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Gain's incongruity

Give them food, not nutrient-packed pills

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Obesity and malnutrition and the role of food corporations in both are being hotly debated across the world. As food giants align with anti-obesity campaigns and enter into partnerships with organisations like Unicef in the name of helping fight malnutrition, one of the most powerful voices on food politics, Marion Nestle, is unequivocal in her criticism. Dr Nestle, hailed as the second most powerful foodie in America (after Michelle Obama) by Forbes, is currently the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health and professor of sociology at New York University. Dr Nestle, who has written several award-winning books on food, spoke to TOI-Crest about the incongruity in food companies being champions of healthy eating.

How appropriate or desirable is the partnership between big food multinationals and organisations like Unicef and WHO in the effort to fight malnutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and hunger?

There is a belief that these companies have the kind of reach and distribution network which can help in reaching people. And this is true as was evident when I was travelling in India. Even in villages you would find Pepsi or Coke. But what they forget is that companies have only one motive - to bring more money and profit for their shareholders. That is their primary job;everything else is subservient to this. Even CSR activities are meant to help in this objective. They want to sell their products and are not interested in sustainable solutions.

What about the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (Gain)?


GAIN is an association of all these big companies. The problem with GAIN is that it is looking for a quickfix technical solution to fix the problem of hunger and malnutrition. It is not interested in addressing the sociological problems that cause hunger and malnutrition. And, without addressing these underlying problems, there can be no permanent or lasting solution. They want their members to provide packaged solutions. All that these packaged foods do is alter diets and eating habits of people.

Is there a role for big food companies like Pepsi and Danone in addressing problems like obesity and malnutrition?


(Laughs) Well, companies like Pepsi and Coke could definitely help fight obesity by shutting down. But that apart, many of these companies are looking to get into so-called health products. However, when shareholders see the profits falling, they insist on the companies putting more money into their soda and soft drink lines which bring in huge profits rather than other products. The bottom line is profit.

What about fortified food to address the problem of micronutrient deficiency?


Nutrients are best absorbed through food. There are no conclusive studies that nutrients given in the form of pills and supplements are actually making such a huge dent. There are all these Sprinkles and Plumpynut. They are not part of the local diet and all their packaging is environmentally unfriendly. Also, if the cause of nutrient deficiency is lack of food, the answer is not fortification but to give them food. These are mostly limited interventions. There is also more and more research now about the dangers of over-fortification and excess of nutrients. For instance iron fortification of wheat. While it helps women who can shed excess iron as they bleed monthly, in men, it could lead to the condition of haemochromatosis. There is evidence about the negative effect of excess folate intake caused by folic acid fortification.

Why are you against any kind of relationship between profit-making corporates and scientists/nutritionists?


There is a clear conflict of interest. Innumerable studies have shown that studies sponsored by corporates tend to have outcomes favourable to their products. I am not saying that the scientists are corrupt. But just the fact of sponsorship makes it more difficult to design a study that can give impartial outcomes. Studies can be designed to give favourable outcomes depending on how the control is designed. If you want good science, you cannot allow corporate sponsorship of research.

How are scientists supposed to get funding if they don't take corporate sponsorship?


That is where the case of funding of science by government comes in. If you want credible science, you need to have funding that is not tied to corporates. Or, if you do take such funding there has to be a very strong firewall between the researchers taking the funding and the corporates giving the money. Scientists who take money from corporates for research should be prepared to be questioned about their credibility.

You speak against drinking soda and juices and encourage people to drink water. What about the bottled water industry?


Bottled water industry is the most incredible marketing success. They took something that was available freely to all citizens - clean, good-tasting drinking water that was available when you opened a tap - and bottled it and sold it. It is a clear sign of governments abrogating their duty to provide clean drinking water to their people when bottled water becomes the acceptable manner of getting clean drinking water. It is ridiculous, for instance, in New York to buy bottled water when there is very good drinking water available on tap.

Is it possible to have a law against advertising high-calorie unhealthy food to children?


It is absolutely possible if there is political will. If you can stop advertising of cigarettes, why not this? But right now, barring some Scandinavian countries, none of the others have done anything much. Self-regulation by the companies will never work. They will talk about an ethics code and will just find a way to work around it.

What would you say about the shift of food multinationals to the developing world?


All the big companies are moving to the developing world - India, China, Africa and so on - as their profits slump in the West. As they move into these countries you can see rising obesity in the population. If these countries don't want that happening to their population they have to regulate these companies and head them off before they start promoting and peddling their unhealthy products. Take the instance of a box of Kellogs Chocos I saw on my last visit to Delhi. On the back of the box it said a breakfast with the cereal was equivalent to two chappatis. So you can see that they are trying to replace the traditional breakfast or diet with their sugary thing, chocolate no less, claiming it is healthy.

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