The way that food industry lobbyists and PR people deal with critics follows a distinct pattern :
- attack them as ideologically motivated and/or hysterical;
- reduce complex and nuanced arguments to a simplistic parody and mock them;
- blame the consumer by arguing that the market’s only following what people want, and it’s people’s own fault if they choose to eat/drink the wrong things;
- claim the government can’t legislate to force people to make good choices. (1)
In an opinion piece in the Dominion Post entitled ‘The rise of the moral crusaders of academia’, (2) Karl du Fresne claims Otago University is a hotbed of ‘academic busybody-ism’- in which ‘self-righteous finger-waggers ‘and ‘moral crusaders’ wage a ‘constant campaign of shrill hectoring and haranguing’.
These ‘New Puritans’ exhibit an 'unshakeable moral sanctimony’ and, in making claims such as 'people who have bad eating habits are the victims of heartless, manipulative capitalists', they’re pushing the 'prevailing ideology' that people ‘are not responsible for their own choices and cannot be trusted to make their own decisions’.
In contrast to the academics’ ideological viewpoint, Du Fresne claims 'we all know that most New Zealanders are sensible enough not to binge on things that they know are bad for them if indulged in to excess'.
Clearly not everyone knows that or du Fresne wouldn't have a theme for his article, but more importantly, his assertion ignores the facts that a large number of Kiwis binge drink and that, as a nation, we have an extremely high incidence of dietary related conditions such as bowel cancer, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. There’s also the relatively recent phenomenon of widespread weight gain that has resulted in over 2 million Kiwis being overweight and almost 1 million being classified as 'clinically obese'.
Dr Lisa Te Morenga,of Otago's Department of Human Nutrition, is singled out by du Fresne for special derision for her claim that it’s harder to make good choices about your health when you are poor. For Maori health to improve, she says, Maori socio-economic disadvantage needs to be addressed. People who have been poor and/or who have worked among poor people, will know this to be true – and anyone with intellect and integrity will know that the issues are complex.
Not so Karl du Fresne who dismisses it as ‘nonsense'. He claims ‘it recycles the tired old mantra that people are trapped into eating unhealthy food because it's cheap when plenty of nutritious food" (he cites 3 forms of carbohydrate -potatoes, pasta and rice) "is much cheaper than the Big Macs and KFC that a lot of people eat".
Actually no, it's not and Dr Te Morenga’s academic arguments cannot be reduced to ‘a tired old mantra’ unless the reducer has his own ideological agenda.
Stating the obvious, you cannot make a balanced and tasty meal out of potatoes, rice and pasta on their own. You do not need to be a highly qualified nutritionist like Dr Te Morenga to know that the carbohydrate rich foods du Fresne lists have to be balanced with protein, good fats and vegetables to achieve a healthy diet, and that these elements add considerably to the cost of a meal.
There's also the fact that whole grain and good quality carbohydrates are much more expensive than highly processed and refined – nutritionally depleted - alternatives.
If your food budget covers only the bare and the cheapest essentials, building up and maintaining a store of good quality raw ingredients and seasonings can be nigh on impossible. I invite Karl du Fresne and any other members of the affluensia who want to stand in judgment of the eating habits of the poor, to calculate the cost of the raw ingredients, spices, herbs, oils, vinegars, sauces etc that they have stored in their kitchen.
Damning poor people for not having the skills, the time, the energy to cook tasty, wholesome food – with a paucity of ingredients, in what is often a poorly equipped kitchen and with a very limited energy budget - is bordering on the cruel.
Poverty affects and conditions people's responses to such things as healthy eating in ways that are neither simple nor mechanical. Smug, simplistic and sarcastic articles taking cheap shots at principled academics do nothing to advance the debate - in fact all they do is give succour to an industry that is busy making the harm done by tobacco companies pale into insignificance.
Having lambasted Otago University’s 'busy-bodies' for thinking that the state ‘should determine how we live’ – du Fresne says 'if some Maori don't know how to cook healthy food, then let's address that. If people are miraculously still unaware that fatty food causes obesity, heart disease and diabetes perhaps we need to find a new way of reaching them through education campaigns.’ (my emphasis)
These sentences are so heavily laden with sarcasm they almost fall off the page and they suggest he believes most people are very well aware of the health issues and that they choose to ignore them, i.e. the problem lies in with stupid, lazy, ill-informed people who take the easy options and allow themselves to be unduly influenced by industry advertising.
The concession to an education campaign is pure cynicism as it’s obvious that a government funded education programme could never match the enormous PR, lobbying and advertising budgets of the food industry. And - given du Fresne’s criticism of academics - where does he think the educators will come from, the food industry itself?
But, as he’s called for some education, let’s start with him.
NZ has had historically high levels of bowel cancer and heart disease – what’s new is the epidemic of obesity and of what used to be called adult-onset diabetes which is now appearing so regularly in children it's been renamed Type-2 diabetes.
Fatty food per se doesn’t cause obesity and diabetes - the issue is way more complex than that. If it was just a matter of fatty food or even of high consumption of cane sugar, NZ would have always had very high rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
A diet that’s high in saturated fats and low in dietary fibre is a factor in high rates of bowel cancer and heart disease but the current epidemic of obesity and Type 2 diabetes throughout the developed world dates from the 1980s and is largely due to changes in the way food is produced and marketed - and to intersections between the interests and operations of the powerful petro-chemical, automobile, pharmaceutical, food, tobacco and alcohol industries.
n relation to food, a lot of evidence points to the ubiquity of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as a sweetener and preservative in a vast range of cheaper processed foods and drinks. The effects of this additive on the individual is very likely influenced by genetic predispositions, exposure to other toxins in food and the environment and with generally increased levels of stress and decreased levels of hard physical exercise.
Fructose is metabolised in the liver and we do not metabolise it efficiently and large amounts of it result in visceral fat deposits, the presence of which affects the endocrine system. HFCS was not present in large amounts in peoples' diets until the 1970s and its use, and the globalisation and growth of the fast food industry (in which I include supermarkets), is coincidental with a general increase in weight and the particular increase in rates of clinical and morbid obesity.
Basically, too much fructose compromises people’s bio-chemistry and a lot of bad eating habits are being driven by that impaired bio-chemistry.
Along with educating people, there is a pressing need to regulate the food producers – to control an industry which:
- is not obliged to reveal all the ingredients in the processed foods it sells or the potential health effects;
- laces low quality, nutritionally empty food and drinks with a substance that is known to wreak havoc on our bio-chemistry;
- makes hyper-processed, nutritionally empty food staples cheaper than whole foods, and sugar-rich drinks cheaper than healthy alternatives;
- employs highly paid and morally vacant PR people to polish its image and tarnish that of its critics, and pays unscrupulous lobbyists to influence both government and public opinion.
Karl du Fresne ends his opinion piece with : “ I'm no apologist for the fast food industry. … But no-one is forced to eat burgers or deep-fried chicken, any more than they are forced to smoke.”
And he has the gall to accuse academic critics of the food industry of employing ‘lazy and simplistic’ arguments.
2) Dominion Post August 21st http://linkis.com/www.stuff.co.nz/nati/ZNyVM