Capturing Nutrition

Corporate Capture of the American Diet

The rise of ultra-processed foods and chronic illness

Arman Smigielski

April 1, 2024

While the United States slowly emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been another deadly health crisis brewing. This crisis does not come from a virus fighting its way into our lungs, but rather comes from the food we put in our bodies. 

The American diet causes more deaths than smoking, and roughly half of heart disease deaths in the United States (approximately 900 a day) are caused by diets. Type 2 diabetes, which is also influenced by diet, has also been skyrocketing; with the number of diabetics more than tripling between 1990 and 2010. This disturbing trend continues to grow, as twenty five percent of young adults (individuals under 35) have developed prediabetes, including 20% of adolescents (individuals between 12 to 18 years old). 

Overall, very few Americans (roughly 1 in 8) are metabolically healthy, which means having the optimal level of blood glucose, triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, blood pressure, and waist circumference. Without these optimal levels, Americans are at a higher risk of a variety of diseases.

A supermarket display of various soft drinks including Sprite, Coca Cola, and Ginger Ale

Photo taken by Arman Smigielski of a wide variety of sugary drinks

Nicholas Freudenberg, Distinguished Professor of Community Health and Social Sciences at the City University of New York School of Public Health finds that food is the prevailing cause of these diseases. “There’s pretty clear evidence that unhealthy food is now the leading cause of premature deaths and preventable illness in the United States and increasingly around the world… in the last several years, unhealthy food has replaced tobacco as the leading cause of death.”

The rising rates of chronic illnesses, with more than 50% of Americans having at least one chronic condition, makes it seem implausible that Americans as a whole are suffering a lack of willpower. Rather, something larger is going on; our diets and lifestyles are changing, with “high-calorie, low nutrition foods” becoming more and more prevalent.

These diseases not only negatively impact Americans as a whole, but have disparate impacts along race and class in the United States notes Professor Freudenberg. “Diet related diseases are also a leading cause of the inequalities in health between whites and blacks, poor people and rich people.”

Instead of blaming individuals – an answer that’s both easy and tempting, as it relieves us from asking more difficult questions – for their diets, we need to zoom out and look at what drives individuals to make diet-related decisions. Recently, a significant literature has grown which shows “that excess eating is largely the result of automatic and uncontrollable responses to unappreciated environmental cues such as food accessibility and food advertisement.” Additionally, the guidance Americans receive from food organizations, such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), influences the decisions they make. 

Despite the rise in these conditions, the current narrative blames Americans for what they choose to eat and the effects of it. For example, in a 2015 study by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, 75% of respondents blamed a lack of willpower for obesity – placing the fault on the individual. 

Mr. Ruskin lays the blame at the hands of the corporate food industry, noting that these are “diseases that individuals suffer, but they are also diseases of corporate influence. The ultra processed food industry uses its influence to hook people on its products.”

As Gary Ruskin, Co-Founder and Executive Director of U.S. Right to Know, a public health investigative non-profit asks: “[I]s it just that a bunch of people individually decided to follow lifestyles that led to obesity? There are much, much more compelling answers.” 

Mr. Ruskin lays the blame at the hands of the corporate food industry, noting that these are “diseases that individuals suffer, but they are also diseases of corporate influence. The ultra processed food industry uses its influence to hook people on its products, and it’s also able to corrupt organizations like AND to legitimize and perpetuate its hold on our stomachs. And that’s the story you don’t see in the newspapers.”

The Growth of Addictive Ultra-Processed Foods and the Profit Motive

Profit-driven corporations are manufacturing and promoting ultra-processed food products that exploit our neurological pathways that humans have developed; while this drives corporate profits, it comes at a severe cost to our health.

A growing body of research has found ultra-processed foods, which are foods that are made from substances extracted from foods and contain many added ingredients, are hazardous for our health. And various studies looking at consumption of these foods have been associated to type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and general all-cause mortality

The term “ultra-processed” was invented by Professor Carlos A. Montiero, a nutrition professor at the University of Sao Paolo who, in the journal Public Health Nutrition published an article titled, Nutrition and Health. The Issue is Not Food, Nor Nutrients, so Much as Processing, divided foods into three separate groups.