August 31

Peter Jennings' report on obesity in America

11  comments

peter-jennings.jpg
I stumbled onto a great YouTube video of a 2004 report on obesity by the late ABC news anchor, Peter Jennings. In it Mr. Jennings blames the unholy alliance between government and the food industry for making us all fat.
There are many amazing things about this video, not the least of which is that both Michael Jacobson and Marion Nestle come off looking like they have good sense. Even Michael Jacobson, and that’s a real feat. Both give answers to Jennings’ questions that are reasonable and even sensible. Jacobson even goes so far as to say that exercise doesn’t bring about weight loss.
I think the video is pretty much on the mark with a few exceptions. Before we get to those exceptions, though, let me expound a little about what I think is going on with the food industry in terms of the obesity epidemic.
First, the givens. Companies in the food industry – like all companies in whatever category – are in the business of making money. The product that food companies sell is calories. The calories are in many different forms, but they are still calories. Raw calories are less profitable than processed calories. If I sell you an apple, some flour and sugar, and a bit of lard, I don’t make a lot of money. If I convert all these raw calories into apple pie, I make a lot more money. The ingredients for an apple pie cost maybe $2-$3, the whole apple pie costs $12.95 (I saw one for that price at Whole Foods a couple of days ago). So, the processing of those calories adds about ten bucks to their value. It takes pennies worth of corn to make a box of corn flakes that sells for $3 or $4.
Food companies need to satisfy their owners or shareholders by making a decent profit. If they don’t, investors put their money elsewhere, and the stocks decrease in value, meaning that the whole company decreases in value. The only way to prevent this decline in value is to keep earnings and profits up to at least competitive levels. And these earnings and profits have to grow.
How do they grow? They grow by increasing the sales of product, calories in this case, and/or by increasing the profit margins on the product sold, i.e., by processing it more.
The market for this product – calories – is determined by the population of the US (it’s really the world more or less, but let’s keep it simple), which is growing at a certain rate. If you take the number of people in the US and multiply that number times the number of calories each eats, you’ve defined the food market. This food market can grow by two ways: by increasing the number of people and by increasing how much each person eats.
In the 1950s, 60s and early 70s the population was growing like crazy with the baby boomer boom. The food industry could count on the increasing population to fill their coffers. Once the population growth began to stagnate, however they have had to resort to other strategies.
Food companies have basically only two ways to get a bigger market share and grow their own earnings: they can try to take market share from other food companies (which they all do with their advertising, marketing and pricing strategies) and they can try to get people to eat more calories (which they also do with their advertising, marketing and pricing strategies).
They can implement both of these strategies by coming up with highly processed foods that cram a lot of calories into tasty, inexpensive, cleverly packaged products. Which they have successfully done. And since most of these highly processed foods contain a lot of inexpensive carbs, the people who eat them suffer the consequences of obesity and type II diabetes among other problems.
In the Peter Jennings video some of this comes out, but not the part about the carbs. In one section of the video the food pyramid is manipulated to show what it would look like were it based on where government subsidies go. As shows like this do so often, they’ve manipulated the data to show things in the way they would like them to be seen. They show how the lion’s share of subsidy dollars go to what they call ‘sugars & fats,’ with the implication being that it is really fats that are being subsidized. What they don’t say is that huge amounts of these subsidy dollars for fats don’t go to what we typically think of as fats, i.e., meat, lard, etc., but go to corn oil, soybean oil and other vegetable oils, many of which – at that time, at least – were converted to trans fats and used in food processing.
As you watch this video, notice how virtually all the foods shown are monstrously high in carbs. Look at the aisles and aisles of high-carb foods in the grocery stores; look at the high-carb foods being served in the footage showing restaurant dining; look at all the corn and corn products. I think the implication is pretty clear as to what’s causing us all to be fat irrespective of what they say it is.
And, finally, watch at the very end where a solemn Peter Jennings looks directly into the camera and tells us how the food industry is today where the tobacco companies were 30 years ago. The government, he says, brought the tobacco companies to heel and publicized the dangers of smoking. And smoking rates have decreased because people have listened to Uncle Sam. The same action needs to be taken with Big Food today. Government intervention will do the trick, says he. And this from someone who was dying of smoking-induced lung cancer at the very time he piously spoke those very words. I imagine government intervention in the food industry will have about the same effect on many people as government education about the evils of tobacco had on Peter Jennings. In fact, it will probably be worse because the government will intervene in absolutely the wrong way.
Here’s the video. Enjoy.
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(Hat tip to: U.S. Food Policy)


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  1. Doc – have you ever read Food Politics by Marion Nestle? Your thoughts? Her book covered a lot of the isues discussed in this report. Side note – this video makes me miss Peter Jennings. I thought he was a great newsman.
    I have Food Politics and I’ve skipped around through it. I think she’s right on most of the politics and totally wrong on the appropriate diet.
    Cheers–
    MRE

  2. What a great find. I didn’t catch this when it aired years ago, but it is just as I thought and it doesn’t surprise me. Gee, and I miss Peter Jennings!
    I really wish the government would just stay out of it. They’ve made enough of a mess of things as it is.
    I miss him, too. He was definitely the best of the talking heads. And I wish the government would stay out of nutrition, but fat chance of that.
    Cheers–
    MRE

  3. Hi Dr Mike,
    I would just like to once again extend my thanks for the time and effort you put in to your blog. The new layout is great and I have spent many an enjoyable hour rooting through stuff in the archive reading both entries I had not read before and also re-reading many articles I had read when I first found this site. A sure sign of the quality of your posts!
    I feel that your post today about the food business, particularly the analogy with the tobacco industry, was spot on. Business is business is business. Business needs to make money. No profit, no business. I believe in free markets, but the invisible hand of Adam Smith can only genuinely guide us towards long term benefit if we are in a position to make informed choices.
    What gets up my nose is the marketing element where companies, be they in the business of food production/processing or drug manufacture, pretend that they are there to help us and are ‘serving’ us. Now don’t get me wrong, there are drugs/foodstuffs out there that are beneficial, but business, particularly big business oversteps the line when it herds us in to an intellectual cul-de-sac to simply milk us gently of our money on the back of sophistry and spin to protect their markets. And let’s be honest, protecting markets, particularly profitable ones, is EVERYTHING to a business.
    The development of an AIDS vaccine is a case in point. There are over 40 million people worldwide with AIDS – but over 60% are in sub-Saharan Africa. The net worth of the individuals in this demographic is low – and so as a market, (as Barbara Ryan – a pharmaceuticals-industry analyst for Deutsche Bank North America put it), “[is] not a commercially attractive”. Dr. Edmund Tramont (head of the AIDS research division of the National Institutes of Health), is also on record stating that big pharma are simply not interested in developing and AIDS vaccine due to its lack of profitability.
    The statins market (a subject close to your heart, I know!), is another case in point. Worth a cool $27 billion a year, with that kind of money on the table, the big pharma are going to go to any lengths to perpetuate the current status quo with regard to public perception of the ‘evils’ of saturated fat. I mean, if we all went low-carb, the statin makers would be out of business within a few years.
    It is odd that the food business tries to add ‘value’ (which, lets be honest, means ‘profit margin’), to food through processing. I mean what foodstuff is better for us after some form of processing? I would hazard a guess that we can get everything we need for optimal health from unprocessed food. The market for processed food exists because it delivers profits, NOT because it delivers health benefits. It is similarly the case with the statin manufacturers (it is interesting that the actions of the former is of direct benefit to the latter). Big Pharma needs us to be ill. Ideally it needs rich western countries to provide such a market. We in the West make ourselves ill through the consumption of refined carbohydrate and so provide that market. Once we are ill, all that is needed is a bit of misinformation and bad-science, and hey presto, $30billion a year!
    If more people realised that they could actually prevent many of the ‘Western diseases’ simply by changing their diets, how could big pharma make money? The answer is that they couldn’t – well certainly not the amounts they make now. Tackling diseases like AIDS that affect ALL countries means that the profit margin would be squeezed as economic and governmental forces would apply, forcing the availability of the drugs to poorer countries. Once the poor get in on your market, your margins will be down.
    Like Hansel and Gretel, the public are gorging themselves towards their own demise. Now Gretel was smart enough to determine the witch’s true intentions. Thankfully, both you and a few others out there are willing to stand up and challenge big pharma, and for that you have my utmost respect.
    I am willing to get that this is the first time ANYONE has compared you with someone from a Brother Grimm fairytale!
    Cheers,
    Chris
    Hi Chris–
    Thanks for the very kind words – I really do appreciate them more than you might imagine.
    And, yes, it is indeed the first time I’ve ever been compared to a character out of the Brothers Grimm.
    Best–
    Mike

  4. Minor disagreement: I think the government has a role to play. Smoking has gone down with the educational programs supported by the government (which I strongly support) and from the money from lawsuits (kind of support), and ‘social engineering’ in the huge taxes laid on smoking (I like the reduced smoking, concerned about being reliant upon sin taxes)
    Farm subsidies are fueling the calorie pushing. We need to stop it. The food pyramids have inadvertently (I hope) fueled the calorie consuming. Research and education into obesity are proper government functions.
    Hi Rob–
    I disagree. I don’t think the tobacco comparison is accurate. There is nothing good about tobacco from a health perspective, so it’s hard for the government to go wrong in condemning it. The food situation is different because, as it stands now, if the government started to intervene based on its misguided perception of what is healthful and what isn’t, we would see saturated fat being condemned and taxed while high-carb foods would be glorified and subsidized.
    Cheers–
    MRE

  5. He wants the government to bring the food industry to heel? How about beginning with stopping subsidies for high fructose corn syrup and refraining from being proponents of bad science?
    That would be a good start.
    Cheers–
    MRE

  6. Thought you’d get a kick out of this: A new website, wikiscanner.virgil.gr , lets you correlate Wikipedia edits with the IP addresses of the people/organizations that made them. And someone discovered that someone at General Mills has been editing Wikipedia to remove references to the detrimental health effects which highly-refined cereal grains can have. General Mills’ edit of 19 April 2006:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?diff=prev&oldid=49144740
    Hilarious and troubling all at the same time. Thanks for passing it along. It’s restored my faith a little in Wikipedia…sort of.
    Cheers–
    MRE

  7. Some things:
    1- Businesses can also make money by reducing costs and keeping the margin on the difference. In this case, since you have federal subsidies for corn and veg oils, it’s no wonder that many products contain HFCS and, until recently, trans fats (and now, things that aren’t transfats but are likely worse). If you eliminated the farm bill completely tomorrow (ignore the chaos this would create, and it would create quite a bit) and liberalized trade completely at the same time, you would see a pretty quick shift from HFCS to sugar, which most folks think wouldn’t be a bad thing (though it might not be the out and out solution), as well as some more subtle effects (lowered corn production, lowered soy production, and something like the demise of the monocultured farm, maybe). So, businesses make money, with consumers like this: 1- sell more stuff (without increasing unit costs), 2- cut costs on the stuff you sell, without reducing how much you sell, 3- charge more for the stuff you see, without reducing quantity. That’s oversimplified, but what isn’t.
    Poster Chris seems to have a problem with a free market economy. Having scientifically verified ad claims would be a huge drag on the efficiency of the market, increasing costs, which would ultimately have to be passed onto consumers. The short of it is, more regulation equals more cost, and someone has to eat that cost and it’s not gonna be Gen Mills, Nestle, or Unilever shareholders, I tell you what. The difference between a social tax on smoking and a regulated marketing environment is really, uhm, nonexistent, at least in terms on the effects an economist would expect to see. And if you think that fewer drugs being sold at a higher cost is a desirable outcome, you are thinking like a social worker, not like an economist, a libertarian, or anyone who can look at policy rationally, without a social goal attached. I know you, Dr. Mike, understand this implicitly.
    Last thing: if folks are so worked up about an AIDS vaccine for subSarharan Africa, maybe they should get their degrees and work on it out of the goodness of their hearts. Or they should found a privately owned drug development company with their vast private wealth. Either way. Requiring Pfizer to do it for a low return is like requiring General Mills to make low carb processed foods for a niche market (the 10-15% of people who watch carbs), and take a slimmer profit margin on it. It’s simply not based in reality.
    Hi Max–
    You wrote:

    “Having scientifically verified ad claims would be a huge drag on the efficiency of the market, increasing costs, which would ultimately have to be passed onto consumers.”

    Have you not heard of the FTC? Trying to get an ad past them without scientific substantiation is impossible. Plus, the staff at the FTC, none of whom are scientists, make the call on what is scientifically valid and what isn’t. I’ve known people who have gone through the FTC wringer – and it is a wringer – over things that no one would think would be a problem. It’s truly unbelievable. Some time I’ll post about it in detail. People think they live in what they think of as America until the FTC comes calling.
    Cheers–
    MRE

  8. Joel Salatin, in his newest book, has a lot to say about the regulation issues that Max brings up. More regulations aren’t much of a problem for the “big guys” because they a) hire expensive lawyers to keep the regulation authorities somewhat in line and b) they can spread the extra costs out over an enormous amount of units, but the same regulations (not scaled down in proportion at all, because we “have to have a level playing field”) are making it nearly impossible for small scale, local food/farm entrepreneurs to make a go of it.
    How true, how true.

  9. The link in Dr. Eades’ post is to a ten-minute clip that is an abridged version of the original report. Here’s the whole thing, in five parts (about 43 minutes, total):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXAZ_7JO7EA
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nEAJTgosdo0
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6ksPAEGLgk
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqcrQixAKJc
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SUQOjGq3wRE
    Thanks for the links. I didn’t realize there was more.
    Cheers–
    MRE

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