. If public health advocates don’t start rolling up their sleeves and using some of the same tactics used by industry, progress in this fight to create a safe, healthy, sustainable food system is going to move very slowly.
Now for some good news. We are already seeing positive signs that indeed, the food movement is getting more political. Recent defeats are helping to mobilize people even more, as folks realize the food industry is not playing nice, so we can’t either. Here then, are just a few signs of hope for 2012:
1) The growing political movement opposing genetically-engineered foods, which includes a huge Just Label It campaign with an impressive list of supporters. Stay tuned also for the 2012 ballot initiative in California to label GMOs.
2) Powerful nonprofit organizations (who don’t shy away from politics) getting involved for the first time in nutrition policy. For example, the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) recent report on sugary cereals called out the utter failure of Big Food’s voluntary nutrition guidelines on marketing to children. Given EWG’s one million-plus supporters, I can’t wait to see where they go with this issue in 2012.
3) Increasing coverage in mainstream media that food industry marketing (and not just personal responsibility) bears much of the blame for the nation’s public health crisis. Examples include a front page story in a recent Sunday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle and Mark Bittman’s weekly Opinionator column in the New York Times, which is consistently smart and hard-hitting.
4) Speaking of media, as traditional investigative journalism outlets have become more scarce, a new breed of reporters may be born from an innovative project just launched in November—Food and Environmental Reporting Network. Its mission is to “produce investigative journalism on the subjects of food, agriculture, and environmental health in partnership with local and national media outlets.” Judging from its first in-depth report on dairy CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) in New Mexico, I am looking forward to more in 2012.
5) Finally, the Occupy movement, while still very young, has already inspired a number of food politics offshoots. As I wrote after Food Day, several others have penned calls to action showing the deep connections between corporate control of the food supply and economic injustice. (If you read just one, Tom Philpott’s Foodies, Get Thee to Occupy Wall Street should convince you.) Also, the amazing grassroots organization Food Democracy Now (based in Iowa) recently organized an “Occupy Wall Street Farmers’ March” to bring the message that family farmers are also the 99 percent. (Read organizer Dave Murphy’s moving account of the successful event and watch the videos of the passionate speakers.)
There are many other amazing groups, farmers and eaters organizing all over the country (and the world) to take back our food supply from corporate profiteers. We’ve got plenty of challenges ahead, with the farm bill up for renewal and more school food nutrition standards to fight for, just for starters. I am hopeful that next year we will see the food movement get even more political. I just hope I can also say, by the end of 2012, that it was the year more of my public health colleagues joined in.
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