Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘transfats’

No Sweeteners

One of the best things about being an academic is the stuff that people send you in the – usually entirely correct – belief that you’ll find it interesting. I’ve had emails about pink slime (for the blog) and on programmes about children’s literature (for my research). Recently, my friend Elizabeth, who’s a lawyer, forwarded me this from Legalbrief:

New draft baby feeding regulations will forbid formula manufacturers from ‘aggressively marketing’ their products to mothers and from sponsoring meals and professional development courses for healthcare practitioners, says a Weekend Argus report. It adds the standards set in the draft regulations, which the Department of Health has released for public comment, intend to promote safe nutrition for babies and young children and restrict inappropriate marketing practices. The department stressed that the regulations would not stop baby formula and complementary foods from being sold at retailers. ‘Although breastfeeding is best, government recognises that some women cannot breast-feed or decide not to breast-feed. These regulations do not in any way compel women to breast-feed against their will,’ the department is reported to have stated.

The proposed regulations, which fall under Section 15 (1) of the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, 1972, make for fascinating reading. Other than banning trans fats and artificial sweeteners in baby formula, their emphasis is on curtailing the advertising and promotion of artificial foods.

For instance, the packaging of baby formula may not have pictures of infants, young children, or any other ‘humanised figures,’ except for those included in instructions for preparing the product. Tins and containers may not ‘contain any information or make any negative claim relating to the nutritional content or other properties of human milk’, and they’re not allowed to include toys or gifts. Packaging must include in English, in bold letters at least 3mm tall, the message: ‘Breast milk is the best food for babies.’

The regulations will also radically limit the advertising of baby formula shops, in print and online, ban the distribution of gift packs and free samples, and prevent formula manufacturers from sponsoring or donating equipment bearing the logo of their products. These manufacturers may not

provide research grants or any other financial assistance relating to infant or young child nutrition to health care personnel working in a health establishment or health care personnel linked to a health establishment.

Nor may they give doctors, nurses, and health workers gifts, and ‘heads of health establishments, national, provincial and local health authorities shall take measures to promote, support and protect breastfeeding.’

It’s an ambitious piece of legislation, but one which is entirely in line with the World Health Organisation’s International Code on the Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes. The Code was adapted in 1981, and places stringent regulations on how baby formula is advertised: it advises that baby milk formula should not be allowed to market products directly to pregnant women and mothers with young children, including handing out samples. Products should also state that breast milk is superior to formula.

Implementation of the Code has been slow, and there is evidence to suggest that it has been particularly poorly policed in developing nations where oversight of the activities of powerful multinationals is often lax. The South African regulations are far stricter than the Code, particularly as regards the relationship between the pharmaceuticals industry and academic research, but address a problem which campaigners have long identified: that there is a link between the way in which formula is advertised and how women feed their babies.

This isn’t to suggest that women should have their choices about how they feed their babies curtailed – or that it’s only advertising which causes women to choose to use baby formula. Far from it. The problem, though, is that, particularly in poor nations, advertising or other promotional methods encourage breastfeeding mothers to switch to baby formula when it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to afford to buy more formula, and where they may dilute formula with too much water to make it go further. This water may not be clean, and it’s difficult to keep bottles and teats sterile without electricity or plumbing.

The purpose of these regulations is to ensure that formula manufacturers don’t use the often less than ideal conditions in which mothers in developing nations raise their babies, to their own advantage.

We tend to associate the WHO’s Code with the Nestle Boycott, which was launched in 1977. The Boycott was based on a pamphlet published by War on Want in 1974, titled ‘The Baby Killer’ and, in Switzerland, ‘Nestle Kills Babies’. The charity alleged that Nestle’s advertising strategies were responsible for high rates of child mortality. After a legal tussle as well as an attempt to refute the Boycott’s allegations, Nestle agreed to implement the Code in 1984, although there remains some scepticism as to Nestle’s, and other companies’, commitment to this.

But concern about the advertising of baby formula predated the 1970s, and even the 1940s, when breastfeeding began to decline globally. As I’ve sat in the National Library over the past few months, reading Child Welfare and other child health magazines from the first half of the twentieth century, I’ve been struck by the number of advertisements for baby formula. They all feature fat, healthy babies and testimonials from relieved mothers who claim that the child was fed from birth on Lactogen or whichever other patent food.

Even Truby King, early twentieth-century breastfeeding evangelical and founder of the global mothercraft movement, developed artificial baby food which was produced in New Zealand and then shipped all over the world. Kariol, Karilac, and Karil were meant to be prescribed for babies who were not, for whatever reason, breastfed either as a supplement to cows’ milk, or to be taken on their own.

Although King’s patent foods seemed to contradict his enthusiasm for breastfeeding – and he came under enormous criticism in New Zealand and Australia for his promotion of Kariol and Karilac – there was a certain logic to his decision to manufacture wholesome baby formula. During the early decades of the twentieth century, doctors in Britain and the United States noticed that bottle-fed babies were considerably more likely to die during early infancy than those who were breastfed. Artificial foods – which ranged from thin porridges and condensed milk to baby formulas – were often nutritionally inadequate, particularly in poor families who could not afford better and more expensive substitutes.

But they also identified a link between bottle feeding and diarrhoea, then, as now, one of the main causes of death in infancy. William J. Howarth, the Medical Officer of Health for Derby

arranged in 1900 to receive weekly lists of the births registered during the past seven days from the local registrar. From November of that year until November 1093 women inspectors enquired into the feeding method of each registered child by personally visiting the mother and infant at home.

The results of the study, published in 1905, were telling. Of the infants surveyed, 63% were breastfeed, 17% were partly bottle-fed, and 19% entirely bottle-fed:

The mortality rates from ‘diarrhoea and epidemic enteritis’ in addition to those from ‘gastritis and gastro-enteritis’ were as expected: 52, or 10 per 1,000 of the breastfed, 36 or 25.1 per 1,000 of the mixed-fed, and 94 or 57.9 per 1,000 of the bottle-fed babies died. In other words the mortality rate of the bottle-fed infants was nearly six times greater than that of the breast-fed babies.

Howarth concluded: ‘In not one single instance does the death-rate in any class of disease among hand-fed children even approximate that recorded among children who are breastfed; the rate is invariably higher.’

The problem, in terms of the link between bottle feeding and diarrhoea, was not so much the nutritional content of artificial foods, but the difficulties in keeping them free from contamination, and particularly during summer when infant mortality rates soared.

Indeed, South African advertisements for Lactogen emphasised that the product did not spoil in warm weather. As criticism of artificial foods grew louder, so advertising became more subtle, and better adept at appealing to mothers aware of the potential problems of bottle feeding. Doctors were, though, also aware of the effects of advertising on mothers’ choices, as a medical officer based in Johannesburg wrote in 1925:

No one can deny the fact that the proprietary foods of today are a vast improvement upon those of twenty years ago. They all contain very sound instructions as to the preparation of the food and the amount to be given. The advertising of such foods is carried out on a most extensive scale and in a clever and attractive manner. No hoarding today is without a picture of a flabby and over-fat infant alleged to have been reared solely on the proprietary food advertised thereon. Many a mother who for one reason or another, is not satisfied with the progress of her baby, sees this advertisement, and immediately rushes off to secure this particular food for non-thriving infant.

But not only mothers were influenced by this advertising. He admitted that it was ‘only too true that many medical men and trained nurses are also gulled by such advertisements and circulars’. Dr Cicely Williams, best known for her identification of the condition kwashiorkor in the 1930s, worked in the Colonial Medical Service in West Africa and southeast Asia before World War II and became particularly interested in the treatment of the diseases of early infancy.

She was critical of the introduction of baby formula to Singapore and Malaya, where white-coated sales reps distributed samples of artificial foods to poor mothers. In 1939 she published a pamphlet, ‘Milk and Murder,’ in which she pointed out the benefits to both mothers and babies of breastfeeding.

Nevertheless, Nestle and other companies were still using the same strategies to convince mothers in developing nations to use baby formula in the 1970s, and there are still concerns that they are not fully compliant with the Code on breast milk substitutes. The new South African regulations, if passed, are aimed at remedying this.

The cause for these new regulations and other measures introduced internationally to encourage mothers to breastfeed for the first six months of life, is a concern that rates of breastfeeding remain low in comparison to what they were during the early twentieth century. For all the good that the Code and other laws have done, it remains the exception, rather than the rule, for women to breastfeed for such an extended period of time.

However true it may be that advertising does have an impact on women’s choices, it’s certainly not the only factor which influences how women feed their babies. What’s missing from these measures is any attempt to communicate with mothers themselves. As doctors in the early twentieth century believed that mothers, whom they characterised as emotional and irrational, simply followed any and all advice which they read or heard, so campaigners and governments today seem to be too quick to seek only one reason for women’s decision to breast- or bottle-feed.

In fact, we need to make it easier for women to choose to breastfeed: to eliminate the ridiculous prejudice against breastfeeding in public spaces; for work and childcare not to be mutually exclusive; and for sympathetic advice and information to be made available for all new mothers.

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

Linda Bryder, A Voice for Mothers: The Plunket Society and Infant Welfare, 1907-2000 (Auckland: University of Auckland Press, 2003).

Deborah Dwork, War is Good for Babies and Other Young Children: A History of the Infant and Child Welfare Movement in England, 1898-1918 (London and New York: Tavistock Publications, 1987).

Philippa Mein Smith, Mothers and King Baby: Infant Survival and Welfare in an Imperial World: Australia, 1880-1950 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997).

Other sources:

Rima D. Apple, Mothers and Medicine: A Social History of Infant Feeding (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987).

Linda M. Blum, At the Brast: Ideologies of Breastfeeding and Motherhood in the Contemporary United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999).

Marulyn Yalom, A History of the Breast (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997).
Creative Commons License
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Margarine Myths

So this week’s blog post was going to be about food and fiction – having had drinks and supper at Pablo Neruda-themed Maremoto last night, it seemed appropriate – but along with the post on authenticity which I promised yonks ago, it will have to wait while I simmer with annoyance at the World Food Programme’s decision to solve the world’s food problems by working with Unilever.

Yes, you read that correctly. The World Food Programme is working with Unilever to alleviate the hunger crisis.

Unilever. The Anglo-Dutch food, margarine, and cosmetics giant which also happens to be the biggest consumer goods company in the world. Is this really a good idea?

I have nothing whatsoever against corporate social responsibility. In fact, I wish that more countries encouraged the private sector to become involved in philanthropic work. With their efficient logistical support and understanding of the market, there are few organisations better positioned to help poor communities that those which provide services or produce consumer products.

And as big corporations go, Unilever ranks pretty high up the sustainability stakes. Last year it launched its Sustainable Living Plan which aims not only to reduce Unilever’s greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and water use, but that of its suppliers and customers as well. It’s an ambitious plan which seeks to make the whole supply chain sustainable – while doubling Unilever’s profits. The company is also funding a range of projects, including encouraging the sustainable production of palm oil (although who knows if it’ll be able to roll back the incredible damage it did by investing in palm oil in the first place), and sponsoring hygiene programmes in the developing world to reduce the numbers of children who die as a result of diarrhoea.  I really hope that they succeed, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that we need to consume less for social and ecological good.

I think that my concern about the WFP’s enthusiasm for Unilever is connected to the fact that this business makes a profit by selling food which isn’t particularly good for its customers. However much Unilever might like to promote its fluffy credentials – and buying Ben and Jerry’s, the business which gave away scoops of Yes Pecan! ice cream on the day of Obama’s inauguration, was certainly part of this – its purpose is to make as much money as possible for its shareholders. The question we need to ask is how it goes about raising those profits.

For all of Unilever’s good intentions, it has a patchy track record on the quality of the food it produces. Consider the ingredients in a jar of Skippy peanut butter:

Roasted peanuts, corn syrup solids, sugar, soy protein, salt, hydrogenated vegetable oils (cottonseed, soybean, and rapeseed) to prevent separation, mono- and diglycerides, minerals (magnesium oxide, zinc oxide, ferric orthophosphate, copper sulfate), vitamins (niacinamide, pyridoxine hydrochloride, folic acid)

In comparison, the sugar- and salt-free version of South Africa’s Black Cat peanut butter (also the product of a big food company), contains peanuts and ‘stabiliser’. There are other brands of mass-produced peanut butter which contain only peanuts and oil.

I know that this might seem like nitpicking, but the point is that Unilever doesn’t sell ‘whole’, unprocessed food to make a profit: like any other big food company, it adds strange and occasionally harmful ingredients to its products to make them taste better or last longer, and it hides this fact with a vast advertising budget. In 2009, for example, it spent £148 million on advertising in the UK alone. In the same year, in Canada it promoted Hellman’s mayonnaise as part of an ‘eat localdrive. Two years before that, a US-based campaign around ‘real food’ suggested that Hellman’s could be included in a diet of ‘real’, ‘whole’ food. Hellman’s is neither ‘local’, nor ‘real’. Its low-fat version contains the following:

Water, modified corn starch, soybean oil, vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, egg whites, salt, sugar, xantham gum, lemon and lime peel fibres, colours added, lactic acid, (sodium benzoate, calcium disodium edta) used to protect quality, phosphoric acid, natural flavours

The bulk of Unilever’s profits come from margarine, which it promotes heavily on the grounds of its health benefits – something which still divides the medical world. This is a business which chooses its ethics carefully.

Consider its involvement in the Public Health Commission, a body created in 2008 by the UK’s then-shadow Minister of Health, Andrew Lansley (greedy):

In the chair of the commission, by invitation of Lansley, was Dave Lewis, UK and Ireland chairman of Unilever, one of the largest processors of industrial fats in the world.

With him were Lucy Neville-Rolfe, corporate affairs director of Tesco, , the supermarket that has been a leading opponent of the traffic light food labelling scheme favoured by the Food Standards Agency, and Lady Buscombe, Conservative peer and former head of the Advertising Association, where she established herself as a formidable political champion of the ad industry’s right to operate free of restrictions.

Asda’s corporate affairs director, Paul Kelly, formerly PR head of Compass, the school meals company of turkey twizzler fame, had to send his apologies. Mark Leverton, policy director of Diageo, manufacturer of leading vodka, whisky and beer brands, joined them by phone.

Lansley – who has links with the food industry – is now Minister of Health and, surprise, surprise, had invited this dubious collection of businesses, alongside McDonald’s, KFC, PepsiCo, and Mars, to help shape Britain’s public health policies around obesity and diet-related diseases. This is as pointless as asking BP, Shell, and Chevron to end the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.

One of the first outcomes of this public-private partnership was the Department of Health’s ‘Great Swapathon’ which encourages families in England to choose healthy products through a voucher scheme. The vouchers

can be exchanged for products deemed to be healthy, including Unilever’s Flora Light margarine, Mars’ Uncle Ben’s rice and Molson’s alcohol free lagers. Other businesses offering vouchers will include supermarket Asda, for its own brand goods; sportswear firm JJB Sports; outdoor activity provider Haven Holidays; Weight Watchers; and private gym group the Fitness Industry Association. The News of the World will help promote the scheme.

The list of companies includes food manufacturers whose products have been blamed for increasing obesity. Unilever’s product range includes ice creams, Pot Noodle and Peperami, while Mars makes chocolate and Molson is a brewer.

‘The News of the World will help promote the scheme.’ Priceless.

This is so misguided it’s almost amusing. A scheme to promote healthy eating actually benefits a clutch of big food companies whose products facilitate Britain’s obesity crisis.

The WFP is engaged in a similar project. It also works in partnership with PepsiCo, manufacturer of crisps, soft drinks, and a range of non-foods; Cargill, whose inhumane and unhygienic slaughterhouse practises contributed to an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella in some of its meat in the US; Yum! Brands, whose chains include KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell; and Vodafone, a company’s whose outstanding £6 billion tax bill in 2010 could have paid the UK’s welfare bill for a year.

The WFP was established in 1961 to eliminate hunger and malnutrition. Its focus is on providing food aid, but aims ultimately to reform the food system to the extent that food aid will become largely unnecessary. While the WFP has been invaluable in bringing emergency supplies of food to disaster areas, it has singularly failed to do anything else. We are in the midst of a global food crisis where food aid is needed more than ever before.

One could argue that this is precisely the reason why it’s necessary for the WFP to work with big organisations: they have money and resources. The WFP can only respond to the crisis with adequate funding and assistance. But even given the fact that the WFP is desperately in need of funds at the moment, there is no great imperative for it to work with Unilever, PepsiCo, Vodafone or any other dodgy multinational – and I think that these partnerships only serve to undermine the WFP’s aims. (And it’s worth taking a closer link at the WFP’s finances, as this excellent investigation into the WFP by Sheila Dillon of the BBC’s Food Programme does.)

Famine and malnutrition are caused by a range of factors and, paradoxically, a lack of food isn’t one of them. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen wrote, people starve or go hungry when they can’t buy food: when food becomes too expensive for them to afford it, or when distribution systems fail or are inadequate. There’s usually enough food to go around, but people have difficulty accessing it.

One of the best, and most poignant, examples of this was the 1992 famine in Somalia which occurred in Bay, one of the country’s most agriculturally productive regions. People starved because militias prevented food from being cultivated and distributed efficiently. It’s no coincidence that famines occur in countries with dysfunctional – or no – governments. The Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s began after the collapse of its government – the country had managed to feed itself before then.

Democracies tend to have food systems which function properly. Instead of focussing on raising money and sending food parcels, promoting democracy and drawing attention to the connection between bad governance and hunger should be at the top of the WFP’s agenda.

Getting big food and agriculture companies to sponsor the WFP’s work will not bring democracy to the developing world, nor will it end the food crisis. These are organisations have little or no interest in promoting good governance if it’s bad for business.

And, secondly, some of these organisations have actually benefitted from the food crisis. Cargill is the world’s biggest agricultural commodities trader, and it’s been doing rather well recently, as the Financial Times reported in January:

Cargill benefited from supply disruptions in the global food chain and rising prices to report a tripling in profits in the second quarter of its fiscal year.

The world’s largest agricultural commodities trader said net income in the three months to November 30 rose to $1.49bn, up from $489m in the same period a year earlier.

First-half earnings more than doubled to $2.37bn, up from $1.01bn in the six months to the end of November 2010.

The windfall highlights the big margins in the sector led by Cargill, which rose to prominence in the 2007-08 food crisis, when agricultural commodities prices hit all-time highs.

Chris Johnson, credit analyst at Standard & Poor’s in New York, said that droughts in some of the key grain-producing regions and the ensuing trade dislocations were behind the strong results.

‘To the extent that you’re able to provide grains in parts of the world where they cost more you can get a larger profit margin,’ he said.

Food prices have been driven up by food speculation. Cargill is both a hedge fund and a commodities trader, so it not only benefits from higher food prices – but is partly responsible for causing them to rise too.

The title of this post comes from an essay by Roland Barthes from his collection Mythologies (1957). In ‘Operation Margarine’ he argues that advertisers use a kind of reverse psychology to persuade us to buy things we know aren’t all that good for us: the advertisement acknowledges that the product, margarine in the example Barthes provides, isn’t as tasty or healthy as its rivals, but then turns this on its head by emphasising its convenience and cheapness. Margarine then becomes the obvious product to buy.

The WFP is attempting some margarine-mythmaking in insisting that its work can only be achieved in partnership with these big multinationals: yes, they’re bad, but – hey, what can you do? They have money and power and people are hungry. Nonsense. The WFP is inadvertently giving the best PR possible to a clutch of businesses which, at best, have very little interest in producing good, healthy food. At worst, the WFP is trying to solve world hunger in partnership with organisations which have a vested interest in keeping the world hungry.

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

Peter T. Leeson, ‘Better off stateless: Somalia before and after government collapse,’ Journal of Comparative Economics, vol. 35 (2007), pp. 689-710.

Ken Menkhaus, ‘The Crisis in Somalia: Tragedy in Five Acts,’ African Affairs, vol. 106/204 (2007), pp. 357-390.

Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, revised ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

Amartya Sen, ‘The Food Problem: Theory and Policy,’ Third World Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 3 (Jul., 1982), pp. 447-459.

Other sources:

A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen (eds.), The Political Economy of Hunger, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

Cormac Ó Gráda, Black ’47 and Beyond: the Great Irish Famine in History, Economy and Memory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

Cormac Ó Gráda, Famine: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘Making Famine History,’ Journal of Economic Literature, vol. 45, no. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 5-38.

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘Revisiting the Bengal Famine of 1943-4,’ History Ireland, vol. 18, no. 4, The Elephant and Partition: Ireland and India (July/August 2010), pp. 36-39.

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘The Ripple that Drowns? Twentieth-Century Famines in China and India as Economic History,’ Economic History Review, vol. 61, (2008), pp. 5-37.

Amartya Sen, ‘Famines as Failures of Exchange Entitlements,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 11, no. 31/33, Special Number: Population and Poverty (Aug., 1976), pp. 1273-1280.

Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).

C.P. Melville, ‘The Persian Famine of 1870-72: Prices and Politics,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 133-150.

Anne M. Thompson, ‘Somalia: Food Aid in a Long-Term Emergency,’ Food Policy (Aug. 1983), pp. 209-219.

C. Paul Vincent, The Politics of Hunger: The Allied Blockade of Germany, 1915-1919 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985).

Christian Webersik, ‘Mogadishu: An Economy without a State,’ Third World Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 8 (2006), pp. 1463-1480.

S.G. Wheatcroft, ‘Famine and Food Consumption Records in Early Soviet History, 1917-25,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 151-174.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.