The harms of junk food

Thanks to commercial strategies and lobbying by food industry giants, ultra-processed foods are multiplying on our plates. The temporary satiety they cause promotes overweight and higher risks of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

The outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020 would almost make us forget the significant share of non-communicable diseases among the causes of mortality in the world. According toOECDcardiovascular conditions and diabetes were responsible for one in three deaths in 2019. These pathologies are strongly correlated with the consumption of ultra-processed foods (AUT) which some people call junk food. The essay by nutritionist Mlissa Mialon reveals the commercial and political strategies of the agri-food industries which, despite better knowledge, aim to maintain or even increase their presence in plates, snacks and other nibbles.

The denunciation of the agri-food industries positions Mr. Mialon as the direct heir of Mr. Nestle (no link to the Swiss multinational) who, around twenty years ago, published Food PoliticsLUrtext surveys on the pressure exerted by agroindustrial giants on public policies in the United States. Obesity, heart pathologies and cancers have been in the sights of public health officials for a generation. To explain the links between food and health, Nestle uses a model that breaks down food into nutrients (calories, carbohydrates, lipids, proteins). Mialon, on the contrary, builds his argument on a new typology of foods which sorts them according to their degree of transformation.

These classifications serve as the basis for dietary recommendations. Categorization based on nutritional criteria gives rise to advice to reduce the consumption of fat, sugar, salt and alcohol (this concept inspires the Nutriscore pictogram). The technological criterion of transformation, which is not incompatible with the first taxonomy, leads to the recommendation to reduce the place of industrially prepared and ready-to-cook or reheat dishes in our diet and to reinforce that of little or no processed products. In both cases, these consumption benchmarks are likely to offend the interests of the agri-food sector. It is easy to understand that heavyweights like Danone, PepsiCo and Philip Morris, whose food branch, purchased in 1970, uses influence strategies developed by the tobacco industry, oppose regulatory measures such as setting limits on salt levels. , sugar and fat in industrial foods, the taxation of targeted products (sodas) or the increased supervision of advertising.

A paradigmatic shift: ultra-processed food

Scientific interest in ultra-processed foods dates back to the 2000s. A team of researchers around THAT Monteiro then notes that the drop in purchases of sugar and fat does not stop a growing incidence of obesity in Brazil. At the same time, the presence of a pot of sugar in a household was correlated with the absence of obesity among members while its absence reflected the presence of overweight people. The counterintuitive observation actually reflected family culinary practice: sugar signaled a cuisine with raw traditional ingredients (rice, legumes) while its omission indicated the use of industrially prepared dishes. Since then, this surprising empirical result has stimulated research into the link between AUT and health.

The researchers thus developed a classification called NOVA (nine in Portuguese) which orders foods according to their degree of alteration via chemical and industrial processes. Ultra-processing involves the dissolution of the complex structure of foods, the addition of technological aids to facilitate industrial methods, the use of highly refined products (such as oils or glucose syrups) for their reconstitution and, finally, the introduction of sensory additives (colorants, flavor enhancers, mulsifiers, thickeners, etc.) to restore their appetizing characteristics. The effect of these manipulations is the hyperpalatability of foods whose consumption and digestion prove extremely rapid. Result: temporary satiation and desire to eat more with excess weight at stake. And everything indicates their close link with “diseases of civilization” such as diabetes 2, hypertension and, according to a French study, an increased risk of developing cancer.

The observation is striking. Remember that more than half of the calories that the Anglo-Saxons absorb daily come from AUT while the rate is around 30 percent in France. The working classes are the largest consumers, which is a notable factor in the incidence of obesity. In France, it is currently 18% for workers and 10% for managers, while the gap and therefore inequality in health has been increasing since 2000. Thus, the probability of developing type 2 diabetes, also known as fatty diabetes, is three times greater among the poorest ten percent than among the richest ten percent.

The commercial determinants of health

Scandalized by the commercial and political practices of the agri-food industries, Mr. Mialon aims to reform them through his work. His presentation condemns not only the formulation of products whose consumption which plays on the immediate satisfaction of the human taste for sweet, salty and fatty is harmful in the long term and whose financing could serve other avenues of research and development. It also presents the underside of the architecture of the offer in supermarkets, the tricks of marketing, the arrangement of civic alliances and the complexities of political lobbying itself. The strength of the book lies less in the individual parts, often known (also thanks to the academic work of Mialon) than in their intertwining which shows the coherence of the strategies of companies, their sectors and their groupings.

Commercial devices have always played on sensory mobilization (light, colors, smells) and, in supermarkets, on the appeal of brands to attract customers. Mialon mentions the next step, neuro-marketing. This uses brain scans supposed to record taste pleasures to encourage the consumption of ultra-processed products.; the argument, boosted by scientific prowess, points to the digital maps of the cerebral spheres as proof that the consumption of ice cream, for example, certainly makes you happy. Another vector of promotion that Mialon deplores consists of product placement on television, in films or on social networks because it specifically targets children (and, in the United States, children of black and Hispanic minorities), who are fond of these industrial foods in easy-to-handle portions.

Mialon identifies, behind the philanthropic operations, the well-understood interest of the agri-food industries in improving their reputation. If artistic patronage appears to her as a transparent effort to redeem moral virginity during music festivals or temporary exhibitions, Mialon underlines their duplicity when they offer AUT at the same time as assortments of weight-loss products (Kraft Foods), introductory courses in good taste (like the sugar industry in France), sponsorship of sporting activities on Mauritius (Nestl) or support for holiday camps with free products with the appropriate logo (Ferrero). These activities penetrate even into primary education where they interfere with a space that is in principle non-commercial. The free distribution in schools of teaching materials for lessons devoted to eat well acts on the themes addressed and the preferred angles of approach; this teaching, which introduces private brands into school premises, benefits from the legitimacy of a public institution.

Influence practices

Ultimately, Mialon replicates Nestlé's investigation into the influence practices of agri-food companies in the scientific and political spheres. Their strategic repertoire is well known and begins with the battery of interventions to challenge the authorized nutritional discourse: doubting scientific publications which tarnish the reputation of industrial foods; funding of academic studies which, on the contrary, affirm the safety of these products; support for conferences and professional health organizations in order to define research priorities more favorable to businesses; lobbying legislators and capturing committees preparing laws; setting up of screen associations fake nose food industries often pinned in the Enchanted Duck who disclose the positions of industries in the name of the incompatibility of collective regulations with individual sovereignty.

These activities are partly based on personal relationships: researchers co-opted into scientific committees and well-known business foundations who, in turn, organize study days whose themes tend to obscure the AUT yet in full view. To cultivate closeness among ourselves, there are gala banquets and social meals to which politicians are invited. Or, on the contrapuntal register, the personal attacks of experts to discredit their ideas in favor of a public health policy which would mandate, towards consumers, more transparent information on the content of foods. But lobbying takes on a more formal appearance when representatives of the agri-food industry walk the corridors of legislative assemblies, lending a hand in the drafting of laws or actively preventing their adoption.

Outrage as a search engine

Big Food carbide on the indignation of its author at the damage that the ultra-processing of food inflicts on poor consumers in general, on developing countries in particular and the earth in short (their production is energy-intensive, their plastic packaging is an important factor in the pollution of the environment). Mialon's ethical commitment is refreshing. Popularization, however, comes with a cost. The book thus offers examples from almost all continents, proving once again the existence of well-stocked coffers of the agri-food industries and illustrating the multiple modes of their interventions. The reading of the work can be completed with that of the study by sociologists and political scientists D. Benamouzig and J. Cortinas Munoz entitled Lobbies on the menu (2022) which focuses on agri-food lobbying in France. Three vectors of cognitive intervention, the issue of which is scientific legitimacy; relational, which negotiates personal links between industrialists, experts and politicians; and symbolic, which affects the reputation of the agri-food industry and its adversaries, allow Benamouzig and Cortinas Munoz to establish the coordinates of the areas of intervention, and their synergies which, in turn, increase the effectiveness of the activities of the agro-industrial sector to influence health and commercial policies.

Finally, the diagnosis of the evil that is gnawing at public health policies calls for remedies. Mialon hopes that the academic work will ultimately encourage the adoption of laws that require increased transparency of lobbying activities, or even ban some of these practices. Given the content of the book, this optimism is admirable. However, a real change in public policies requires a modification of the register which helps interpret the origins of chronic diseases. Only collective mobilizations, we believe the recent election of a progressive president in Chile, will produce the political boost necessary to recognize that these conditions are a societal challenge whose cost, in the long run, is not offset by jobs or turnover in the agri-food industry. Rather than insisting on the individual responsibility of consumers, this new course will aim to reform the food environment which promotes health and environmental harm. Because if the wealthy social classes can give up purchasingAUT by offering a healthier, but also more expensive, diet, this solution hardly exists for the disadvantaged classes in terms of the products available to them in supermarkets and the time and means they have to cook.