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Food Giants Lay Out PR "Solution" to Obesity Epidemic--"Nutri-wash"

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Published on Wednesday, September 8, 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle

Get Rid of those Empty Calories with 'Nutri-wash'

by Michele Simon

Years ago, the environmental movement coined the term "greenwashing" to
describe how corporations use public relations to make themselves appear
environmentally friendly. Now, nutrition advocates need their own moniker
for a similar trend among major food companies -- call it "nutri-washing."

With rising rates of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related health
problems, Big Food has responded to increasing public criticism with
announcements of improved products, along with assertions of being "part of
the solution" -- knowing full well they are a cause of the problem.

Most of the criticism is leveled at companies who especially target
children, with McDonald's taking much of this heat. So, in recent months the
fast-food giant (though it denies any connection) has taken pains to prove
it really does care. For example, in April, with Secretary of Health and
Human Services Tommy Thompson on hand, McDonald's announced a "Balanced
Lifestyle Platform," promising to provide nutrition information on Happy
Meals and volunteering to "take an industry-leading role" to work with HHS
on "the best way to communicate nutrition information to consumers." Do we
really want the folks who invented the 600-calorie Big Mac and supersizing
volunteering for this job?

The company also pledged to distribute free copies of an educational
program called "What's on Your Plate, featuring Willie Munchright" that
teaches "elementary schoolchildren the importance of physical activity and
making smart food choices." What a great way to get free marketing in
schools while increasing brand recognition among impressionable children.
Also, the common tactic of promoting physical activity is cleverly designed
to deflect attention away from children eating too much of industry's
unhealthy food.

Other food conglomerates feeling the heat are also jumping on the corporate
responsibility bandwagon. For example, PepsiCo has created a Web site
( devoted to convincing you that it cares about
children's health. Yet the site claims that "kid-friendly" school snacks
such as Doritos and Pepsi are "part of a balanced diet." The food and
beverage giant also recently announced the introduction of the Smart Spot
symbol, a small green circle that will carry the message "Smart Choices Made
Easy" and will appear on such "healthy products" as Diet Pepsi and Baked
Lays. But labeling a food healthy does not make it so. Even diet sodas and
baked chips have virtually no nutritional value and only serve to divert
consumers' attention from wholesome foods.

Some nutrition advocates have applauded such efforts as an attempt by
industry to make improvements, however minor. But to praise companies for
such "reforms" too easily rewards them with the positive public-relations
spin they seek. Also, these voluntary actions deliberately attempt to
deflect any mandatory government regulations -- for, as we are starting to
learn, voluntary acts can easily be rescinded.

In June, for example, less than a year after Kraft Foods vowed to reduce
portion sizes in the name of public health, the company said it would change
nutrition labeling instead. The company did release recently "100 calorie
packs" of Oreos, Chips Ahoy and Cheese Nips, thus turning reduced portion
sizes into a clever marketing gimmick. But 100-calorie junk food is still
junk. Similarly, a 2002 promise by McDonald's to remove artery-clogging
trans fats from its cooking oil, which gained the company a tremendous
amount of free PR (including a front-page story in The Chronicle), has yet
to be fulfilled.

Moreover, these PR efforts don't tell the whole story. Behind the scenes,
industry is lobbying hard to undermine public-health advocacy, especially
that aimed at improving the nutrition environment of public schools. For
example, last year, California lawmakers tried to ban the sale of sodas in
schools, but heavy lobbying from the soda industry resulted in an exemption
for high schools (where, not coincidentally, most soda is sold). Just last
month, California legislation that would have set nutrition guidelines on
foods sold in schools was narrowly defeated, despite having the support of
80 health and education organizations, thanks to last-minute lobbying by the
junk-food industry.

Educated consumers won't be fooled by all the slick packaging and press
releases. They know better than to rely on the processed food industry for
healthful eating. The highest quality nutrition is found in whole foods,
such as fresh fruits and vegetables, not in cans or boxes. That's how nature
planned it, long before Big Food intervened. No matter how hard they try to
convince you otherwise, the food and beverage industries have only their own
best interests at heart. The rest is just a bunch of nutri-wash.

Michele Simon is a public health lawyer and director of the Center for
Informed Food Choices, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland that
educates about the politics of food (

©2004 San Francisco Chronicle