This morning I was writing a piece about how the ‘official’ messages we get about food inform our choices even when they fly in the face of common sense. One aspect of this being the impact of corporate sponsorship on some of our professional associations and other authorities we look to for unbiased, nutritional advice.
While taking a break I picked up “The Age” and came across one of those vox pop style bites, this time asking leaders in appropriate professions “whether we should ban junk food such as McDonalds?” One of the voxes popped was Alison Graham, spokeswoman for the Dieticians Association of Australia. If you represented the peak orthodox organization for nutrition what message would you give about not just junk food, but McDonalds in particular? Sadly her response did not surprise me. In a piece of perfect spin Graham was quoted saying, “It’s wonderful that we have such a diverse food supply in Australia, so we can’t take choice away from people. Fast food is more than deep fried fatty foods: it can be quick and convenient and it’s here to stay, but they’re not all bad choices – salads, sushi and wraps can all be healthy”.
Her take home message was that fast (junk) food can actually be healthy. In a deft slight of hand, ignoring the deep fried, nutrient poor choices the majority choose at to buy from these establishments, Graham shifts the focus to something innocuous, like sushi, Last time I checked, a nori roll isn’t actually on the multinational in question’s menu. What’s more there’s talk of choice, hinting it’d almost be unAustralian if we banned fast food.
Thix positive spin on the fast food industry could seem curious from a member of the Dieticians Association, if you didn’t realise that although McDonalds are not direct sponsors of the Association, the industries providing the meat and cheese for their burgers are. McDonalds have however donated generously to the DAA, by way of things like purchasing a stall at their annual conference. The quote obtained from the DAA could not have been better written, if a lobbyist for McDonalds had dictated it.
Who influences our food choices?
While many of us don’t consult a member of the DAA to educate us about food choices, well-placed media quotes like this are just the tip of the iceberg as to how far their influence flows. Recently I spoke to a final year medical student at the country’s leading medical school. We chatted amicably about the course and the rigors of assessment. Somehow the conversation got on to nutrition, so I asked if any is being taught to our up and coming doctors? She happily informed me they had a whole semester on it now.
“Fantastic a whole semester on how to eat!” I responded. But no, I was informed, it was actually about digestion with “a little” nutrition got tagged on the end.
“How then do you teach your patients about healthy food choices?” I asked. To which she responded about the handing over of pamphlets from the Heart Foundation (the organization that McDonalds has now paid at least $330,000 a year for the privilege of a few of their well placed ‘ticks’) and the DAA. “
Or”, she added “I’d send them to a dietician or nutritionist”. “I’m curious”, I asked a little provocatively, “What is the difference between the two?” She admitted to not know, but would refer them anyway.
The elephant in the room
This didn’t engender me with hope as to the future of nutritional advice from your doctor. Does the sponsorship of the DAA, by Nestle´ (a leading manufacturer of infant formula, controversial for it’s work in the developing world) indirectly influence advice given to a breastfeeding mother? Would a registered dietician ever cite the many studies that repeatedly prove that milk or even high calcium intake does not reduces the risk of fractures nor prevent osteoporosis, when Dairy Australia is a generous sponsor of the Association? Would they point out the biggest study to date, observing 120,000 woman for more than 10 years, not only disproved the dairy-healthy bones link but went further to show the more milk you drank the higher your chances of developing ovarian cancer? Not mentioning a study in one thing, but actively promoting contradictory advice is another.
While individuals of a profession may not speak for every member, using high profile doctors to advertise a product sends a much more universal message. Although that toothpaste ad doesn’t show us the face of the dentist, the milk commercial with high profile GP, Cindy Pan, more than trades on her reputation by using her as the face of all doctors. In a nifty and possibly subliminal twist, it goes even further by using an Asian woman it neatly subverts the contradictory message that the majority of Asians are lactose intolerant. We should all drink milk, Cindy the doctor, media personality and Asian tells us it will give us strong bones, so it must be true!
The heavily subsidised message trickles down
Recently I went shopping with my 80 year old father. He’s only recently had to begin cooking for himself and is a good consumer, taking time to read labels and pour over information about food ingredients. Diligently he grabbed the low fat/high calcium milk, the “lite” potato chips and chose a frozen meal based on the Heart Foundation Tick. When I tried to point out a similar meal that had better ingredients. he refused due to its tick-less packaging.
The company-sponsored health “message” continues to thrive in Australia, from the doctor’s waiting room to the supermarket freezer. It’s time that peak professional associations, such as the DAA stopped accepting sponsorship and got on with the job of disseminating unbiased, evidence-based nutritional information.