Category Archives: Food Health and Education

Can we love food and not worry about sugar?

“Sugar, sugar, sugar- who doesn’t love it right? It is everywhere and in everything and a long time ago, we thought that was a good thing, or at least not that bad of a thing…” writes Julie Montagu (2015).

 

Obesity is rising; experts are telling us to drastically reduce sugar consumption, while advertisers are telling us otherwise. Slow Food Sussex have convened the panel to examine the evidence, navigate the conflicting advice and help to bring about a very necessary change. Craig Sams, main speaker and co-founder of Green & Blacks chocolate says, “It’s about everything in moderation.’. “You get more pleasure out of the things that you don’t overdo.”

Conversations on Sugar

28th April 2017 – 18:30

One Church, Gloucester Place, Brighton , BN1 4AA

 

The conversation will cover various aspects of this issue. Why do we crave sugar? How does the food industry slip more sugar in to our food? What external factors drive our compulsion to eat sugar? Can the gut be re-trained to stop cravings? How can parents help their children to consume less? Can taxes and regulations have any impact?

 

Speakers include:

  • Craig Sams, Co-founder of Green and Black’s chocolate,
  • Jo Rallings, Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, and
  • Dan Parker, Sugar Smart Brighton.

The evening will begin with free canapes and drinks will also be available for purchase.

 

Tickets cost £6 and can be purchased here.

 

Conversations on Sugar is hosted by Slow Food Sussex in collaboration with BSUFN.

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Register Now for Food Agendas in a Post-Brexit Future Symposium #BSUFN17

Food Agendas in a Post-Brexit Future: BSUFN Annual Symposium 2017
Monday 6th of February 2017
9:00 – 17:20
Auditorium, Brighthelm Centre, North Road, Brighton, BN1 1YD
You can now register to attend the BSUFN Annual Symposium on the 6th of February 2017. Tickets cost £11.21. Buy tickets to attend here.
Lunch and refreshments will be provided.
During the symposium we will be using the hashtag #BSUFN17 so please join the conversation if you are on Twitter.

There has been much talk of the ways in which the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, or ‘Brexit’, will impact British farmers due to changes to the Common Agricultural Policy. We believe that Brexit will have far reaching effects across the food systems in many ways, in the UK, Europe and beyond. From policy implications for food safety standards and nutrition labels, to international trade and markets, to controls on chemical pesticides and the regulation of genetically modified (GM) organisms, and to diet and public health, and more.

To reflect current discussions about Brexit and its implications, the BSUFN Annual Symposium 2017 will consider food agendas in a post-Brexit future. This will reflect anticipated impacts of Brexit on the UK food system as well as implications for food agendas in other countries and regions of the world. Topics will explore the future of food in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, likely to be 2019, and more distant horizons.

The provisional programme for the symposium is available here: Provisional programme

Time Session
9:00-9:20 Registration, tea/coffee
9:20-9:30 Welcome
9:30-10:15 Provocations

Brexit Implications for Food Agendas

Chair: Rachael Taylor

Speakers to include: Brighton & Hove Food Partnership, The Linseed Farm, University of Brighton, and the Institute of Development Studies

10:15-11:15 Session 1 – Policy Dynamics

Chair: Abigail Wincott

Prof. Erik Millstone

The future of UK food & agricultural policies post-Brexit

Peter Senker

Post-Truth Politics and Food Poverty in the UK  after Brexit

11:15-11:45 Tea/coffee break
11:45-13:15 Session 2 – Panel Discussion – Learning from Global Discourses

Chair: Rachael Durrant

Three 15-minute presentations followed by 45 minutes of open discussion

Dipak Sarker

Use, History and Promises, Both True and Untrue, of Genetically-Modified (GM) Crops: Reflections Post-Brexit

Jennifer Constantine

Prospects for the Sustainable Development Goals in post-Brexit Britain: learning from Brazil’s experience with food and nutrition governance

Rachael Taylor

Finding the Future in the Past: Agroecology and Remnants of Colonialism in Senegal

13:15-14:15 Lunch
14:15-15:00 Future Food Agendas

Synergies for Policy, Practice and Research

Chair: Jennifer Constantine

15:00-16:00 Session 3 – Sustaining Farming through Brexit

Chair: Dipak Sarker

Adrian Ely

Transforming Food Systems in Brighton and Hove – Local Opportunities within a Changing Global Context

Helena Howe

Farming through Brexit

16:00-16:20 Tea/coffee break
16:20-17:20 Session 4 – Ecological Knowledge and Policy

Chair: TBC

Elise Wach

What scope for food sovereignty in a post-Brexit Future?

Jeremy Evans

A radical Regionalisation of fisheries quota for LIFE: developing new mechanisms of emancipatory fisheries governance

17:20 Close – move to Earth and Stars, 46 Windsor Street, Brighton, BN1 1RJ for a social evening

Questioning the Future of Food

Last month members of BSUFN took part in an event which explored the Future of Food. The event was held at the Science Museum, London, as part of the 50th birthday celebrations of the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex.

Members of the public were given the opportunity to interact with, and ask questions of, SPRU researchs and experts on four topics concerning the future of food. Conversations were held around four questions:

  1. How will Brexit impact UK farmers?
  2. Could we be growing more food underground?
  3. How can the UK government best respond to the rising obesity problem?
  4. What impact does our food system have on climate change?

Some of these questions raised contentious issues among the public who engaged in the debates. There were areas of agreement while on other issues people disagreed and had different opinions about priorities and the future.

BSUFN would like to continue this debate. If you have any thoughts, opinions or ideas about the above questions please leave them in the comments box below and we will build the ongoing discussion around these comments.

You can read more about the SPRU anniversary event at the Science Museum and other celebratory events here.

 

Kwashiorkor and the Great Protein Fiasco? Understanding Plant Proteins in Human Nutrition, Part 2

This post is the second of two written by Dr Caroline Hodges, University of Brighton. The first post discussed student preceptions and animal experiments.

In the 1930’s Cecily Williams identified a condition of advanced malnutrition which she called kwashiorkor, or ‘disease of the deposed child’. She made a cautious suggestion that the disease was associated with the loss of protein when a mother weans a toddler abruptly on the arrival of a new baby.

Little attention was paid to this discovery until the 1949 FAO/WHO Committee became involved in nutrient deficiency diseases and announced kwashiorkor was ‘one of the most widespread nutritional disorders in tropical and subtropical areas’. The condition was treated with skimmed milk, so it was assumed that it must be caused by a deficiency of protein (Brock and Autret, 1952).  Sathyamala (2016) is one of several with an interesting take on this:

‘This discovery of the cure coinciding with the availability of dry skimmed milk in the USA was a fortunate by-product of a domestic surplus-disposal problem. It was clearly more satisfactory in every respect to dump [skimmed milk] in developing countries than to have to bury it in the United States as was contemplated by the Department of Agriculture at one point’ (McLaren, 1974).’

Thereafter the contentious term ’the protein gap’ or ‘crisis’ was born.  This was first advocated when different committees believed child protein requirements were high in comparison with currently accepted values, but successive downward adjustments of the value over the years made it clear that children in areas where kwashiorkor was prevalent did not have a protein deficiency unless their overall energy intake was low (Briend, 2014). So although the symptoms of this disease are ‘persuasively consistent with protein deficiency rather than energy deficit, acute shortage of energy would, however, lead to use of protein as an energy source’ (Webb 2012, 283).

To her credit Williams later wrote ‘For the last 20 years I‘ve been spending my time trying to debunk kwashiorkor’ (McLaren, 1974).  Even today its aetiology and pathogenesis remain unclear, although textbooks authoritatively report it as a protein deficiency disease.

This apparent enormous ‘protein gap’ initiated a whole new field of research which also satisfied many commercial interests, specifically the mass production of protein-rich functional foods from sources such as fishmeal and microbes. In 1972 a ‘Protein Advisory Group’ was established to monitor this research. Sathyamala (2016) summarises the situation as follows:

‘..once the marketing of the surplus of skimmed milk in the USA had ceased to be a problem and given that the meat industry was unlikely to be able to play a role because of the levels of poverty in countries that were said to be afflicted with this condition, industry turned its attention to developing new, synthetic protein foods and exploiting them commercially….. Despite heavy funding and promotion, with few exceptions most of the protein-rich foods never reached commercial viability, with some products costing four times more than the original they were said to replace (McLaren, 1974).

One product which did succeed was Quorn but this is now marketed as a meat substitute for vegetarians in the West, rather than the high-protein food for needy children in developing countries (Webb, 2012).

Unfortunately, as McClaren noted (1974), ‘As a result, (of the protein gap) measures to detect protein deficiency and treat and prevent it by dietary means have been pursued until the present time. The price that has had to be paid for these mistakes is only beginning to be realised.’ Newman (1995) suggests ‘the unwarranted attention to protein ended up by wasting a great deal of time, money and lives’ and more recently Webb (2012, 279) refers to The huge costs both financial and medical, of exaggerating human needs’. He suggests ‘much of this effort was wasted and ‘directed towards solving an illusory problem’. McClaren (1974) went so far as to entitle his historically important article describing the so called protein gap: ‘The great protein fiasco’. 

Sathyamala (2016) explains the focus on kwashiorkor in the 1960’s by describing it as ‘the construction of a pure protein deficiency disease’, which shows how ‘scientific discourses in nutrition are shaped by the needs of capital and capital determines scientific truth’. She describes how:

’The entry of the pharmaceutical and food industries into functional food and supplements has created a new epistemic authority for truth claims whose strength lies in the ability to convince through propaganda with little pretence of a scientific base’.

The recommended dietary intake of protein has been progressively lowered, and Infant protein requirements decreased significantly from approx. 40g g/day in 1943 to 13g/day in 2005. In the 1970’s a recalculation at the stroke of a pen unwittingly closed the ‘protein gap’ and shattered the theory of the pandemic of ‘protein malnutrition.’

The former director of India’s Institute of Nutrition (Gopalan, 2007) made the following comment in his evocatively entitled article ‘Farms to Pharmacies: Beginnings of a Sad Decline’. ‘No arbitrary cocktail of synthetic nutrients’ — which he called a ‘blunderbuss pharmacy’ approach to undernutrition — ‘can substitute for a judicious combination of natural foods.  What an undernourished or overnourished population requires is access to appropriate and adequate amounts of conventional, regular foods and not their allegedly superior functional products… a diet of cereals, pulses, legumes, fruits and vegetables can meet these micronutrient requirements’.  Of course natural disasters and civil war etc., may deny this basic requirement to many, but supplements should not be the norm.

It appears that the ‘diverse, largely plant-based, diet of people in colonial territories was regarded as deficient in comparison to the flesh-based diet of the colonizers’ (Arnold, 1994), a notion which  has fuelled the ‘protein gap’ and still influences us today.

My interactions with students reinforce my fear this attitude cannot be readily divested, and the notion is, metaphorically speaking, in our genes.

After 10 years of lecturing in biochemistry and nutrition, when discussing plant based diets, I am still asked by the majority of students the question, ‘but where do they get their protein’? After 10 years of lecturing on proteins I am met with stunned faces when I say all foods (except gelatine) contain all essential amino acids. After 10 years of lecturing I still see exam answers saying we cannot survive without animal protein and 10 years of lecturing I am asked by some young men if 300 grams of protein a day will increase their muscle mass, despite the fact that only approx. 56g/day is recommended?

The rat experiments unwittingly started the train and perhaps Kwashiorkor was the fuel remorselessly pumped in.  It thundered along on tracks built by corporations and vested interests until it was finally derailed in the 1970’s. The trouble is, some people are still sitting on that train, undeterred, oblivious it may be heading on a collision course, unaware or indifferent to the reality that our choice of food can no longer be a personal matter, and the future of our grandchildren may depend on it.  The N8 AgriFood founding director Sue Hartley said: “We cannot grow our way out of this problem; we have to try to change the way that we behave.”

It is a widely-cited statistic that it takes ten kilograms of feed to produce one kilogram of beef, meaning an overall loss of nine kilograms of food produce. Increasing populations and climate change, which is partly due to our voracious appetite for animal produce (the so-called complete proteins), will have an explosive impact if they continue unabated. So how should we proceed? If we do nothing and global warming is as bad as predicted, our grandchildren will surely suffer the consequences. If, on the other hand, the deniers were correct, we may have wasted yet more time and money, but in this case, at least the next generations will have a future.

Sometimes pictures say it all and this is my favourite.

Gorilla protein image(Dan Piraro, 2010)

References

Arnold, D. (1994) ‘The Discovery of Malnutrition and Diet in Colonial India’, The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 31:1, 1–26

Bell, G. (1959) Textbook of Physiology and Biochemistry, 4th ed., Williams and Wilkins, Baltimore, p. 12

Bender, D. (2014) Introduction to Nutrition and Metabolism, 5th ed. Chapter 9 (CRC press) p255

Briend, A. (2014) Kwashiorkor: still an enigma – the search must go on. In: CMAM Forum Technical Brief

Brock, J.F. and Autret, M. (1952) Kwashiorkor in Africa, World Health Organization Monograph, Series No. 8. Geneva: WHO

Gopalan, C. (2007) From ‘Farms to Pharmacies’: Beginnings of a sad decline. Econ Pol Wkly, 42: 3535-3536

Hartley, S. (2016) Scientists hungry to deliver food system paradigm shift, BBC article

Ioannidis, J. (2012) Extrapolating from animals to humans, Sci Transl Med, 4: 151

McLaren, D.S. (1974) ‘The Great Protein Fiasco’, Lancet, 304(7872), 93-96

McLaren, D.S. (2000) ‘The Great Protein Fiasco Revisited’, Nutrition, 16: 464-5

Miller, D and Payne, P. (1969) Assessment of protein requirements by nitrogen balance. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 28: 2, 225-234

Newman, J.L. (1995) ‘From Definition, to Geography, to Action, to Reaction: The Case of

Protein-Energy Malnutrition’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 85: 2,233–45

Osborne, T. and Mendel, L. (1914) Amino-acids in nutrition and growth. J Bio Chem, 17: 325-49

Rand, W.M, Pellett, PL. Young, V.R. (2003) Meta-analysis of nitrogen balance studies for estimating protein requirements in healthy adults, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 77: 109-127

Reeds, P.J. (2000) Protein nutrition of the neonate, Proc Nutr Soc, 59:1, 87-97

Rose, W. (1948) Comparative growth of diet containing ten and nineteen amino acids, with further observation upon the role of glutamic and aspartic acid, J Bio Chem, 176: 753-62

Sathyamala, C. (2016) Nutritionalizing Food: A Framework for Capital Accumulation. Development and Change 47:4, 818-839.

Webb, G. (2012) Nutrition: Maintaining and improving health, 4th ed. Chapter 11, Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

Young, V and Pellett P. (1994) Plant proteins in relation to human protein and amino acid nutrition. Am J Clin Nutr, 59 (suppl):1203S–1212S

The Great Protein Fiasco? Understanding Plant Proteins in Human Nutrition

This article by Dr Caroline Hodges is shared in two parts, the second part will be posted on Thursday the 4th of August 2016. Caroline teaches nutrition at the University of Brighton and is a member of the BSUFN steering group.

The following description of what we should eat might surprise many people: “Households should select predominantly plant-based diets rich in a variety of vegetables and fruits, pulses or legumes, and minimally processed starchy staple foods.”

You would be forgiven for thinking this comes from some vegan, vegetarian or alternative ‘nuts and sandals’ health group, but the source is The World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

In my previous blog I presented the so called ‘myths’ relating to dietary protein which I encounter in biochemistry and nutrition textbooks. In this one I would like to discuss two specific events which contributed to the perpetuation of these myths and consider the long term negative impact on our health and the environment. First I will describe the early experiments on rats to determine optimum protein requirements and second, I will outline the discovery and repercussions of a disease called kwashiorkor.

Before I unravel the effect of these two events I would like to explain what initiated my concerns about this subject. The following multiple choice question is used in my nutrition exam. (Correct answer is C, but A is the answer given by approx. 50% of students).

What is the primary source of protein for most of the world’s population?

  1. Meat
  2. Dairy
  3. Grains and vegetables
  4. Fruits

The number of students who get this wrong always surprises me, despite lectures which should lead them to the correct answer and me going so far as to announce that this, or a similar question, will be in the exam! Every year I go further; this year I told the students that approx. 50% of students might get the answer wrong, in the vain hope of alerting them to this error.

It is not absenteeism from lectures that causes the mistake, so I find it both disturbing and revealing to ponder the reason. It seems so many students, even those at medical school, are so convinced by our need for animal protein that whatever else they read does not register. I still find comments in the exam suggesting that we cannot survive without animal protein and in its absence we become ill. It seems the perceptions of my students (and the public) have been shaped by decades of poor information on this subject.  It does not help that textbooks still describe proteins as ‘complete’ (animal sources) and ‘incomplete’ (plant sources). The insidious and seemingly pervasive implication being that we cannot survive without the ‘complete’ ones. After all, these textbooks can’t be wrong, can they? Most dictionaries define incomplete as ‘lacking a part’, but as applied to plant protein this is not so, every one of the essential amino acids is present, just in varying proportions in different plants. If we only ate one food item all day, every day, that proportion would be hugely important, but in most countries this is unlikely to be the case. So what has caused this misunderstanding?

Rat experiments

The first of the two subjects I would like to describe is related to animal experiments conducted over a century ago to determine the optimum protein requirement for humans, the legacy of which still prevails. The myth, described by (Young et al, 1994) is as follows:

‘Animal procedures can provide good indices of the human nutritional value of food proteins’.

In 1914 Osborne and Mendel studied the protein requirements of laboratory rats and demonstrated nutritional requirements for the individual amino acids of which proteins are made. At that time it was not known that rats have much greater protein requirements than humans (Rose 1948) because, by comparison, they have a much more rapid tissue growth. This difference in protein requirements is further demonstrated by the comparison of breast milk from both species; the protein content of rat breast milk is 10 times greater than the milk intended for human babies (Bell 1959; Reeds 2000).

The other damaging outcome of this animal-based work is the concept of complete and incomplete proteins, also referred to as first class or superior (from animal sources) and second class or inferior (from plants sources) proteins. These descriptions are based on the premise that animal products provide the most ideal pattern of essential amino acids for humans, which is now known to be incorrect. These animal experiments and subsequent definitions of protein quality are much less relevant in human nutrition, and our metabolic requirements are quite different.  This is substantiated by the difficulty in demonstrating in normal healthy adults any difference in nitrogen balance (an indication of appropriate protein intake) between diets based on plant protein and those based on animal sources (Rand et al, 2003).

So over misinterpretation of animal experiments (Ioannidis, 2012) and inappropriate extrapolation to humans has encouraged both inflated estimates of protein requirements, especially in children, and erroneous distinctions between the quality of plant and animal protein. The estimated protein needs of children are now half as much as they were in the 1940’s and it is becoming apparent that the much greater risk (in the West at least) is over-consumption of protein.

It seems that comparisons of ‘complete’ and ‘incomplete proteins’ are much more academic than practical and require rethinking, as described so well by Bender, (2014, 255):

‘While protein quality is important when considering individual foods, it is not relevant when considering total diets because different proteins are limited by amino acids, and hence have a relative excess of others. The result of mixing different proteins in a diet is an unexpected increase in the nutritional value of the mixture…..The average Western diet has a protein score of 0.73,  whilst the poorest diets in developing countries, with a restricted range of foods, and very little milk, meat, or fish, have a  protein score of 0.6’. (The difference is minimal.)

Miller and Payne (1969) concluded that ‘almost all dietary staples contain sufficient protein to meet human needs and that even diets based on very low protein staples are unlikely to be specifically protein-deficient. Webb (2012, 279) points out that since 1969 this view has become the nutritional consensus. It seems unfortunately that this message has not permeated to the lay public.

The second event known to have a huge influence on policy and recommendations led to what is called the ‘great protein fiasco’. Caroline’s article on the ‘great protein fiasco’ will be posted on Thursday the 4th of August 2016.

References

Arnold, D. (1994) ‘The Discovery of Malnutrition and Diet in Colonial India’, The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 31:1, 1–26

Bell, G. (1959) Textbook of Physiology and Biochemistry, 4th ed., Williams and Wilkins, Baltimore, p. 12

Bender, D. (2014) Introduction to Nutrition and Metabolism, 5th ed. Chapter 9 (CRC press) p255

Briend, A. (2014) Kwashiorkor: still an enigma – the search must go on. In: CMAM Forum Technical Brief

Brock, J.F. and Autret, M. (1952) Kwashiorkor in Africa, World Health Organization Monograph, Series No. 8. Geneva: WHO

Gopalan, C. (2007) From ‘Farms to Pharmacies’: Beginnings of a sad decline. Econ Pol Wkly, 42: 3535-3536

Hartley, S. (2016) Scientists hungry to deliver food system paradigm shift, BBC article

Ioannidis, J. (2012) Extrapolating from animals to humans, Sci Transl Med, 4: 151

McLaren, D.S. (1974) ‘The Great Protein Fiasco’, Lancet, 304(7872), 93-96

McLaren, D.S. (2000) ‘The Great Protein Fiasco Revisited’, Nutrition, 16: 464-5

Miller, D and Payne, P. (1969) Assessment of protein requirements by nitrogen balance. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 28: 2, 225-234

Newman, J.L. (1995) ‘From Definition, to Geography, to Action, to Reaction: The Case of

Protein-Energy Malnutrition’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 85: 2,233–45

Osborne, T. and Mendel, L. (1914) Amino-acids in nutrition and growth. J Bio Chem, 17: 325-49

Rand, W.M, Pellett, PL. Young, V.R. (2003) Meta-analysis of nitrogen balance studies for estimating protein requirements in healthy adults, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 77: 109-127

Reeds, P.J. (2000) Protein nutrition of the neonate, Proc Nutr Soc, 59:1, 87-97

Rose, W. (1948) Comparative growth of diet containing ten and nineteen amino acids, with further observation upon the role of glutamic and aspartic acid, J Bio Chem, 176: 753-62

Sathyamala, C. (2016) Nutritionalizing Food: A Framework for Capital Accumulation. Development and Change 47:4, 818-839.

Webb, G. (2012) Nutrition: Maintaining and improving health, 4th ed. Chapter 11, Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

Young, V and Pellett P. (1994) Plant proteins in relation to human protein and amino acid nutrition. Am J Clin Nutr, 59 (suppl):1203S–1212S

Food and the sustainable healthy diets question

The Department of Geography in collaboration with the Brighton and Sussex Universities Food Network (BSUFN) and the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) are organising a weekly seminar series on “Food, Climate and Society”. This series will explore the multiple challenges that the global food system is facing: feeding more people healthy food while limiting environmental and social impacts.

This week Dr Tara Garnett (Food Climate Research Network, Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, University of Oxford) will be giving a seminar titled ‘Food and the sustainable healthy diets question‘. This seminar will be on Thursday the 21st of April 2016, from 12:30 to 14:00. All seminars take place in Arts C Global Studies Resource Centre, University of Sussex.

Tara Garnett founded the Food Climate Research Network based at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford. She has done much research on the contribution of food systems to global emissions of greenhouse gases and the consequences of project future food scenarios.

Policy Implications for Food Manufacturing – Part 2

BSUFN are currently hosting an informal series of discussions on the topic of ‘how much has food research changed in the past 40 years?‘ For each discussion a reading is suggested by one of BSUFN’s members. The second of the discussion groups will meet on Monday the 18th of January, from 12:30 to 14:00 at the University of Sussex, Fulton Building room 111.

The suggested reading for the upcoming discussion group is from: Joanna Blythman (2015) Swallow This: Serving up the food industry’s darkest secrets, Fourth Estate, London. Part I, Chapters 1 to 5 are recommended as reading to inform discussion, although the reading is not essential to join the discussion group, come along regardless of your background knowledge or prior preparation.

 

Peter Senker, one of BSUFN’s members and a member of the steering group, has prepared some notes based on his thoughts having read Joanna Blythman’s Swallow This. He presents a review of some key points about food manufacturing and processing from the book before making some suggestions for policy implications.

Peter’s thoughts are shared in two posts, the second of which is below. The first post (available here) reviewed the book and the goals of food manufacturers. The post below follows directly on from that so please read the previous post first if you haven’t already.

 

Some Notes on the Policy Implications following Review of Joanna Blythman’s Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets

Peter Senker

FOOD MANUFACTURERS’ STRATEGIES FOR SELLING HUGE QUANTITIES OF THEIR PRODUCTS

Packaged food manufacturers have three principal linked strategies for marketing the vast quantities of food they produce.

  1. They spend vast quantities of money promoting the taste and nutritional benefits of the food they produce through advertising in television, in the press, and through promotion in supermarkets, and more recently in social media.
  2. Scientific knowledge does not have much direct influence on markets for packaged foods. The principal influence of scientific knowledge (mainly about the nutritional and toxic qualities of food) is exerted through regulatory bodies set up by governments and international organisations. Food manufacturers and the organisations which represent them devote a lot of effort to securing representation on such bodies. They have been highly successful in influencing, and indeed dominating the deliberations and findings of such bodies, both in the UK and worldwide. For example, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was established in 2002 to ensure that foodstuffs regulations were harmonized throughout the European Union to ensure “free and unhindered competition”. EFSA’s President was also a member of the Board of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). ILSI’s 62 corporate members include Danone, Kellogg, Nestlé’s McDonald’s Europe, and Unilever. ILSI is entirely funded and operated by corporations and carries out numerous scientific studies for the EU on subjects such as consumer exposure to contaminants. (George, 2015, pages 40-45)
  3. Packaged food manufacturers are very aware that widespread public awareness of the details of their operations could damage their marketing and lobbying efforts. They try hard to conceal such details from the public –and from investigative journalists such as Joanna Blythman.

DISCUSSION

Food processing companies are generally very successful in complying with the principal requirements of the legislative framework within which they work – in particular the requirement to increase the revenues gained by their shareholders; and with the principal societal and economic norms which should guide their activities – in particular the requirements to contribute to economic growth and to innovation . But Blythman in her book has demonstrated clearly that, in several respects, the food they produce in such enormous quantities often has properties such as toxicity and dangers to the health of their consumers. This dichotomy raises questions such as

  1. Are the legislative requirements and social and economic norms which affect food processing internally consistent? and if not
  2. Are internal inconsistencies in these norms confined to their effects on food processing firms or are they more widely applicable to other sectors of the food industry or even to the world economy in general?
  3. Are there possibilities that these norms could be improved, for the benefit, for example, of consumers?

These are such huge questions that I propose to confine myself mainly to comments related to question 1.

The companies which operate in the packaged food industry are typical of companies which control an increasing proportion of the world’s economic output, insofar as their principal motivation is to increase the profits which accrue to their shareholders. Piketty’s detailed analysis leads to the conclusion that

capital’s share of income increased in most rich countries between 1970 and 2010…this trend is consistent with …an increase in capital’s bargaining power vis-a-vis labour over the past few decades, which have seen increased mobility of capital and heightened competition between states eager to attract investments…..it is also possible that this will continue to be the case in future” (Piketty, 2014.).

To increase their profits, as we have seen, processed food companies use production methods which enable them to produce vast quantities of food at very low cost per unit. Their production processes put extreme stress on the ingredients they use, so the companies spend enormous efforts and resources continuously to find and use new ingredients which will tolerate those extreme stresses without breaking down . Some of the changing mixes of ingredients they use have deleterious effects on the nutritional, toxicity and flavour of the products they produce. In addition, nutritional science is continually producing new findings about the toxicity and nutritional qualities of this increasing number and variety of ingredients. In order to restrain regulatory bodies set up by governments and international organisations from forcing them to abandon the use of cheap novel ingredients which may well have toxic and health damaging properties, food processing companies make strenuous and highly successful efforts to ensure that their representatives dominate the proceedings of those bodies. Company representatives restrain these bodies from making regulations against the interests of their companies in making profits. Governments of individual states encourage this. An important motivation is to prevent their acquisition of a reputation for strict regulation which could impair a state’s ability to retain and attract the operations of the food processing countries with the employment and contribution to economic output which they offer.

In order to achieve the profits that companies work so hard to achieve, they not only have to produce many millions of packets of processed food at very low cost per unit, they also have to persuade millions of customers to buy them. This is facilitated by the ready availability of mass media of communications –such as newspapers, television and social media –whose profitability is highly dependent on their willingness to convey messages to consumers at low cost that those products are nutritious and tasty. Those messages are reinforced by messages on the packages which contain the products, millions of which are distributed mainly via supermarkets. The British Government’s current policies of reducing the scope of the BBC can be seen as part of a strategy of encouraging mass communications media to concentrate their efforts on the role of stimulating economic growth, as opposed to wasting their efforts on entertaining and informing the public

Since they started nearly two hundred years ago, packaged food manufacturing companies and corporations have been highly innovative and ingenious in deploying and developing the strategies outlined above. In her brilliant book, Joanna Blythman has shown, in my view conclusively, that these strategies are unlikely ever to lead to those companies producing nutritious and tasty food. On balance, her work indicates that the food they produce is likely to remain poor in nutritional qualities and, indeed, often toxic. But corporate policies and products have been shaped by the requirements placed on the companies by most governments throughout the world to strive to increase the profits attributable to their shareholders. That the products they produce and sell are generally not very nutritious –and, indeed, often harmful to consumers’ health and/or toxic, is not of great interest to their producers. Nor is it of much interest to the companies that the agricultural and   food production processes involved in making products may often be harmful to the environment.

Joanna Blythman has shown conclusively that the nutritional qualities and taste most packaged foods offer to their consumers are often appalling. But in the present dominant world legislative, social and economic environment, the behaviour of food processing companies is highly rational. In Britain, their goals coincide closely with the British government’s goals for the industry. Defra wants to “promote a British brand, grow exports, improve skills, attract high-flyers and harness data and technology so that the industry can innovate and create jobs.” The British Government is “hugely ambitious for the future of food and farming and its potential to drive growth– that’s why we are bringing together industry to set out a vision for the future with a long-term plan to grow more, buy more and sell more British food”. (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, 2015)

I have suggested that:

Multinational corporations and protesters against their policies are both rational, but corporations and protesters are operating under different logics. Disputes mainly arise because the logic under which multinational corporations operate –the search for profits –dictates that they seek to develop and exploit the largest markets…… (Senker, 2000)

And Susan George (2015, page155) concludes that Transnational Corporations “are the most powerful collective force in the world today, far outdistancing governments that are more often than not in their pockets anyway”.

It is a far higher priority for governments to attract and retain employment and gain economic growth from the operations of dynamic and innovative corporations, and to ensure that the shareholders’ of those corporations become richer, than to seek to ensure that their populations eat healthy nutritious foods.

Despite the strenuous noble efforts of highly competent researchers and investigative journalists such as Joanna Blythman and Nora McKeon, food processing companies’ priorities are unlikely to change any time soon.

References

George, S., 2015 Shadow Sovereigns: How Global Corporations are Seizing Power, Polity, Cambridge

Senker, P.2000, A Dynamic Perspective on Technology, Economic Inequality and Development, in Wyatt, S, et al. Editors, Technology and In/equality, Routledge, London, page 215

Piketty, T., 2014, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, page 221.

Industry kick-starts work on Great British Food and Farming Plan, 2015, Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, 16 July.