How The Food Industry Deceives Us

Sometimes the question comes from those with clipboards standing outside of a grocery store. Sometimes from folks in suits knocking on our front door. Sometimes in phone calls from strange numbers that befuddle our caller ID, or pop-up ads in our Internet browser, or envelopes disguised to look as though they contain checks. And the question's always the same: "Can I have just one minute of your time?"

At this point, we've been conditioned to react negatively to that question. Ninety-nine times out of 100, we know that the speaker has an ulterior motive that will certainly take more than 60 seconds worth of time. So we either ignore them or offer an excuse. We've learned how to avoid those kinds of marketing techniques. But Big Food has some tricks up their sleeves that we're only now realizing exist.

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Mother Jones has a compelling piece about the California Dietician Association conference in Pomona. This conference takes place once a year, and attendance is one of the ways dietitians can gather enough educational credits to keep their certification for another year. Which is to say, a lot of them have to attend this to keep their job. And Big Food knows this:

McDonald's, the conference's featured sponsor, was the sole provider of lunch. [...] Cheerful reps at the Hershey's booth passed out miniature cartons of chocolate and strawberry milk. Butter Buds offered packets of fake butter crystals. The California Beef Council guy gave me a pamphlet on how to lose weight by eating steak. Amy's Naturals had microwave brownies. The night before, Sizzler, California Pizza Kitchen, Boston Market, and other chain restaurants had hosted a free evening buffet for conference-goers: "Local Restaurant Samplings for Your Pleasure."

In other words, corporate food entities invade the annual conference to get their brand out front-and-center to the dietitians, hoping to trick them into believing their food isn't all that bad for you. That way, they'll be more apt to recommend -- subconsciously or not -- McDonald's, or Hershey's, or Sizzler as not all that bad.

To say the least, it's a conflict of interest. But it's just the latest in Big Food's long line of tricks.

We already know food corporations direct their ads at children, often with the help of sports heroes to make the manipulation that much easier. And we already know food labels are battlefields where corporations try to constantly downplay the health hazards of their products. (The murky nature of serving size is a perfect example of this.) And because of all this, every consumer is encouraged to do their own research before making their purchases.

But perhaps what we don't know is how difficult it may be to perform this research accurately. Because another way Big Food is by trying to game the system is through the spread of misinformation.

Do a Google search for "Is High Fructose Corn Syrup Bad For You?" and the first result that pops up is for a website called SweetSurprise.com. The little yellow square next to the listing informs the searcher this is a paid advertisement and not an actual Google result, but the clear intention is to trick the searcher into clicking on the link. The website's stated goal is to "clear up the confusion" around HFCS by relaying information about how it's perfectly healthy. Oh, it should also be pointed out that the organization that created the website is The Corn Refiners Association, a trade organization that reps the corn refining industry in the U.S., people that have a compelling reason to make sure consumers aren't scared of corn syrup.

That's just one example. Google "Are GMO's Healthy?" and the first result that pops up is, again, a paid advertisement masquerading as a Google result, this one for the website GMOAnswers.com, which explains GMOs are fine and everyone should eat them. The people behind this website? The Council for Biotechnology Information, an industry trade group that includes GM organizations like DuPont and Monsanto. In other words, people that want to make a whole lot of money off GMOs.

Meanwhile, Google searches for questions about the health impact of cigarettes or whether or not climate change is bad don't have disguised advertisements as the first result. Which raises the question: Why do the owners of the search engine feel it's appropriate to take money from Big Food in their attempts to deceive consumers? Even more to the point, why does Big Food feel the need to deceive us at all?

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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