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Who Pays for Innovation? Making Sense of Weird Science and Food Politics

‘Public health scientists and a government committee working on nutritional advice receive funding from the very companies whose products are widely held to be responsible for the obesity crisis, an investigation by The BMJ reveals today…’

A new investigation regarding the link between Big Food and the Scientists it supports has been revealed today. I’ve read the press release, but haven’t found the study. Thus far, I’m skeptical about all of it.

Obesity has been deemed the disease of the 21st century. The rise in obesity is directly linked with the spread of Metabolic Syndrome and non communicable illness (heart disease, diabetes, and a series of cancers).

Regardless of whether it defines the state of health in 21st century, obesity is certainly one of the most misunderstood health crisis of this decade. Yet, there is break neck speed with which we race to blame.

Recently, a group of Oxford based public health scientists have been accused of collaborating with food companies, and the assumption is that we have been led astray, again, by Big Food. The global rise in obesity falls squarely on the shoulders of lab techs, PhD students, and their sneaky mentors, posing behind a flimsy commitment to public health- while raiding Gucci with extended support (wink!) from Coca Cola.

While I hate to be in the position to defend Big Food, I find this suggestion problematic on so many levels, I was compelled to write about it here.

Given its complexity, I find the suggestion that food companies, alone, perpetuate the exponential rise obesity pretty simplistic. We can get fat eating French fries just as quickly was we can eating avocados. So: it is safe to say that overeating will lead to weight gain. It’s simply not true that food companies have caused obesity. Indeed, we may need a few regulatory parameters, but that idea is entirely distinct from the suggestion that Food Companies and Sneaky Scientists are, together, making us all fat.

Obesity is the net result of chronic overconsumption and under activity. Yet, overconsumption is the product of many endocrine, genetic, metabolic, psychological, and neurocognitive factors. Simply because overeating leads to weight gain, does not inherently mean that food companies are solely responsible for our growing appetites.

Food companies act agnostically. They promote a product. We chose their product based on properties we find appealing. For many people, Kale is not appealing.

The suggestion that scientists are scoffing money at the expense of public health is insulting as it is untrue. Just ask anyone doing a PhD in dietetics or post doc in Eating Behaviour. Or rather, please (no really, please?) tell me where and how to get bribed in order to complete a lab investigation of taste preference. Beyond keeping the lab light on, scientists need money to create innovative solutions. Making kale palatable would, in my mind, constitute as an ‘innovative move’, but probably requires pockets deeper than kale farmers have.

In an environment that promotes weight gain, we need as much collaborative effort as possible. I’d find it worrying, and perhaps a little weird, if my taxes went to scientific exploration of my food supply. For this reason alone, it is entirely appropriate that large companies, such as Coca Cola or Nestle, fund research. These companies have already stumbled upon the truth that high sugar high/fat foods promote overconsumption. The funds they contribute to academia are, more likely than not, geared towards food innovation and creating low calorie, highly palatable food. This is where real money is: innovating foods that help us stay slim. Not, as one might think, in creating new types of sugar. Innovation is not as easy as it sounds: it requires immense understanding of chemical and sensory properties of food. Studies to investigate this kind of product require money- and sometimes a lot of it. Again, this is where the food company, not the kale farmer, can step in.

Instead of finger wagging and conspriacy theory mongering, might we acknowledge that we don’t have the solution to the obesity problem? At least not yet. Blaming scientists and dragging talented professionals through the mud isn’t going to get us there any faster. The obesity crisis demonstrates how profoundly stressed we are as a species. We are eating ourselves sick. Yes, this is possible by virtue the explosion in availability of food. However, this is not anyone’s ‘fault’. Moreover, obesity is not the result of a cheap ploy amongst greedy food companies and equally sketchy scientists. To make this assumption is to do a great disservice to one of the biggest diseases we will face in the 21st century.

In order to make sense of obesity, we need to know more about eating motivation, stress, addiction, physiology, endocrinology, microbiology, genetics, epigenetics, and individual differences. The idea that obesity is ‘easy’, and is the result of food companies and scientists throwing around stats and pushing us towards eating too much cake, is a tacky anachronism. The scary reality is that obesity costs our global health care system $3 trillion dollars a year! Let’s focus on innovation, instead of distracting ourselves with conspiracy theory. This way, obesity may not have to be the disease that defines our time.