Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, September 8, 2021
Years ago, the environmental movement coined the term "greenwashing" to describe how corporations use public relations to make themselves appear environmentally friendly. Now, nutrition advocates need their own moniker for a similar trend among major food companies -- call it "nutri-washing."
With rising rates of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related health problems, Big Food has responded to increasing public criticism with announcements of improved products, along with assertions of being "part of the solution" -- knowing full well they are a cause of the problem.
Most of the criticism is leveled at companies who especially target children, with McDonald's taking much of this heat. So, in recent months the fast-food giant (though it denies any connection) has taken pains to prove it really does care.
For example, in April, with Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson on hand, McDonald's announced a "Balanced Lifestyle Platform," promising to provide nutrition information on Happy Meals and volunteering to "take an industry-leading role" to work with HHS on "the best way to communicate nutrition information to consumers." Do we really want the folks who invented the 600-calorie Big Mac and supersizing volunteering for this job?
The company also pledged to distribute free copies of an educational program called "What's on Your Plate, featuring Willie Munchright" that teaches "elementary schoolchildren the importance of physical activity and making smart food choices." What a great way to get free marketing in schools while increasing brand recognition among impressionable children. Also, the common tactic of promoting physical activity is cleverly designed to deflect attention away from children eating too much of industry's unhealthy food.
Other food conglomerates feeling the heat are also jumping on the corporate responsibility bandwagon. For example, PepsiCo has created a Web site (www.healthispower.net) devoted to convincing you that it cares about children's health. Yet the site claims that "kid-friendly" school snacks such as Doritos and Pepsi are "part of a balanced diet." The food and beverage giant also recently announced the introduction of the Smart Spot symbol, a small green circle that will carry the message "Smart Choices Made Easy" and will appear on such "healthy products" as Diet Pepsi and Baked Lays. But labeling a food healthy does not make it so. Even diet sodas and baked chips have virtually no nutritional value and only serve to divert consumers' attention from wholesome foods.
Some nutrition advocates have applauded such efforts as an attempt by industry to make improvements, however minor. But to praise companies for such "reforms" too easily rewards them with the positive public-relations spin they seek. Also, these voluntary actions deliberately attempt to deflect any mandatory government regulations -- for, as we are starting to learn, voluntary acts can easily be rescinded.
In June, for example, less than a year after Kraft Foods vowed to reduce portion sizes in the name of public health, the company said it would change nutrition labeling instead. The company did release recently "100 calorie packs" of Oreos, Chips Ahoy and Cheese Nips, thus turning reduced portion sizes into a clever marketing gimmick. But 100-calorie junk food is still junk. Similarly, a 2002 promise by McDonald's to remove artery-clogging trans fats from its cooking oil, which gained the company a tremendous amount of free PR (including a front-page story in The Chronicle), has yet to be fulfilled.
Moreover, these PR efforts don't tell the whole story. Behind the scenes, industry is lobbying hard to undermine public-health advocacy, especially that aimed at improving the nutrition environment of public schools. For example, last year, California lawmakers tried to ban the sale of sodas in schools, but heavy lobbying from the soda industry resulted in an exemption for high schools (where, not coincidentally, most soda is sold). Just last month, California legislation that would have set nutrition guidelines on foods sold in schools was narrowly defeated, despite having the support of 80 health and education organizations, thanks to last-minute lobbying by the junk-food industry.
Educated consumers won't be fooled by all the slick packaging and press releases. They know better than to rely on the processed food industry for healthful eating. The highest quality nutrition is found in whole foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, not in cans or boxes. That's how nature planned it, long before Big Food intervened. No matter how hard they try to convince you otherwise, the food and beverage industries have only their own best interests at heart. The rest is just a bunch of nutri-wash.