8 Hidden Secrets You Didn’t Know About the Food Industry

The global food and beverage industry is now worth over US$ 8 trillion, representing more than 10% of the world’s GDP (1). Since this industry is in it for profit and not your best interests, it’s important to understand some of its hidden secrets in order to protector your wallet – and your health. Here are 8 of the biggest secrets the food and beverage industry don’t want you to know.

1. The top 10 largest “food and beverage” companies in the world sell junk, not food.

The top 10 food and beverage companies in the world by market value all sell soda, alcohol, junk food, processed food, and fast food – but little in the way of real, nutritious food. Given the researched health problems arising from these manufactured products, arguably these largest companies do more to destroy global health than promote it. Here they are by their 2017 rankings (2).

  1. Nestle – headquarters: Switzerland, market value $229.5 billion. Nestlé has always been one of the world’s largest food & beverage companies with more than 2000 brands ranging from global icons to local favorites in 191 countries around the world.
  2. PepsiCo – headquarters: US, market value: $159.4 billion. PepsiCo has a complementary food and beverage portfolio that includes 22 brands, and each generated more than $1 billion in estimated annual retail sales in 2016.
  3. Coca-Cola – headquarters: US, market value: $182.9 billion. One of the world’s most valuable and recognizable brands, Coca-Cola company’s portfolio features 21 billion-dollar brands. Coca-Cola is also the world’s leading provider of both sparkling and still beverages. More than 1.9 billion servings of beverages made by Coca-Cola are enjoyed by consumers in more than 200 countries.
  4. Kraft Heinz Company – headquarters: US, market value: $110.4 billion. The Kraft Heinz Co. is one of the world’s largest producer for processed food and beverages. The company’s leading products include condiments and sauces, cheese and dairy, ambient meals, frozen and chilled meals, and for infant and nutrition.
  5. Anheuser-Busch InBev – headquarters: Belgium, market value: $213.1 billion. Anheuser-Busch InBev SA is one of the world’s leading beverage companies. Its activities include manufacturing, marketing and distribution of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Anheuser-Busch owns many world’s famous beer brands across the globe, such as Budweiser, Corona and Stella Artois etc.
  6. Mondelez International – headquarters: US, market value: $67.4 billion. Mondelez International, Inc. is a world leading manufacturer and marketer for snack food and beverage products. The company’s products include beverages, biscuits, meals, chocolate, and gum and candy. Its brands include but not limited to Nabisco, Oreo, and LU biscuits; Cadbury, Cadbury Dairy Milk, Milka chocolates and Trident gum etc.
  7. Danone – headquarters: France, market value: $42 billion. Danone SA is a world major player in food processing industry. The company operates through the four major divisions: Fresh Dairy Products, Waters, Early life Nutrition, and Medical Nutrition. Its products range from dairy, aqua drinks, infant formula, to food with medical purposes.
  8. Diageo – headquarters: UK, market value: $71.2 billion. Diageo is a global leader in beverage alcohol with over 200 world famous brands, such as Johnnie Walker, Crown Royal, Smirnoff, Captain Morgan, Baileys, and Guinness. Every year, Diageo produces more than 6.5 billion litres of alcohol from more than 100 manufacturing sites in 30 countries.
  9. Archer Daniels Midland – headquarters: US, market value: $25.6 billion. Archer Daniels Midland Co. is a world’s leading food processor and food ingredient providers for oilseeds, corn, wheat, cocoa and other food & agricultural commodities and serves customers in more than 160 countries.
  10. Heineken – headquarters: Netherland, market value: $23 billion. Heineken is the world’s largest beer company with brands including Heineken, Amstel, Anchor, Biere Larue, Bintang, Birra Moretti, Cruzcampo, Desperados, Dos Equis, Foster’s, Newcastle Brown Ale, Ochota, Primus, Sagres, Sol, Star, Strongbow, Tecate, Tiger and Zywiec etc.

Look again at these 10 largest food and beverage companies in the world and what they sell, then ask yourself if they’re really in the business of “food”, let alone health.

2. Junk food makers spend billions advertising unhealthy foods to kids.

Back in 2012, the Federal Trade Commission noted that food makers spend some $1.6 billion annually to reach children through the traditional media as well the Internet, in-store advertising, and sweepstakes (2). An article published in 2006 in the Journal of Public Health Policy puts the number as high as $10 billion annually. It’s difficult to find figures for 2018, though it’s not a stretch to think they have skyrocketed since 2006. The bulk of these ads are for unhealthy products high in calories, sugar, fat, and sodium. Promotions often use cartoon characters or free giveaways to entice kids into the junk food fold. On TV alone, the average child sees about 5,500 food commercials a year (or about 15 per day) that advertise high-sugar breakfast cereals, fast food, soft drinks, candy, and snacks, according to the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Compare that to the fewer than 100 TV ads per year kids see for healthy foods like fruits, veggies, and bottled water.

Research has found strong associations between increases in advertising for non-nutritious foods and rates of childhood obesity (3). The World Health Organization has concluded that food marketing influences the types of foods that children prefer to eat, ask their parents for, and ultimately consume (4). However, only a scant handful of countries or regions have implemented advertising bans aimed at children or junk food advertising bans in general. Companies are left to “self-regulate” which is a license to do as they wish.

3. The studies that food producers support tend to minimize health concerns associated with their products.

The food industry goes to great lengths to fund studies that support their products and downplay or distract from the harmful impacts of them.

A sugar industry group called the Sugar Research Foundation – now the Sugar Association – paid for studies that underplayed the role that added sugars contribute to heart disease, according to NBC news in 2016. Concerns about sugar’s role in coronary heart disease arose in the 1950s. However, studies paid for by the lobbying group helped set the U.S. on a decades-long policy course that focused almost exclusively on fat as the main cause of heart disease, leaving out the considerable role that sugary foods play, the researchers said. This kind of practice still goes on today, experts said in a pair of papers published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Internal Medicine.

In fact, according to a review of hundreds of studies that looked at the health effects of milk, juice, and soda, the likelihood of conclusions favorable to the industry was several times higher among industry-sponsored research than studies that received no industry funding. “If a study is funded by the industry, it may be closer to advertising than science,” says lead researcher David Ludwig (5).

4. More processing means more profits, but typically makes food less healthy.

Minimally processed foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables obviously aren’t where food companies look for profits. The big bucks stem from turning government-subsidized commodity crops—mainly corn, wheat, and soybeans—into fast foods, snack foods, and beverages. High-profit products derived from these commodity crops are generally high in calories and low in nutritional value. Ultraprocessed foods, for example, lack fiber, micronutrients, and healthful plant substances called phytochemicals that protect against heart disease and diabetes (6).

Consider: A 10-ounce, 90-calorie portion of strawberries has 5 grams of fiber, abundant vitamins and minerals, and dozens of phytochemicals, while a 1-ounce portion of Fruit Gushers also has 90 calories, but virtually none of the fruit benefits (6). The food companies make their money off the cheaply made Fruit Gushers, not the strawberries. Guess what foods they’ll focus on selling and promoting then at the expense of your dietary needs?

5. Food industry pressure has mangled nutritional guidelines.

When it comes to health guideline formulation and regulation for public health versus Big Food, Big Food wins out every time. The wheat, sugar, dairy, and meat lobby (for starters) all put pressure on government officials to weaken or scrap regulations or guidelines they find inconvenient to their bottom line. You’ll find this repeatedly reported in books like Whole or Salt, Sugar, Fat. They also have their purses involved in associations like the American Heart Association and American Cancer Society. There’s also the revolving door of executives into government, advisory councils and “health” associations (11, 12).

As explained in the 2003 book Food Politics, the food industry has a history of preferring scientific jargon to straight talk when they can’t scuttle guidelines in the first place. As far back as 1977, public health officials attempted to include the advice “reduce consumption of meat” in an important report called Dietary Goals for the United States. The report’s authors capitulated to intense pushback from the cattle industry and used this less-direct and more ambiguous advice: “Choose meats, poultry, and fish, which will reduce saturated fat intake.” Overall, the government has a hard time suggesting that people eat less of anything (7).

6. The food industry funds front groups that fight antiobesity public health initiatives.

Unless you follow politics closely, you wouldn’t necessarily realize that a group with a name like the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) has anything to do with the food industry. In fact, this group has lobbied aggressively against obesity-related public health campaigns—such as the one directed at removing junk food from schools—and is funded, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, primarily through donations from big food companies such as Coca-Cola, Cargill, Tyson Foods, and Wendy’s (8).

There are tons of these sorts of entities working on behalf of Big Food.

7. The food industry works aggressively to discredit its critics.

According to the 2008 JAMA article, the Center for Consumer Freedom (which fights antiobesity initiatives) boasts that “[our strategy] is to shoot the messenger. We’ve got to attack [activists’] credibility as spokespersons” (9). This technique was also frequently used by the sugar lobby to discredit researchers who tried to publish on the harmful effects of sugar on health. Read The Case Against Sugar for a disturbing overview. Discrediting critics and spreading misinformation was a common tactic used by Big Tobacco to deflect the cancer and health concerns embattling its products.

The food industry watched and learned.

8. The food industry spends top dollar on lobbying and campaign contributions to buy our politicians.

The industry has been fighting Congress in recent years over nutritional requirements, labeling information and advertising. Fast food restaurants in particular have faced pressure due to their aggressive marketing aimed at children. In 2018 alone, the food and beverage industry spent $29,141,465 on lobbying. Interestingly, the industry has been a steady supporter of the GOP for the last two decades, regularly giving 70 percent or more of its contributions to Republicans. Democrats have never received more than 40 percent of the interest group’s contributions (10).

The top lobbying entities in 2018 were Coca-Cola (more than $6,7 million), PepsiCo Inc. (above 3,4 million) and the National Restaurant Association (over $2,6 million). These figures were higher during the 2016 presidential year, typical of election years when companies spend more on lobbying and campaign contributions.

Meanwhile, food and beverage companies are opening their purse strings to candidates through individual contributions, company contributions and PACs. The only restraints on their giving are campaign and lobbying finance laws which seem to weaken every year.

Screenshot_2019-08-16 Food Beverage
Open Secrets campaign contribution stats

Look for the food and beverage industry to turn on the taps as the 2020 election gets fully underway. Check out Open Secrets to see what candidates and politicians are currently favored for industry dollars.

Watching Your Wallet and Health

The global food and beverage industry is an $8 trillion business but its top 10 largest companies of hundreds are all processed food, junk food, sugary drink and alcoholic beverage producers who corner a chunk of the market. Given industry coffers and their willingness to use their money to lobby, donate to political campaigns and fund skewed research that favors their products, people like you and me need to be savvy to their ways in order to guard our health.

Not sure who to trust in this age of sound bites and health misinformation? Take a look at the cultures around the world who live the longest and in the best health. What are they eating? Here’s a hint: they’re not buying what the big food companies put on our shelves and convince us is food.

These long-lived cultures (known as blue zones) eat a whole foods based diet that revolves around real, unprocessed foods that include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and pulses, tubers, and nuts and seeds. Some are vegetarian and others are pescetarian or consume some amount of meat. All focus on fresh, unprocessed foods – not the heat and serve, boxed kits, fast food, junk food, processed snacks, refined carbohydrates, sugary drinks and beverages advertised to us day in day out and littering our grocery stores.

Join the health-conscious, industry skeptical crowd. The food industry will try to sell you its cheaply made, low nutrition food at every turn. Resist and reclaim your health and that of your family by being on guard to industry ploys. Your body and health will thank you.

Like this article? Share it so that others can learn these health secrets and start living their best lives now.

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