Food Politics, Food Marketing Activities, and Nutrition Myths

It takes a lot to gain my respect in nutrition.

The fact is, there’s a lot of “noise” out there in the world of “healthy food”.

Quite frankly, I find that consumers like you are angry, frustrated, and confused with the politics of food.

As two out of every three of us are overweight or obese, and one out of every three children born after the year 2000 are expected to have type II diabetes later in life, nutrition is becoming more important to our health system than ever before.

To help us navigate the confusing world of food marketing, I wanted to interview Andy Belllatti, a Registered Dietitian who really differentiated himself to me by cutting through the noise of the food industry and giving some very useful and practical nutrition advice.

Bellatti’s blog, Small Bites, really stood out from the pack, especially when it comes to pulling the rug from beneath myths in food marketing and nutrition advice.

The Politics of Food:

I’m going to do something a little different from other blogs and skip the formal introduction at first so I can get right to my first question:

Alex Rinehart, MS, DC, CCN:

Andy, What do you think is the number one problem with dietary advice today?

Andy Bellatti, MS, RD:

A lot of of dietary advice that passes off as “objective science” is tainted by food industry politics.

The idolization the United States has with dairy is one example.

The milk industry has lobbied hard and spent millions to (successfully) convince the American public that milk is a must-have for healthy bones. They conveniently do not mention that many nutrients crucial for bone health are not found in milk, that nations with the highest intakes of dairy also have the highest rates of osteoporosis, and that there are many other, healthier sources of calcium.

Alas, there is no Dark Leafy Greens Council that can compete with the Dairy Council’s advertising budget or political strength.

The wording of mainstream dietary advice has also increasingly gotten weak. “Eat more fruits and vegetables” is fine advice, but it would be better if we also said “eat less meat.” This also goes back to politics. The meat industry has a lot of pull in Washington DC, and our crop subsidies greatly favor that industry (most cows subsist on corn). Don’t expect the government to tell its citizens to eat less meat any time soon.

I am aware that there are varying degrees of beef (corn-fed, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation [CAFO] beef is different, nutritionally and environmentally, from organic and grass-fed beef), but everyone would benefit from reducing their total intake.  I don’t consider eating three pounds of organic, grass-fed beef a week instead of three pounds of conventional corn-fed beef a solution, not when the average American only manages to eat half of the daily amount of recommended fiber.

Alex Rinehart, MS, DC, CCN:

I definitely agree that food politics hijacks our country’s decision-making when it comes to the availability and affordability of healthy food. I feel that our country has a long way to go, particularly with advertising food to children.

On a positive note, I do feel that social media has completely changed how news in food politics is distributed and because of the personal nature of blogs and article sharing, I think that big food and agricultural industries are finding it increasingly harder to maintain authority and “control” the conversation.

Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have completely leveled the playing field when it comes to disseminating nutrition information.

What role has social media played in your relationship with your blogging community as well as your nutrition clients?

Andy Bellatti, MS, RD: 

The majority of private clients I have worked with found me through my blog.  They found the content helpful, practical, and — this is what I am most proud of — not “dumbed down”.

A lot of the people I work with are interested in achieving health, not weight loss, so they appreciate my “whole-foods approach”.

Also, a good portion of my clients are also interested in issues of food politics.

Consumers don’t just want to know what the food highest in monounsaturated fat is; they also want to learn more about how food is grown and what kinds of food systems and production models are out there.

Facebook and Twitter have been great tools for me.  Both allow me to see what my audience finds interesting and also enable my readers to interact with me frequently.  I never “tweet and run”.  Any time I see a tweet or Facebook response from someone looking for more information or who has a thoughtful question about something, I write back.  I don’t mind opposing viewpoints when they are expressed respectfully.

It’s easy to tell when someone is challenging you because they are truly interested in exchanging ideas as opposed to just being sarcastic and trying to get a rise out of you.

Alex Rinehart, MS, DC, CCN:

I have had a similar experience with social media and attract roughly 25% of new clients based on my blog articles and social networks, the rest come from referrals and public lectures, discussions and workshops where I am simply sharing information.

Let’s take a step back so that you can tell us a little about your academic background. How did you decide to become a Registered Dietitian?

Andy Bellatti, MS, RD:

In the Spring of 2004, I watched Morgan Spurlock’s “Supersize Me”. I walked out of the theater and thought, “I need to study nutrition!”. That film brilliantly showcased this country’s health crisis along with the politics and agendas that created the perfect storm, so to speak.

I double-majored in print journalism and gender & sexuality studies at New York University. Both of those fields of study trained me to think critically, ask tough questions, recognize multiple layers that affect one problem, and look at issues from a multitude of angles.

I’m so thankful for that background; it basically ingrained an “anti-BS” chip in my brain.

Because of that background, I bring an ‘investigative journalism’ approach to nutrition. I’m not afraid to question the American Dietetic Association’s stance on certain issues and call out what I think are positions motivated by political and financial reasons, rather than “science”.

When I see a “Got Milk?” ad, my reaction isn’t to say “Oh, wow, I should tell my clients to drink more milk!”, but rather “How did the milk industry convince millions of Americans that it has exclusive rights to bone health?”.

I also like to point out connections that I believe are crucial to dissect if the nutrition discussion is going to go anywhere. You hear “obesity” talked about relentlessly, many times as if it is “the problem” to fix.

In reality, obesity is merely the most visible symptom of other issues:

  • Crop subsidies that make unhealthy foods cheap
  • Relentless marketing of unhealthy foods
  • Prevalence of food deserts
  • Increasingly “obesogenic” environments, etc.

I don’t like ‘surface discussions’. I want to talk about food policy, the environmental effects of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), how the food industry deceives consumers, or the sketchy political dealings behind the approval of certain artificial sweeteners.

That, to me, is a thousand times more interesting than how to slash twenty calories from a sandwich by using a fat-free mayonnaise that has more in common with Playdoh than actual food.

Alex Rinehart, MS, DC, CCN: 

In your blog, you really give insight into the dirty marketing tricks of Big Food and companies like Pepsi and Nestle, but what are some positive trends that you see happening in the food world? Is the person reading this right now doomed?

Andy Bellatti, MS, RD:

The most positive trend I’m seeing is that the issue of food industry deception is becoming more of a mainstream topic. Many “laypeople” are tired of nutritionally inferior food trying to pass itself off as healthy food.

When Marion Nestle’s Food Politics (a book I firmly believe everyone studying nutrition must read, along with Michele Simon’s Appetite for Profit) came out in 2002, most people didn’t even know what ‘food politics’ meant.

Nowadays, you not only see the term “Food Politics” used frequently, but the topic is part of mainstream media; it’s no longer limited to academic circles.

I’m also seeing people becoming more concerned with eating real, minimally processed food as opposed to low-fat/low-carb/low-calorie ‘products’ that look like science fair rejects.

Another nice trend I’m seeing – people taking an interest in the sourcing of their food. Where does it grow? How is it grown? How are the people who grow and pick my food treated? How do these growing practices affect the environment? These are all important questions.

Alex Rinehart, MS, DC, CCN:

Thanks for your insight on the positive things going on in the food world. It can be so easy and tempting to focus on negative trends. You would think that this would create a prime opportunity for nutritionists and wellness advocates to really move to the forefront of healthcare, but this is not necessarily the case, yet.

I think this is another area that you are simply spot on with your blog. Please share with someone reading this blog: How do nutritionists shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to gaining a serious foothold in healthcare?

Andy Bellatti, MS, RD:

I wrote a very lengthy blog post about this a few months ago, but I’ll sum up my feelings. I have to tell you, it’s very disturbing to me when I see nutrition professionals acting like defense lawyers for fast food companies (and I don’t just mean the Registered Dietitians employed by Big Food).

Take, for example, the ‘news’ earlier this summer that McDonald’s planned on adding four apple slices to their Happy Meals. In my mind, the fact that a food company makes a tiny change does not mean they should be exempt from criticism, especially when said change is more PR than change.

With the “new” Happy Meal, a child can still eat chicken nuggets, fries, and chocolate milk as a meal. What is there to “celebrate”? Despite this, some Registered Dietitians (on Twitter and in their blogs) applauded this as “significant progress” and congratulated McDonald’s for helping provide better choices. I was flabbergasted.

Complacency is not good, especially from health professionals. I don’t know why some RDs are afraid to call out the food industry and say “Wait a minute, you’re trying to pull the wool over our eyes!”. It’s as if, rather than standing up to the playground bully, we suck up to it in hopes that one day, maybe, they’ll be nice to us. It really bothers me.

I would much rather we applaud advocates who fight for tight regulations and policies on advertising fast food to children, or who are working on the ground to help get toys out of Happy Meals. Those are much more admirable causes than adding a couple of apple slices to Happy Meals and patting yourself on the back for “caring about children’s health.”

Then there are the meaningless, toothless statements that many in the nutrition field like to use, such as “there are no bad foods” and “everything in moderation”, both of which are simplistic platitudes. There ARE bad foods, and not “everything” should be in moderation. Setting up a playing field where unsweetened green tea and soda are talked about in the same way completely misses the point and helps no one.

My obligation to people is to help them eat well. I don’t go for the quick fix or overnight change. But I do unabashedly advocate real food. If you want to talk about how to make a 50-calorie dessert with fat-free Whipped cream and Splenda, I’m not your guy. I’m the guy who will tell you: “eat three squares of dark (85%) chocolate every night for heart health”.

Alex Rinehart, MS, DC, CCN:

Your post on how some other nutritionists are missing the mark is exactly what spurred me to learn more about your work, to trust you, and eventually seek an interview with you. But looking deeper in to the issue of trust, What should someone reading this post consider when choosing a nutrition professional?

Andy Bellatti, MS, RD:

Look for someone who thinks critically and independently. I would steer clear of someone who hands you a “healthy eating tip sheet” that has a Frito-Lay logo on it.

I also would steer clear of those who refer to real, healthful foods like chia seeds, kombucha, or sea vegetables as “hype”. It saddens me when some of my colleagues know very little about the health benefits of these foods and, rather than investigate them and discover their healthful properties, shrug them off, while in the next breath recommending chocolate milk and “low-fat” turkey bacon.

Also, look for someone who has kept up with research. If you are looking to improve your blood lipid profile and your health professional does not recommend limiting added sugars (and instead focuses on limiting all fats), that’s a sign you are dealing with someone who hasn’t been keeping up with nutrition research.

Alex Rinehart, MS, DC, CCN:

I am sure there are pockets of individuals who may take offense to some of your “racier” and “revealing” posts. Have you received any serious criticism for the work that you post on your blog? How do you respond to your critics?

Andy Bellatti, MS, RD:

I have. My approach is a whole-foods, plant-based one. I also often call out Big Food (that is to mean, major corporations like General Mills, PepsiCo, McDonald’s, and Taco Bell), Big Dairy, and Big Beef as industries that are more about hype and deception than health.

My plant-centric approach does not go over well with a lot of the hardcore Paleos or low-carbers out there, for obvious reasons. Another group that doesn’t respond well to my work are Registered Dietitians who work for the previously-mentioned industries as well as those who are closely affiliated with the American Dietetic Association. It comes with the territory, so it’s by no means surprising.

Alas, social media has allowed me to connect with fellow-minded Registered Dietitians and other nutrition professionals, which has been wonderful. It’s also been great to connect with doctors, lawyers, public health professionals, journalists, and vegan chefs  who have similar interests and ideas. I’m a big fan of multi-disciplinary approaches.

Alex Rinehart, MS, DC, CCN:

So knowing what you know about the behind-the-scenes marketing tactics of Big FoodDo you have a process for determining if a piece of nutrition advice is valuable?

Andy Bellatti, MS, RD:

Yes. Always look at who is saying it. I’ll never forget a few years ago, Details magazine had a short piece on “curing hangovers”. One dietitian was quoted as saying Vitamin Water was great for that.

What the article didn’t mention (but I knew from being in the field) was that this particular dietitian was employed by Vitamin Water. Oops!

Alex Rinehart, MS, DC, CCN:

Besides Small Bites, Do you have any favorite, trustworthy resources that you consistently visit for nutrition news and information?

Andy Bellatti, MS, RD:

I love to read thoughtful and critical analyses. My “Fave Five”, in no particular order:

  • Marion Nestle’s blog (Food Politics) for public health nutrition issues
  • Michele Simon’s blog (Appetite for Profit) for nutrition policy and legal matters
  • Dr. Yoni Freedhoff’s blog (Weighty Matters) for issues of food politics and industry deception in Canada
  • Mark Bittman (New York Times) for a little bit of everything related to food
  • Tom Philpott (Mother Jones) for agricultural policy.

Alex Rinehart, MS, DC, CCN:

Those are some great resources that a reader could turn to for long-term health information, but What are some simple steps that someone reading this blog can take and practically apply to their lives today?

Andy Bellatti, MS, RD:

Move away from processed foods.

The myopic “fats are bad” or “carbs are bad” views miss the point. I always tell people, “forget low-fat or low-carb, think low-processed”. When you think “low-processed”, you eat foods that are chock full of nutrition and flavor, and that truly satiate. Avocados, almonds, quinoa, oats, and whole fruit are not the foods that should bring up “red flags”.

Also, learn basic cooking skills. You don’t need to be a gourmet chef, but arm yourself with the knowledge to make a handful of easy dishes, particularly ones that involve legumes, beans, fresh vegetables, and whole grains (especially ‘pseudo-grains’ like amaranth, millet, and quinoa, which are fiber and mineral all-stars).

Alex Rinehart, MS, DC, CCN:

Andy, thanks so much for taking the time to introduce my readers to food politics. This discussion is so important to the current state of healthcare. I really admire the work you are doing and I hope that my readers take your message to heart.

Andy Bellatti, MS, RD is a Seattle-based dietitian who works from a whole-foods, plant-centric approach.  He also takes a strong interest in food politics, nutrition policy, and deceptive marketing tactics utilized by the food industry.  He is the creator of the Small Bites blog and can be followed on Twitter (@AndyBellatti).

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