Common beliefs about the health benefits of many foods are founded on false claims by a rapacious industry says Grant Ennis.

In 2014 a hunter left out 40kg of chocolate and doughnuts to attract prey, only to later find four bears dead before he could shoot them. They were killed by chocolate poisoning.

Chocolate poisoning affects humans too – 50 grams of cocoa is enough for the sweating, trembling and severe headache to begin. But what about the purported health benefits of chocolate? We’ve been told for years that while milk chocolate isn’t good for us, dark chocolate has “well documented health benefits.” And what about red wine? Yoghurt? Fruit juice? All of these products have been hailed in the popular press as health-promoting.

Unhealthy food environments are behind at least 22% of all deaths globally.

Predominant thinking, and even the understanding of established experts, is that these products are good for us, or if not clearly good for us, that they can have some health benefits in moderation as “part of a healthy diet.” But according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, unhealthy food environments are behind at least 22% of all deaths globally.

While researching for my book: Dark PR: How Corporate Disinformation Undermines our Health and the Environment I explored industry assertions around nutrition, transportation, and pollution. Of these, the narratives around nutrition were the most shocking.

Industry’s denialism – where it rejects obvious indications when they are unprofitable – has many examples, some of which they have finally surrendered: smoking doesn’t cause cancer; fossil fuels don’t cause global warming; sugar doesn’t cause diabetes; and so on. This framing is well explored, but what I discovered in my research is that denialism is only the beginning when it comes to corporate disinformation.

The most dumbfounding spin, when it comes to nutrition, is post-denialism – where the industry declares that what’s bad isn’t just not-bad; it’s good.

Skipping past the health harms, chocolate-maker Mars has spent decades arguing that flavanols found in chocolate can lower blood pressure, improve overall cardiovascular health, and bring other benefits. According to Mars-funded research, if you eat 750mg of flavanols a day, you will see health benefits.

But to get that benefit you would need to eat, 85g of cocoa, 135g of dark chocolate, or over 1kg of milk chocolate every day for the rest of your life – nearly double the amount that would bring on chocolate poisoning. A conservative mind would also be wise to suspect that eating that much chocolate would lead to diabetes or other health complications long before you saw any benefit to your heart.

Big Fruit, Big Yogurt, and Big Wine are not markedly different from Big Chocolate either. Juice is regularly touted as health promoting but it is on a par with Coca-Cola when it comes to diabetes risk. Yogurt, which in its pure form may be harmless, is most commonly sold loaded with sugar and likely to take children down the path to ill health. Wine has been promoted as healthy by vintners for some time, a lie now well documented with the World Health Organisation which rightfully espouses the view that there is no safe lower limit for alcohol.

We are surrounded by information sources tainted by industry funding. The research, the health associations, the talking heads, and people that we trust make it hard to disentangle basic fact from fiction.

While the fossil fuel and tobacco industries have received the brunt of criticism when it comes to corporate disinformation, it’s important to remember that there is perhaps no human industry older than food and drink. Big Food can easily draw on, and amplify a lot of long-standing myths to portray its harmful products as good for us.

Frederic Stare’s supporters

The food industry has worked systematically to promote these narratives. In the 1960s it funded researchers such as Harvard’s Fredrick Stare to downplay the health effects of sugar – a trend of influencing academics that continues to this day. Industry also funds charities; the soda lobby financed 96 health organisations, including the American Diabetes Association. Diabetes UK took half a million pounds from the soft drinks industry as recently as 2018. Shockingly, the British Health Secretary is married to the managing director of British Sugar. We are surrounded by information sources tainted by industry funding. The research, the health associations, the talking heads, and people that we trust make it hard to disentangle basic fact from fiction.

Health group funding in the US

Perhaps the worst of it all is that the amplification of these industry lies leads to reduced support for public policies that would make us all much healthier and better off.

To fight back against industry disinformation about the food that we eat, we need to act collectively to build support for policies like banning  the marketing of harmful products to help denormalise them. We also need policies that reduce consumption and improve health, such as sugar taxes, healthy school zones and bans on subsidies for unhealthy foods. These changes are not pie in the sky; we are already seeing the results of civil society nutrition advocacy in places as diverse as Colombia, South Africa, Malaysia, and Ireland.

And there are others trying to achieve change. Food First Information and Action Network, Genetic Resources Action International and the Global Campaign to Reclaim Peoples’ Sovereignty, Dismantle Corporate Power and Stop Impunity, are working at a global level to counter the flow of disinformation provided by the global food giants and demand political action.

UK health group funding

So as we join these organisations, and organise to fight for meaningful public health policies, eat chocolate if you want, but know that you won’t live any longer for it.

Grant Ennis

Grant has spent his career working across Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. His roles have spanned supporting government-led public health efforts in India, researching sexual and gender …

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