Big Food Has Us By The Brains!

Just in case you missed it, Jon Stewart of the Daily Show concocted a fabulously funny and completely accurate piece recently on the Big Food industry and the way junk food weasels its way into our wallets, waistlines, and our way of life. Before you read on, take a moment for a hearty laugh by watching the above video.

The world of junk food is completely absurd and it is nice to have some levity, no? Perhaps it will help science turn the tide.

In his 2010 pocket guide Food Rules, Michael Pollan mentions the fact that the study of nutrition is a relatively new science:

Nutrition science, which after all only got started less than two hundred years ago, is today approximately where surgery was in the year 1650—very promising, and very interesting to watch, but are you ready to let them operate on you?”  

Kind of a scary thought, huh? While the scientific community is still figuring out how exactly our bodies interact with what we put in them, an increasingly studied area of our food system is how multinational food companies (“Big Food”), with concentrated markets and huge amounts of power, are influencing the health of our globe. It’s a complicated web of biology, chemistry, economics, psychology, business, and a bunch of other disciplines.

A few weeks ago, Marion Nestle and Simon N. Williams edited a volume of the journal Critical Public Health entitled ‘Big Food’: taking a critical perspective on a global public health problem. This “who’s who” of researchers in the field provides a great overview and new insight into our world’s current struggles with food. From the introduction:   

This special issue deals particularly with issues related to the marketing strategies of Big Food, especially the ways in which companies advertise to youth and the rural poor. The papers demonstrate the importance of recent public health initiatives such as corporate promotion of nutritionally ‘better for you’ products and advocates’ promotion of soda taxes.”

OK. But how long will it be before reports like this trickle down to the general population? Simply put, when the average American is face to face with a sack of donuts he/she sings a different tune. Alicia Ault of Smithsonian explores this phenomenon in a recent article in the Ask Smithsonian series.

The question asked: why do we love junk food so much? Ault, along with others, including Eric Schulze in his tandem video, explore the concepts of food engineered solely to stimulate the pleasure centers of our brains. What we might see as a weak moment reaching for those donuts, Big Food sees as an inevitable manipulation of our brains:

Manufacturers create foods to meet multiple needs: being able to make mass quantities that have a consistent quality; making something that’s tasty and will sell well; and hitting on a formula that will keep us coming back for more.”

It can feel overwhelming and hopeless at times: “Big Food has us by the brains!” you might say. But fear not, plenty of good researchers use good old-fashioned science to corroborate the evidence against junk food. Take the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and other federal agencies that have been trying desperately for years to get the American diet back on track. For example, A recent CDC study sought to explore regional differences in the salt content of packaged food items in the U.S. They found very few: everywhere they looked salt levels in packaged food were egregiously high! Brian Wu of Science Times gives a synopsis:

The worst offenders were packaged foods that contained meats and pasta, with 80% of instances overstepping federal salt intake guidelines. Pizzas were the next worst offenders often containing too much salt in 70% of cases, while cold cuts and soups were filled with unhealthy salt levels 50% of the time. . . . 77% of the salt consumed by Americans comes from restaurant meals, take-out food and packaged food that is prepared in the home.”

Sometimes numbers can change lives: in this case a very simple solution to lowering salt intake is simply to reduce the amount of processed/restaurant food that one eats. Yet, for a lot of us, that might necessitate an almost complete overhaul of our diet, according to some new research out of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Researcher Dr. Jennifer Poti led a study showing that the majority of the calories consumed by Americans comes from processed food purchased at grocery stores. gives a synopsis:

From 2000 to 2012, the proportion of calories bought in highly processed foods remained stable at 61 percent to 62.5 percent. There was a significant increase in the proportion of calories bought in ready-to-heat foods (such as frozen meals), reaching more than 15 percent in 2012, the investigators found.”

Kicking the junk food habit and most forms of food-marketing mind control takes a real effort, but we as Wellness Warriors, armed with the truth, can change that status quo for ourselves, our families, and perhaps even our friends. Let’s all start one grocery store trip (or CSA share) at a time.


Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson 


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