First do no harm

Warning: This is a long post with a whole lot of links for you to read if you love details.

If you have been reading my posts, you probably realize that I am a firm believer in ancestral living (no no, I am not moving to a tree-house nor did I order a straw dress on Amazon,….. just the concept, fellows!) – eat real food, eat seasonal food and mainly traditional diets (eat according to your genetic predisposition). I talked about nutritionism, the dangers of simplifying extreme complex and dynamic processes by reducing food to nutrients.

The millions of articles and news items coming out from nutrition specialists every day doesn’t make it any easier for us.  The nature of the messages adds to the confusion: as vague as – “may help support the immune system”–, or something so circuitous as to be completely meaningless – “supportive but not conclusive research shows that eating 42 grams of walnuts per day, as part of a low saturated fat and low cholesterol diet and not resulting in increased caloric intake, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease” – you need special skills to convey nothing after saying so much!!

I realize now that this is not a short-coming, or a lack of ability to come across clearly. It is intentional, it is deliberate. It just means that a study was conducted by the ‘Association of Nuts’ (ha..ha) who funded an elite university in the US to do a research paper on this subject and basically found nothing worthwhile. The media coverage would read like this – “eating 42 grams of walnuts per day reduces the risk of coronary heart disease” – there you go to buy your weeks supply of walnuts!!

But seriously, these smarty-pants in the industry think that we are all stupid grass eating ruminants with a pea-sized brain. But they may be right, because we are letting them do this to us.

What led me to write this post is this article, and this one  and many others of this nature. If you have time, you should also check out US public health attorney Michele Simons’ report.

You should read some of them otherwise you will end up buying walnuts every week!! For those who don’t like to read horrific stories, you will get the message in this post anyway.

I did a bit of research, and holy smoke!! We’re talking corporate “public health” sponsorships so ridiculous your eyes will fall out of your head. I can imagine a company ‘not connected with junk food’ having a social conscience to promote public health, maybe a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or something. But McDonalds? Coca-cola? Pepsico? Kellogs? That is an absurdity so egregious that I can almost smash my keyboard and chew it up (it’s a food blog remember!! wouldn’t be that bad with some McDonald fries on the side 😉 ).

BigFood (CocaCola, Pepsico, Kellog, General Mills, McDonalds, Nestle, Kraft ………) wants to make money like any other business, that’s no secret. They created an entirely new category of food (call it snack, junk, ready-to-eat, whatever) and promoted it. They advertised on TV, print, radio, internet, movie theaters, buses, billboards,…you name it. That’s fine. Companies that sell crap will always exist because they have a right to and because there will always be people ignorant or self-destructive enough to keep them in business.

Sticking to conventional advertising was still fine, but they started to indulge in an even more insidious form of advertising called sponsorship and research funding. BigFood became sponsors of organizations such as American Society for Nutrition (ASN), Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), American Heart Association (AHA), American Diabetes Association (ADA) just to name a few starting with ‘A’.

Coke-ADATypically they would sponsor seminars/programmes which would essentially ‘educate’ health professionals, nutritionists and dieticians, doctors, about how safe their products were, not just safe but beneficial as well. They would fund university research studies and publish results which were favourable to their business. Statistically we know that 90% of industry-funded food and nutrition studies or commentaries come out with results favorable to the sponsor’s interests.  Only 10% tend to disappoint the sponsor and these are obviously buried. With these dubious documents in hand the army of ‘educated’ professionals sets out to tell you that the sodas, chips, muffins, cookies and cereals are healthy for you and your children.

Most outrageous in all of this are the medical associations’ willingness to surrender even the appearance of objectivity. It defies all common sense to allow soda and candy bar companies to be credible partners in any discussion of nutrition and wellness.  The American Heart Association decided that it would be a good idea to start accepting cash to put its ‘heart check’ symbol on foods of dubious nutritional quality – so Kellogs Froot Loops and Frosted Mini-Wheats, General Mills’ Cocoa Puffs were on the ‘heart check’ list.


They became heart healthy food to be eaten every morning. Juice bottles containing 10 teaspoons of sugar started bearing the ‘heart check’! These companies pay up to buy legitimacy; they boost their image and show the public that they have the support and sanction of ‘experts’ in the medical community. What more authentication does one need?

BigFood had infiltrated the hallowed halls of medicine. Influential doctors had scientifically sold themselves to the highest bidder. Push fructose? No problem. Push obesity drugs? No problem. Push artificial meal replacement shakes? No problem. Dubious vegetable oils? No problem. Meanwhile, honest physicians read these highly circulated and respected journals and sponsored research papers. Trusting the ‘experts’, they would naively pass on these lies to their own patients. It became a belief system and it penetrated down. Someone had said, “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”

The fox was now guarding the hen house.

I wanted to give you an idea about how such dubious products have come to dominate our shelves as health products. BigFood is not to blame. Their job is to sell food any which way to survive. They cannot betray us because we never trusted them anyway. We were betrayed by our institutions, our doctors, by ourselves.

It is not about maligning a whole community. A few bad ‘coriander leaves don’t spoil the bunch’. There were mass resignations by many doctors in AAFP after the deal with CocaCola.

It is about learning our lessons.

This message is important to us in India today. Even though we are heading full throttle towards an epidemic, we still have a chance to put the brakes. BigFood is still trying to find the right channels in India, looking for regulatory weaknesses, trying to identify the power players. There have been a few instances when BigFood did influence IMA (Indian Medical Association) to endorse Quacker oats and Tropicana juice, but I hope that was a one-off incident. In many cases marketing is targeted at children, and schools and takes place online. Fast food ads on social networking sites can manipulate young audiences – their purchasing likelihood, their views of fast food and their eating habits.

It worries me, because we are naïve, we are easily influenced by the west.

We are totally mesmerized by anything the US has to say and we feel a need to belong with them. We feel that to be seen as a developed country we must be like them. I wanna be like you, I wanna walk like you, I wanna talk like you…..(Rudyard Kipling surely knew that about us).

We have embraced their technological advancement in keeping substances fresh for months, our food courts will be buzzing with people gorging on all the (so-called) amazing stuff which never gets bad and in super markets people will fill their shopping carts with vegetables that never spoil, with products high in synthetic sugars and hydrogenated fats and chemicals. We finally belong with the A-listers !! We are no less than our high-nosed (now obese) cousins of ours who migrated to the West. We can eat the same burgers, the same pizzas, the same doughnuts and much more!

In India BigFood (e.g McDonalds) entered in 1996, and in 2 decades we can see an epidemic of obesity and diabetes affecting children and young people. It is not just the BigFood, even our own industries are using the same substances (Fructose syrups, trans fats, preservatives, chemicals) to create our local fast food products. What we are seeing today is only the tip of the iceberg in the sense that these products have reached only the big cities. Can you imagine what will happen when the market expands to rural India!

There are lessons to be learned. Our regulators should be aware that India is the new market for the same US companies which destroyed the lives of millions in US and many developing economies in South America (Mexico, Brazil…..). BigFood is finding the going really tough in the west. Consumers in US and Europe are moving rapidly away from fast food to more nutritious and natural food.  We are a soft target and the huge market.

Do we still believe that our authorities and regulatory bodies will look after us?….. hah!! Do you still believe that? Seriously?

I would seriously like to believe that we will not allow corporate-capture of the regulatory apparatus in our country.

I seriously believe that the BigFood companies (both Foreign and Indian) will not be allowed to manipulate our system, nor will they be allowed to influence regulatory decisions. To our nutritionists, dieticians, food writers and health professionals – please don’t let the BigFood companies control your thoughts, or your writings or your opinions. The 1.2 billion ordinary people of your country trust you. Don’t gloat about the fact that the processed food/fast food industry in India is set to grow @ a phenomenal rate. It is disgusting! It is the equivalent of celebrating an impending health epidemic.

On the contrary, show concern. Show serious concern. Use your expertise and reach to guide the unsuspecting victims, our children, down the right path. At least give them an unbiased opinion and let them take a call. You can lead a horse to the water, but you can’t make it drink……… Would you in your right mind proudly buy the first pack of cigarettes for your child?

Today we have the power of information. BigFood could use so much influence in the earlier decades because people had access to only what they read on magazines and what was told to them by their ‘sold out’ medical advisers. Today each one of us can pull out all the information we want. We can question our ‘health advisors’ if we feel we are being mislead. Our children are smart enough to find the right information for themselves. They just need to be guided.

We must formulate mechanisms to propagate information about the different classes of food. Our media must play an active role. It is all good talking about planting trees and having ‘jhaaru’ sessions to clean India, because you are not hurting any corporates. It is a completely different ball game to take on the companies that pay for your existence in many ways. The media needs to take this on. Our superstars need to be responsible for the products they endorse. We, as parents, need to stop feeding our children the food that is making them obese and sick, and then blame them for not doing enough exercise.

I have hope because there are people who are doing some amazing work.

And my humble request to the people in power: ‘first do no harm’.


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