The relationship between processed food, the government: keeping Americans unhealthy


Bethlehem is disproportionately affected by health issues compared to the state of Pennsylvania and the United States as a whole. 

According to the Bethlehem Health Bureau’s Health Needs Assessment, Bethlehem’s rates sit above county, state and national rates for deaths caused by heart disease, cancer, non-transport accidents, stroke and diabetes.

According to the assessment, Bethlehem has a higher prevalence of diabetes and asthma than the county, state and national averages, and only 11% of survey participants ate five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day. 

Business professor Phillip Coles, who has studied agricultural sciences, supply chain management and applied economics, said there is an insufficient demand for companies to sell healthy foods profitably, so they will only sell what consumers demand.

“There is a real thing (where) you can’t get good food in certain places,” Coles said. “It’s not because companies don’t want to sell it. It’s because people don’t want to buy it. Companies will sell whatever you want to buy.”

Coles said he believes the consumption of unhealthy food in the United States specifically targeting children should be regulated, just as it is in Mexico. Mexico prohibits TV advertising of unhealthy food to audiences made up of more than 35% children from 2:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays and from 7:00 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on weekends. Coles said this is intended to prevent companies from influencing them. 

Rochelle Frounfelker, professor of community and population health, said she wouldn’t be surprised if research showed the reason people unwillingly gravitate toward processed food is because of the industry and government’s mutually beneficial relationship.

“Processed food companies (influence politics and policy) on a regular basis — they always have an interest in influencing policy,” said Eduardo Gómez, director of the Institute for Health Policy and Politics.

Gómez is the author of “Junk Food Politics: How Beverage and Fast Food Industries Are Reshaping Emerging Economies,” which discusses how processed food companies have major control over economic policy. 

He said he wrote the book based on research he conducted on obesity. He wanted to explore how obesity is increasing globally despite a simultaneous increase in awareness of health issues associated with processed food consumption. 

“I started to investigate what kind of policies were being implemented (to solve the obesity problem), and I came to realize that policies on regulating advertising sales are not being implemented,” Gómez said. 

He said processed food entered the market and replaced healthier options that had been readily available, as a result of the processed food industry’s influence on governments. The industry obtained and maintains control through lobbying, congressional members and funding interest groups.

The food industry makes such an effort to have influence because they want to increase sales. Gómez said if regulations were passed, their sales would decrease.

Coles said a corporation like Walmart stays in business because customers continue to return to the company, and the same idea applies to processed food companies.

Gómez said the government hesitates to pass regulation on these companies despite knowing about the harmful effects because it is benefitting from it: working with processed food companies creates jobs within the government. 

Gómez and Frounfelker agree that while creating jobs is a good thing, there are better ways the government can go about it. 

According to the National Library of Medicine, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rejected their own expert panel’s advice to limit consumption of sugary beverages and processed meats despite overwhelming evidence of their harm to public health. 

Gómez believes with time the government will begin to pass regulations on these companies because people will become more knowledgeable about the harmful effects processed food can have on their bodies, causing the demand for those products to decrease. 

“The more knowledge you can provide to consumers, the more information about the potential harms of the foods, the less demand there will be,” Gómez said. “The less demand, the less influence the food industry will have.”

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