How food and beverage companies are shaping public conversation on obesity
As seen in the quotes above, the food and beverage has a lot to say about obesity and diet-related diseases — and public health measures to prevent them. In their new paper for the American Journal of Public Health, "'We're Part of the Solution': Evolution of the Food and Beverage Industry's Framing of Obesity Concerns Between 2000-2012," authors Laura Nixon, Pamela Mejia, Andrew Cheyne, and Lori Dorfman of the Berkeley Media Studies Group (BMSG), along with Cara Wilking and Richard Daynard of the Public Health Advocacy Institute, analyzed news statements made by food and beverage industry spokespeople to find out how the industry is shaping public conversation on nutrition-related diseases.
The team studied statements from trade associations, individual companies, and food-industry funded non-profit groups to see what messages appeared, who said what, and how food industry messaging tactics have shifted over time.
In this Q&A, lead author Laura Nixon of BMSG offers insights on some of the paper's key findings and discusses the team's approach to studying the news from a public health angle.
Why study the news from a public health perspective? What can public health advocates learn from monitoring the media?
The news media play a crucial role in setting the agenda for public policy debates, including the debate about how to prevent nutrition-related health problems like obesity and diabetes. Examining how the food industry is talking about the issue in the news gives us a window into how they are attempting to shape public perception of the issue.
In this paper, you analyzed statements from food and beverage industry stakeholders on obesity and diet-related disease. What were some of the main findings? Did anything surprise you?
We were surprised to find such an emphasis on the idea that the food industry was already taking care of the problem. We saw lots of statements like "the beverage industry is doing its part to help," or "[we're] engaged in innovative programs that encourage a healthy lifestyle." In light of our previous research on tobacco industry rhetoric in the news, we expected to see more arguments about consumers' personal responsibility to not eat unhealthy food, or the idea that people should know that junk food is unhealthy.
How did messages vary across stakeholders?
We found that spokespeople for individual food and beverage companies almost never directly criticized proposed public health policies. Instead, they made statements like ones above and pointed to their voluntary self-regulatory programs, with the implication that the food industry was addressing the problem, and there was no need for government action. On the other hand, trade associations and nonprofits funded by the food industry were much more open in their criticism of proposed government policies. This may be a strategy to protect companies' reputations and brands, so that individual companies are not tied in the public's mind to opposition to public health measures. What steps can advocates take to help denormalize industry tactics and hold stakeholders accountable for their role in health? One possible strategy is to highlight specific actions by individual companies that are harmful, such as irresponsible marketing campaigns, or disingenuous corporate social responsibility initiatives. Pointing out specific companies keeps them from being able to shield their reputations behind neutral industry associations. In addition, it's important for advocates to be familiar with the research that's been done on the food industry's self-regulatory programs, so that they can talk about the limitations of that approach. Advocates can also encourage journalists to investigate food industry spokespeople's claims about their voluntary programs, rather than taking them at face value.
How can this study inform future research?
I think it would be fascinating to see how the public debate about nutrition-related diseases changes as the policy landscape shifts over time, particularly with the success of sugary drink taxes like the one here in Berkeley, Calif. In addition, food and beverage companies are certainly not the only industry that has been called to respond to public concerns about the health consequences of their products. This research could provide a jumping off point to examine how other types of industries have used the media to respond to public health issues, and, unfortunately, to oppose public health initiatives.