No Purveyor of Unhealthy Products Wants the Public to Know the Truth

In 2011, Denmark introduced the world’s first tax on saturated fat. “After only 15 months, however, the fat tax was abolished,” due to massive pressure from farming and food company interests. “Public health advocates are weak in tackling the issues of corporate power…A well-used approach for alcohol, tobacco, and, more recently, food-related corporate interests is to shift the focus away from health. This involves reframing a fat or soft drinks tax as an issue of consumer rights and a debate over the role of the state in ‘nannying’ or restricting people’s choices.” I discuss this in my video The Food Industry Wants the Public Confused About Nutrition.

“The ‘Nanny State’ is a term that is usually used in a pejorative way to discourage governments from introducing legislation or regulation that might undermine the power or actions of industry or individuals…Public health advocacy work is regularly undermined by the ‘Nanny State’ phrase.” But those complaining about the governmental manipulation of people’s choices hypocritically tend to be fine with corporations doing the same thing. One could argue that “public health is being undermined by the ‘Nanny Industry’…[that] uses fear of government regulation to maintain its own dominance, to maintain its profits and to do so at a significant financial and social cost to the community and to public health.”

The tobacco industry offers the classic example, touting “personal responsibility,” which has a certain philosophical appeal. As long as people understand the risks, they should be free to do whatever they want with their bodies. Now, some argue that risk-taking affects others, but if you have the right to put your own life at risk, shouldn’t you have the right to aggrieve your parents, widow your spouse, and orphan your children? Then, there’s the social cost argument. People’s bad decisions can cost the society as a whole, whose tax dollars may have to care for them. “The independent, individualist motorcyclist, helmetless and free on the open road, becomes the most dependent of individuals in the spinal injury ward.”

But, for the sake of argument, let’s forget these spillover effects, the so-called externalities. If someone understands the hazards, shouldn’t they be able to do whatever they want? Well, “first, it assumes individuals can access accurate and balanced information relevant to their decisions…but deliberate industry interference has often created situations where consumers have access only to incomplete and inaccurate information…For decades, tobacco companies successfully suppressed or undermined scientific evidence of smoking’s dangers and down played the public health concerns to which this information gave rise.” Don’t worry your little head, said the nanny companies. “Analyses of documents…have revealed decades of deception and manipulation by the tobacco industry, and confirmed deliberate targeting of…children.” Indeed, it has “marketed and sold [its] lethal products with zeal…and without regard for the human tragedy….”

“The tobacco industry’s deliberate strategy of challenging scientific evidence undermines smokers’ ability to understand the harms smoking poses” and, as such, undermines the whole concept that smoking is a fully informed choice. “Tobacco companies have denied smokers truthful information…yet held smokers [accountable] for incurring diseases that will cause half of them to die prematurely. In contexts such as these, government intervention is vital to protect consumers from predatory industries….”

Is the food industry any different? “The public is bombarded with information and it is hard to tell which is true, which is false and which is merely exaggerated. Foods are sold without clarity about the nutritional content or harmful effects.” Remember how the food industry spent a billion dollars making sure the easy-to-understand traffic-light labeling system on food, which you can see at 4:26 in my video, never saw the light of day and was replaced by indecipherable labeling? That’s ten times more money than the drug industry spends on lobbying in the United States. It’s in the food industry’s interest to have the public confused about nutrition.

How confused are we about nutrition? “Head Start teachers are responsible for providing nutrition education to over 1 million low-income children annually…” When 181 Head Start teachers were put to the test, only about 4 out of the 181 answered at least four of the five nutrition knowledge questions correctly. Most, for example, could not correctly answer the question, “What has the most calories: protein, carbohydrate, or fat?” Not a single teacher could answer all five nutrition questions correctly. While they valued nutrition education, 54 percent “agreed that it was hard to know which nutrition information to believe,” and the food industry wants to keep it that way. A quarter of the teachers did not consume any fruits or vegetables the previous day, though half did have french fries and soda, and a quarter consumed fried meat the day before. Not surprisingly, 55 percent of the teachers were not just overweight but obese.

When even the teachers are confused, something must be done. No purveyor of unhealthy products wants the public to know the truth. “An interesting example comes from the US ‘Fairness Doctrine’ and the tobacco advertising experience of the 1960s. Before tobacco advertising was banned from television in the US, a court ruling in 1967 required that tobacco companies funded one health ad about smoking for every four tobacco TV advertisements they placed. Rather than face this corrective advertising, the tobacco industry took their own advertising off television.” They knew they couldn’t compete with the truth. Just “the threat of corrective advertising even on a one-to-four basis was sufficient to make the tobacco companies withdraw their own advertising.” They needed to keep the public in the dark.

The trans fat story is an excellent example of this. For more on that, see my videos Controversy Over the Trans Fat Ban and Banning Trans Fat in Processed Foods but Not Animal Fat.

Isn’t the Fairness Doctrine example amazing? Just goes to show how powerful the truth can be. If you want to support my efforts to spread evidence-based nutrition, you can donate to our 501c3 nonprofit here. You may also want to support Balanced, an ally organization NutritionFacts.org helped launch to put this evidence into practice.


More tobacco industry parallels can be found in Big Food Using the Tobacco Industry Playbook, American Medical Association Complicity with Big Tobacco, and How Smoking in 1959 Is Like Eating in 2016.

Want to know more about that saturated fat tax idea? See Would Taxing Unhealthy Foods Improve Public Health?.

Also check:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

What About the Trans Fat in Animal Fat?

The years of healthy life lost due to our consumption of trans fats are comparable to the impact of conditions like meningitis, cervical cancer, and multiple sclerosis. But, if “food zealots” get their wish in banning added trans fats, what’s next? I explore this in my video Banning Trans Fat in Processed Foods but Not Animal Fat.

Vested corporate interests rally around these kinds of slippery slope arguments to distract from the fact that people are dying. New York Mayor Bloomberg was decried as a “meddling nanny” for his trans fat ban and attempt to cap soft drink sizes. How dare he try to manipulate consumer choice! But isn’t that what the food industry has done? “Soft drink portion sizes have grown dramatically, along with Americans’ waistlines.” In 1950, a 12-ounce soda was the king-sized option. Now, it’s the kiddie size. Similarly, with trans fats, it was the industry that limited our choice by putting trans fats into everything without even telling us. Who’s the nanny now?

New York City finally won its trans fat fight, preserving its status as a public health leader. “For example, it took decades to achieve a national prohibition of lead paint, despite unequivocal evidence of harm,” but New York City’s Board of Health led the way, banning it “18 years before federal action.”

There’s irony in the slippery slope argument: First, they’ll come for your fries; next, they’ll come for your burger. After the trans fat oil ban, one of the only remaining sources of trans fat is in the meat itself. “Trans fats naturally exist in small amounts in the fat in meat and milk,” as I’ve discussed before in my video Trans Fat in Meat and Dairy. Before the trans fat ban, animal products only provided about one fifth of America’s trans fat intake, but since the U.S. trans fat ban exempts animal products, they will soon take over as the leading source. As you can see at 2:09 in Banning Trans Fat in Processed Foods but Not Animal Fat, now that added trans fats are banned in Denmark, for example, the only real trans fat exposure left is from animal products found in the U.S. dairy, beef, chicken fat, turkey meat, lunch meat, and hot dogs, with trace amounts in vegetable oils due to the refining process.

The question is: Are animal trans fats as bad as processed food trans fats? As you can see at 2:38 in my video, a compilation of randomized interventional trials found that they both make bad cholesterol go up and they both make good cholesterol go down. So, both animal trans fats and processed food trans fats make the ratio of bad to good cholesterol go up—which is bad. Therefore, all trans fats cause negative effects “irrespective of their origin.” The researchers suspect that also removing natural trans fats from the diet could prevent tens of thousands of heart attacks, but unlike processed foods, you can’t remove trans fats from milk and meat because trans fats are there naturally.

The livestock industry suggests that a little bit of their trans fats might not be too bad, but you saw the same everything-in-moderation argument coming from the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils after industrial trans fats were first exposed as a threat. The bottom line is “that intake of all sources of trans fat should be minimized.” The trans fat in processed foods can be banned, and just adhering to the current dietary guidelines to restrict saturated fat intake, which is primarily found in meat and dairy, would automatically cut trans fat intake from animal fats.

The reason no progress may have been made on animal trans fat reduction in Denmark is because The Danish Nutrition Council that pushed for the trans fat ban was a joint initiative of The Danish Medical Association and The Danish Dairy Board. They recognized that “the economic support from The Danish Dairy Council could be perceived as problematic” from a scientific integrity point of view, but, not to worry—“The Danish Medical Association expanded the Executive Board and the funding members to also include the Danish pork industry, the Danish meat industry, The Poultry and Egg Council and The Danish Margarine Industry Association.”

If people want to eat trans fat, isn’t that their right? Yes, but only if they’re informed about the risks—yet The Food Industry Wants the Public Confused About Nutrition.

For more on the industry pushback, see my video Controversy Over the Trans Fat Ban.

There does not appear to be a safe level of exposure to trans fat—or to saturated fat or dietary cholesterol, for that matter. See Trans Fat, Saturated Fat, and Cholesterol: Tolerable Upper Intake of Zero.


If you find these videos about industry influence on public policy compelling, check out my many others, including:

Note that the concept of raising or lowering HDL (the so-called good cholesterol) playing a causal role in heart disease has come into question. See Coconut Oil and the Boost in HDL “Good” Cholesterol.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

The Food Industry’s “model of systemic dishonesty”

In 1993, the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study found that a high intake of trans fat may increase the risk of heart disease by 50 percent. That’s where the trans fat story started in Denmark, ending a decade later with a ban on added trans fats in 2003. It took another ten years before the United States even started considering a ban. All the while, trans fats were killing tens of thousands of Americans every year. With so many people dying, why did it take so long for the United States to even suggest taking action? I explore this in my video Controversy Over the Trans Fat Ban.

One can look at the fight over New York City’s trans fat ban for a microcosm of the national debate. Not surprisingly, opposition came from the food industry, complaining about “government intrusion” and “liken[ing] the city to a ‘nanny state.’” “Are trans fat bans…the road to food fascism?”

A ban on added trans fats might save 50,000 American lives every year, which could save the country tens of billions of dollars in healthcare costs, but not so fast! If people eating trans fat die early, think about how much we could save on Medicare and Social Security. Indeed, “smokers actually cost society less than nonsmokers, because smokers die earlier.” So, “we should be careful about making claims about the potential cost-savings of trans fat bans….more research is needed on the effects of these policies, including effects on the food industry.” Yes, we might save 50,000 lives a year, but we can’t forget to think about the “effects on the food industry”!

How about “education and product labeling” rather than “the extreme measure of banning trans fats”? As leading Danish cardiologist “puts it bluntly, ‘Instead of warning consumers about trans fats and telling them what they are, we’ve [the Danes] simply removed them.’” But we’re Americans! “As they say in North America: ‘You can put poison in food if you label it properly.’”

People who are informed and know the risks should be able to eat whatever they want, but that assumes they’re given all the facts, which doesn’t always happen “due to deception and manipulation by food producers and retailers.” And, not surprisingly, it’s the unhealthiest of foods that are most commonly promoted using deceptive marketing. It’s not that junk food companies are evil or want to make us sick. “The reason is one of simple economics”—processed foods simply “offer higher profit margins and are shelf-stable, unlike fresh foods such as fruit and vegetables.” The food industry’s “model of systemic dishonesty,” some argue, “justifies some minimal level of governmental intervention.”

But is there a slippery slope? “Today, trans fats; tomorrow, hot dogs.” Or, what about the reverse? What if the government makes us eat broccoli? This argument actually came up in the Supreme Court case over Obamacare. As Chief Justice Roberts said, Congress could start ordering everyone to buy vegetables, a concern Justice Ginsburg labeled “the broccoli horrible.” Hypothetically, Congress could compel the American public to go plant-based, however, no one can offer the “hypothetical and unreal possibility…of a vegetarian state” as a credible argument. “Judges and lawyers live on the slippery slope of analogies; they are not supposed to ski it to the bottom,” said one legal scholar.

If anything, what about the slippery slope of inaction? “Government initially defaulted to business interests in the case of tobacco and pursued weak and ineffective attempts at education” to try to counter all the tobacco industry lies. Remember what happened? “The unnecessary deaths could be counted in the millions. The U.S. can ill afford to repeat this mistake with diet.”

Once added trans fats are banned, the only major source in the American diet will be the natural trans fats found in animal fat. For more on this, see Banning Trans Fat in Processed Foods but Not Animal Fat and Trans Fat in Meat and Dairy.

Ideally how much trans fat should we eat a day? Zero, and the same goes for saturated fat and cholesterol. See Trans Fat, Saturated Fat, and Cholesterol: Tolerable Upper Intake of Zero, Good, Great, Bad, and Killer Fats, and Lipotoxicity: How Saturated Fat Raises Blood Sugar.


More on industry hysterics and manipulation in:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations: