What have the tobacco and food industries got in common?

Very few people would disagree with the idea that cigarette smoking is generally bad four our health. This habit has strong links with a range of conditions including cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. The only doctors and scientists that dispute the negative effects of smoking seem to be those in the pay of the tobacco industry. Which is to be utterly expected of course.

To everyone else, smoking is obviously bad news. But it wasn’t always this way. When smoking was popularised in the early part of the last century not only was there no question regarding its safety, it was actually promoted as something ‘healthy’ for the lungs, and even endorsed by some doctors. Think about that for a moment ” somehow, marketing, advertising and expert endorsement had enough power of persuasion to convince many of us that inhaling the smoke deep into our lungs was actually going to be good for them. It’s almost beyond belief.

However, the ability of an industry to pull the wool over our eyes is not confined to the tobacco industry. The pharmaceutical industry has a history of it, and so of course does the food industry. Supermarket shelves and chiller cabinets are replete with rubbishy foods that advertise health-related claims that are, generally speaking, quite meaningless.

For example, seeing as diets low in fat and/or cholesterol have not been proven to be beneficial to health, then advertising something as ‘low in fat’ or ‘cholesterol free’ alludes to a benefit that does not appear to exist. This sort of tactic is particularly egregious, I think, when it applies to a food is quite likely to have adverse effects on health. Such as margarine made from highly processed, refined ingredients that have all manner of extraneous substances added to them to make them palatable.

With talks about obesity epidemics burgeoning around the World, the food industry has been quick to seize an opportunity to make money through the sale of foods promising benefits for those seeking to attain or maintain a healthy weight. The low fat line is used here quite often (even though low fat diets have been proven to be quite unsuccessful for the purposes of weight loss), as is the idea that a food is low in calories. Artificial sweeteners now abound in the diet, despite the fact that not one properly conducted study has proven them to be beneficial for the purposes of weight control compared to sugar. In fact, some evidence even suggests that they may lead to problems with appetite regulation and might even encourage overeating.

Another tactic food companies use to be able to sell the low-calorie line is to provide foods in smaller portions. Many years ago I was researching a piece on food myths for a mens’ magazine, and part of my brief was to look at slimming foods. I found a loaf of bread that trumpeted the fact that it was only ‘X calories per slice’ (I forget the number of calories). True, this bread offered less calories per slice than a regular bread. But, weight for weight, it contained the same number of calories as regular bread. The reason that it had fewer calories per slice was that the slices were smaller.

And if you think this is outrageous, let me share with you another of my findings. I found two packet soups of the same flavour made by the same company. One was the ‘slimmer’ version. I checked to find it contained about 40 per cent less calories than the original version. The nutritional compositions of the two soups were virtually identical though. How did the slimmer soup manage to pack 40 per cent less calories? Yes, you’ve guessed, by packing 40 per cent less ingredients, that’s how. But wait for it, the real kicker here was the fact that the price of these two products were identical. Nice work when you can get it.

I make no bones about the fact that I have a healthy disrespect for processed foods generally, and I most certainly do not see the food industry as our saviours in our battle of the bulge. Our attention was recently brought to the uselessness of the food industry in terms of helping us manage our weight in an article that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) [1].

In it, David Ludwig and Marion Nestle from the childrens’ hospital in Boston, USA explain how that processed (and often inherently unhealthy) foods are more profitable than unprocessed (and usually healthy) ones. There is a conflict here: to promote truly healthy foods would mean food companies would be undermining their fundamental business model. The article also mentions how in an effort to improve their corporate image, food companies sponsoring sporting events and partner with professional associations such as the American Dietetic Association.

The authors suggest that we should no more expect the food industry to be effective in the prevention and treatment of obesity than we should depend on the motor industry to prevent global warming.

It seems to me that more and more people are wakening up to this fact, and are realising that healthy weight control is so often achievable by eating a diet based on natural, unprocessed foods. Specialised foods that only leave you lighter in the pocket are not required.

Could it be that at some point in the not-too-distant future we will see the health claims made by food companies in the same way we view the health claims that were once made for cigarettes? I certainly hope so.


1. Ludwig D, et al. Can the Food Industry Play a Constructive Role in the Obesity Epidemic? JAMA 2008;300:1808-1811.

6 Responses to What have the tobacco and food industries got in common?

  1. Methuselah - Pay Now Live Later 28 October 2008 at 12:18 am #

    Dr B – great article and one which resonates nicely with my own views on cigarettes and sugar, especially your concluding remarks.

    Cigarettes, Sugar and our Innate Short Termism

  2. Huw 31 October 2008 at 8:56 pm #

    It’s ‘men’s magazine’, not ‘mens’ magazine’. And ‘the prices of these two products were’, not ‘price’. And ‘more and more people ae waking up’ not ‘wakening up’. You appear to need an editor, and I’m free at the moment, as it happens. But hey, I didn’t comment to go over your English, just to say that you are on the nail again, but since humans have been eating food a lot longer than they have been smoking tabs the chance of the food industry being brought to book for its egregiousness (your terminology) is very slim. Just like us smug non-processed food eaters.

  3. Tiggy 3 November 2008 at 1:30 am #

    ‘Egregrious’ – outstandingly bad, flagrant. I can see why that word hasn’t really taken on – if you say it a few times you end up with a lot of saliva in your mouth!

  4. SteveMD 27 December 2008 at 1:45 am #

    Although I agree with the general thrust of the article, the example given, of how smoking was misrepresented, may not be as clear-cut and “obvious” as Dr. Briffa assumes; http://www.second-opinions.co.uk/diesel_lung_cancer.html

    This is not to say that smoking is good for health, just that it is not the source of all evils and we may be looking in the wrong direction, yet again.

  5. France Mac 27 December 2008 at 4:18 am #

    I was thinking about weight gain and my mom’s generation.
    Narrowing it down to reasons why they weren’t overweight: A combination of alcohol, cigarettes, dancing for entertainment (instead of television watching), vigorous work (stay at home mothers were very physically active) walking instead of riding, almost no processed foods, fewer, if any, soft drinks. Additionally garments were miserably uncomfortable by today’s standards… high heels, girdles, long line bras, stockings, no stretchy fabrics. Lastly, social times were catch up with friends not to eat. Just an observation.

    P. S. Dr. Briffa, I love your blog.


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