Opinion: Don’t tout ultra-processed food to kids

My son brought home a bookmark from school promoting the school’s spring book fair — and it doubled as a coupon to a fast-food restaurant. This isn’t the first “free kid’s meal” coupon my son has gotten. It’s a pretty common thing, and after the book I just read, it annoys me.

“Ultra-Processed People: The Science Behind Food That Isn’t Food” by Chris van Tulleken dives into our food system in a way that exposes the real damage of the ultra-processed food found at fast-food restaurants and on our grocery store shelves. Of course, children are most susceptible to the marketing that surrounds it, and they have the most to lose.

We all know that fast-food restaurants are not part of a healthy diet. Parents would not tolerate bookmarks coming home from school advertising tobacco products to children. So why do we tolerate bookmarks that advertise fast-food chains?

Thanks to chemical-laden manufactured food, according to the science Tulleken presents, we’ve created a mismatch between taste and nutrition that confuses our bodies. When your mouth perceives a certain flavor, your body reacts by preparing to receive the nutrition that should accompany it. This is why artificial sweeteners can still cause a spike in insulin. When the nutrition doesn’t arrive as expected, your body is still hungry, which prompts you to eat more. This mismatch is one of the many things that contributes to obesity.

The fact is that food manufacturers are not in the business of providing nutritious food. They are in the business of creating a market to sell as much of a product as possible at the expense of public health. What’s worse is that corporations know that if they can hook children on their brand, they’ll likely have a customer for life.

Food manufacturers have even infiltrated the very entities charged with establishing nutrition guidelines for the public. Tulleken writes that the “Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which trains dietitians and helps to shape national food policy, has extensive relationships with the food industry.” Not only have they accepted millions of dollars from companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle and Hershey, but they also have more than $1 million of stocks in some of these same companies.

That’s a huge conflict of interest. The organizations responsible for policy should not accept money from or invest in the food manufacturers they are tasked with scrutinizing.

Marketing ultra-processed food to children reminds me of the Laysan albatross. These seabirds die because they mistake our ocean’s plastic pollution for food. With their bellies full of plastic, they starve to death, malnourished. This is what I think of when I think of the ultra-processed foods in school cafeterias across the country and fast-food marketing sent home as bookmarks and kids’ meal rewards.

We are feeding ourselves hyperflavored empty calories that fill our bellies but do not nourish our bodies. If a company’s purpose is to market a product in a way that only serves to make the corporation more money, then it’s probably not in your best interest to eat it. It also should not be marketed to our children.

— Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a columnist with Creators Syndicate.


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