Big Food is our modern day Big Tobacco

When it comes to public-private partnerships between health organizations and the food industry, there are many shades of grey — but Cheetos orange isn’t one of them.  On September 9th of this year, however, the American Heart Association (AHA) Dallas Heart Walk saw Frito-Lay’s Chester the Cheetah riling up the crowd and helping to associate Frito-Lay and Cheetos with the emotions of the day —  joy, hope, charity, happiness, spirit, camaraderie, health, and generosity.

And emotional brand polish is not the only benefit Frito-Lay received for being a “My Heart. My Life.” sponsor of the walk.  They also enjoyed direct-to-consumer marketing and sampling of their chip products by handing out free samples to walkers who will hopefully be converted into brand-loyal consumers; they were given a great “corporate social responsibility” opportunity with which to defend against future industry-unfriendly legislation and actions; and, last, they saw the AHA itself explicitly support the further normalization of junk food as part of everyday life and as a reward for a job well done.

Of course, the AHA has a long association of partnering up with the food industry.  They sell their “Heart-Check” branding to products that meet nutritional criteria so meager that V8 Vegetable Juice with 480mg of sodium per glass (that’s more sodium than in a large serving of McDonald’s french fries) and grape juice that contains nearly double the calories and sugar of Coca-Cola qualify and consumers are duped into thinking they’re making healthful choices; and they’ve encouraged consumers to abandon their kitchens and head to Subway instead.

The usual arguments in support of these sorts of decisions are that the checks and partnerships will help lead people to healthier choices.  But is “less horrible” truly the same as “good”? And are these choices really even “less horrible”?

Shouldn’t the role of the AHA be to promote truly healthy living, not seeming shortcuts to health that lull consumers into very false senses of security?

Diet and weight-related diseases are ravaging the developed world.  Americans are now spending the majority of their food dollar on foods purchased outside of the home, while the purchase of processed foods for consumption inside the home have doubled since 1982.  We are not going to solve our nutritional woes by holding hands with the food industry.  Instead, we need to aggressively and repeatedly hammer home the message that there are no shortcuts to health, that health can’t be purchased in a box or in a restaurant, that kitchens are the most valuable rooms in our homes, and that health organizations should not serve as sales and marketing teams for Big Food.

We need someone to be our C. Everett Koop: To stand up and call Big Food out for what it is — our modern day Big Tobacco. And just like with Big Tobacco, this challenge requires fight, not friendship.

Yoni Freedhoff is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa and founder and medical director of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute. He blogs at Weighty Matters and CardioExchange, a NEJM Practice Community.

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