Public health lawyer Michele Simon explains why we should be skeptical of food marketing claims, and shares how we can help build a movement for policy change.
How does marketing influence what we eat?
Michele Simon: It’s quite simple. Food companies convince us to buy unhealthy foods with very sophisticated marketing plans that target specific populations, including youth. Companies want to get children hooked on their brands early so that they will win over life-long customers. The industry says we advocates have no “proof” that food marketing influences people’s eating habits, but if marketing didn’t work, why would food companies spend billions of dollars a year doing it?
What’s the connection between childhood obesity and food marketing?
Michele Simon: The research shows that children’s food choices are strongly impacted by the ads they see. Just think of how many young children beg their parents to go to fast food restaurants as a result of ads they see. Poor diet increases the risk of chronic illness, which we are seeing early signs of in children. It’s really not obesity per se that’s the problem; rather, it’s health problems like heart disease and diabetes.
What marketing claims should people be skeptical about?
Michele Simon: Just about all of them! Food companies are very clever about their marketing claims. Anything you see on the front of a food package should be viewed with skepticism because it’s all about getting you to buy the product. The only unbiased information is on the Nutrition Facts label on the back. It’s like that old saying: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
What’s your vision of a healthy food system?
Michele Simon: We need to get beyond thinking about food as just a personal choice and realize that most people simply do not have access to truly health food. In most neighborhoods in America today, people have almost no choice in where to buy food, or healthy food is too expensive. That’s what so many people are fighting to change: to level the playing field so that making healthy food choices is easier and cheaper. My vision is to make truly healthy eating affordable for all.
What does the food movement mean to you?
Michele Simon: It means getting people to become more political: to put down their educational brochures or their gardening tools or their cookbooks, and call their congressperson about how we need more funding to improve school meals and a whole lot more. I am convinced that if everyone who was now working in their local communities organized for larger policy changes, we could make a difference on a national level. I would like to see that happen.
About Michele Simon
Michele Simon is a public health lawyer who has been researching and writing about the food industry and food politics since 1996. She specializes in legal strategies to counter corporate tactics that harm the public’s health. She is the author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back. Also an expert in alcohol policy, for 4.5 years she served as research and policy director for Marin Institute (now Alcohol Justice), an alcohol industry watchdog group. Her groundbreaking 2007 report on alcoholic energy drinks led to federal action to ban the dangerous products. She blogs at www.appetiteforprofit.com.More: Advertising, Changing the Menu, Food and Health, Food Culture, Food Justice, Food Marketing, Food Policy, Industrial Food, Junk Food, Michele Simon, Taking a Stand