The Food Industry Thinks We're Clueless, but Are We?

If you’ve ever read a headline that stated, “Chocolate is the best thing for your heart!” or “A plant-based diet is the solution to cancer!”, there’s much more than scientific data at play. I hope I’m not the first one to break it to you, but a hefty portion of the food industry doesn’t care about your health and wellbeing. Many of them are actively skewing ‘scientific results’ in the name of financial profit. What’s even more concerning is the sheer number of companies that are still getting away with these shenanigans, year after year.

As a kinesiologist and personal trainer, I receive an abundance of questions around emerging nutritional trends. Whether it’s inquiries about a link between yogurt and type 2 diabetes prevention, or the next ‘healthy’ calorie-free soda, I find myself giving the same response every single time…

We must take everything with a grain of salt.

The reality is, the majority of new research coming from the gigantic food companies has far more to do with marketing than science. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t trustworthy sources out there, they’ve just been clouded by the capitalism that’s seeping into the foods we eat.

It isn’t all bad, however.

My hope for this article is to shed light on the ugly side of food production while offering a reminder of the simplicity of proper nutrition. The best antidote to the secrecy and greed distorting this industry is education. We as consumers have a heck of a lot of power. Let’s make choices that involve real food and trustworthy, quality providers.

A lot of my recent passion in this field is due to the work of food expert Marion Nestle (not affiliated with the Swiss food company). Here’s one of the many truth bombs found within her book Unsavory Truth:

“Every corner of the food industry knows how to turn conflicted research into big profit…it’s time we put public health first.”

The 3 Major Issues of the Food Industry

Before going any further, I want to stress (again) that there are great scientists out there that will continue to push the envelope. Unfortunately, there are also many scenarios when things go awry, both due to logistical and ethical reasons.

While this isn’t a complete list, it’s a strong starting point to combatting the ugly side of the food industry while taking back autonomy over what we consume. Let’s dive in.

1) Food research is a logistical nightmare.

There are countless shortcomings when it comes to the research side of food. For one, it’s broadly observational in nature. To achieve a randomized controlled trial with a large population is both unrealistic and virtually impossible. Unfortunately, these are the qualities that scientists and critics look for to determine whether a finding is both valid and reliable.

Let’s unpack why this is with a quick (completely fictional) example. Say that a recent study found that pomegranate consumption is correlated to a decreased risk of multiple sclerosis. While the scientific journal may portray this in a way that sounds convincing and completely relevant, you should still approach these results with a healthy level of skepticism. You must ask…

How did each individual’s lifestyle vary? What were their physical activity/sedentary levels? What was the rest of their nutrition like? Did they even take the ‘treatment’ as prescribed? Does this make logical sense? Etc…

You see, there are many ways that data can be skewed (whether intentionally or unintentionally). No journal has the budget to constantly stalk a subject over a longitudinal study. Consequently, there are very few ‘absolutes’ when it comes to emerging food research. Unless the study is extremely small and tightly controlled, it’s nearly impossible to know for certain whether a food intervention will cause a certain outcome. It’s just the nature of the beast.

2) It’s more about marketing than science.

The reality is, the leading food companies (Coca Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, etc…) aren’t too worried about ethics and public health. While I don’t want to paint a brush across the entire food industry, there is far more happening behind closed doors than we may want to know about.

Whether it’s funding biased research, paying off ‘professionals’ at health conventions, or flat-out gaslighting about the realities of obesity, sugar, or saturated fats, companies have the ability to bend (and break) the rules in the name of financial gain. Do a little digging and you can easily find major media platforms exposing the unethical nature of the industry. Here are a few examples:

Coca-Cola’s 2016 efforts to manipulate dietary guidelines and the news media gets leaked via email.

Breaking down the science of addictive foods and the industry that markets them.

The horrifying reality of food advertisements in African-American communities.

It is possible, however, to find trustworthy sources within this realm of science. In order to properly navigate food research, I recommend asking these 3 questions:

  1. Where are the credentials of the author? Are they legit?

  2. Is there a motive/bias present in this research?

  3. Could a secondary, reliable source back up the information?

This isn’t a fail-proof method, but it certainly rules out some of the major flaws that we so frequently see in modern-day food research.

3) It has skewed our reality of what food is.

When we’re constantly bombarded by headlines that promise ‘quick-fixes’ to our diets, we begin to view food differently. The truth is, there is no instant pill when it comes to nutrition. Deep down, I believe we all know this, but there’s something about the flashy headings of ‘breakthrough research’ that makes us drop our common sense every once in a while.

I was walking to the grocery till the other day when I saw a magazine stating, “Eat these three foods to supercharge your immune system!”. Of course, there was a smart-looking doctor on the front cover and everything looked so very professional. Although I never cracked it open, it made me wonder, are we overcomplicating this food thing? Are we feverishly chasing after every new trend but failing to grasp the basic principles of healthy eating?

It may be time to take a step back and see the bigger picture once again.

Taking the Overthinking Out of Healthy Eating

Proper nutrition isn’t about shortcuts. It’s not about finding the one food that will change your life. I fear we’re getting so overstimulated by new articles and headlines that we’re forgetting to ‘see the forest for the trees’. Healthy eating is not complex. It may take some discipline, but the choices you make to feed your body well don’t involve rocket science.

Here’s a quick list of steps to simplifying your ‘diet’ (dare I say that word). Obviously, it won’t include everything to achieving optimal nutrition, but it’s a heck of a start. Just remember that these steps sound easy in theory, but they’re a little harder to sustain in practice. This is why I encourage slow, subtle shifts to your eating habits. Don’t go from zero to one-hundred and expect immediate results. Instead, gradually replace poor nutritional choices with good ones.

Notice how there’s no ‘groundbreaking research’ or ‘life-changing diet’ involved in this process. I can assure you, that’s certainly not by coincidence.

Eating Well, Eating Simple:

  • Make a grocery list and spend most of your time in the perimeter of the grocery store.

  • Get familiar with what goes into your food by reading the labels.

  • Please, please, please cut out sugary sodas and frozen meals.

  • Listen to your parents’ trusty advice and eat your fruits and veggies.

  • Seek a healthy balance of carbs, proteins, and fats, but don’t overthink this…95% of us don’t need to be obsessing over ‘macros’.

  • Talk to your doctor or nutritionist about incorporating essential vitamins and minerals into your diet. We’re almost always deficient in Vitamin D, so that’s a great place to start.

  • Avoid eating late into the night. This is when weight gain and sleep problems can plague you.

  • Drink more water than you think.

  • Plan the occasional treat to keep you motivated. Life is too short anyway.

Even Marion Nestle agrees that we’ve added too much complexity to our diets. Here’s what she had to say about some of the basic principles of nutrition: “[E]at your veggies, choose relatively unprocessed foods, keep junk foods to a minimum, and watch out for excessive calories”.

Don’t overthink it.

In Closing,

Next time you hear about a ‘groundbreaking discovery’ within the food industry, take it with a grain of salt. You’re most likely being used as a puppet to generate fatter profits for the folks in fancy suits. It’s high time we look behind these claims and start realizing what we’re really up against.

Fortunately, we don’t have to buy-in to this food industry predicament any longer. Let’s keep the food production giants accountable by promoting healthy, sustainable eating habits and exposing everything else that falls short. This is a call to mute the outside noise and get back to listening to our bodies.

“We have the power of our votes and our forks, and can use both to insist that food companies help us eat well.”— Cyan James