Big Phood: Ten Characteristics it Shares with Big Banks & Big Pharma

Last year I wrote about what banks and pharmaceutical companies have in common. Here’s the list:

  1.     They want to own us - cradle to grave
  2.     They don’t care about our physical, mental, or financial health
  3.     They indoctrinate us early in life through “education”
  4.     They're disgustingly profitable
  5.     They have the government and the law on their side
  6.     They're consolidating at an alarming pace
  7.     Most of their products and services are “me-too”, limited-value products
  8.     Their success depends on secrecy
  9.     They spend more on marketing & sales than on any other activity
  10.     They won’t offer a cure.

Looking back, my mistake is clear: it should have been a triad: Big Banks, Big Pharma and Big Phood.

Phood manufacturers—manufacturers of food-like substances— and retailers exhibit the same psychopathic traits and behaviours. I won’t rehash all the points made for Big Banks and Big Pharma but it’s time to speak about Big Phood in much the same way, given that groceries are a significant part of anyone’s monthly food bill (and if it isn’t, you may be sacrificing tomorrow to save today).

Here’s why phood manufacturer characteristics resemble those of big banks and big pharma:

1. Want to Own Us

Do you come from a Pepsi or Coke family? Manufacturers know that brand loyalty is developed at an early age. Once it’s set, we don’t often make a change unless we’re forced to reconsider. That’s why Saturday morning commercials and in-app advertising for kids and tweens/teenagers are about cool phoods they need to have and eat to be cool kids. Breakfast cereal manufacturers are big believers in marketing to kids and that's why they're a great example. 

Their presence on the breakfast table is nearly ubiquitous— having replaced porridge/oatmeal, eggs, bacon and toast/potatoes—despite being only a few generations old. The difference? You can’t make your own and raw ingredients can’t message to you as effectively as flashy packaging can. Even most farming families have made the switch, thanks to the anti-fat and anti-cholesterol messaging spewed by government and the medical community over the last few decades. And, now that we’re on the go, they’ve even pressed these into convenient bars. Bars, pellets, no difference.

2. Don’t Care About Our Health

Any food, or food-like substance, that carries a label will easily convince you of that. Looking at the ingredients can quickly convince anyone that profitability is more important than offering quality nutrition. Fake flavouring and man-made ingredients are cheaper and have a longer shelf life than the natural alternative. Our bodies are increasingly ingesting substances they don’t know how to deal with effectively because the more processed a food is, the less our bodies are able to deal with it as nature intended: slowly and effectively.

Not many people realize just how pervasive sugar is in the food supply. It’s now found in about 75 percent of the foods we eat.
— Damon Gameau, creator of "That Sugar Film" and "That Sugar Book"

Manufacturers also study how to make phoods as addictive as possible, carefully mixing in the right amount of sugar, salt and fat to keep us coming back for more. They also tinker with flavour mixtures to achieve the combination of taste and texture that makes a phood irrisistible and a craving for it a virtual guarantee. 

Real food has met its ultimate super vilain but doesn’t seem to have any of the superpowers needed to defend itself. Seen any apple or blackberry commercials lately? (No, not the smartphones…)

Over time, our bodies become increasingly broken: insomnia/lethargy, mood swings, bathroom troubles, weight gain, gas and bloating, swelling, cavities, frequent infections, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, joint pain and such. We keep eating the same phoods and start looking for additional products to address our health issues: fibre supplements, additional oral care products, laxatives, antacids, pre and probiotics, fortified this and fortified that, junk food disguised as health foods, new and improved versions of our favourites, etc. 

3. Indoctrinate Through Education

National food guides are the biggest sham ever. Yes, they tells us about fruits and vegetables, grains and meats/dairy, but they put processed foods up there with the real stuff. There’s no differentiation between processed and unprocessed. As far as the guide is concerned, phood is food. The only caution? Limit the amount of fat you add to your meals and avoid added sugar and salt. The focus is still on the nutrition label as opposed to the ingredient list.

Unlike our approach, which is heavily influenced by food producers and manufacturers, Brazil’s food guide is the only guide I’m aware of that emphasizes the consumption of unprocessed foods. Their food categories? 

  • Naturally or minimally processed foods (real food)
  • Oils, fats, salt and sugar
  • Processed foods (anything cooked/baked, fermented/aged/cured)
  • Ultra-processed phoods (usually the stuff you see on TV)

“Education” also happens at the school breakfast and lunch. Tomato sauce on a pizza is considered a vegetable? French fries too? Oh, and flavoured milk is a good dairy choice? Wow.

Finally, we’re taught to be reductive in our thinking about food:

  • A calorie is a calorie - quality doesn’t matter
  • Calories in, calories out - we need to move more to lose weight
  • Nutrients can be added to make a phood healthier (fiber, vitamins and minerals, anti-oxidants, omega 3-6-9 fats, etc.)
  • Nutrients can be removed to make a food “better” for us (low fat/fat-reduced, low sodium, sugar-free, trans-fat free)—turning perfectly good food into frankenphoods

If we give our heads a shake and really think about it, there’s no reason to eat foods that don’t come in their natural state. We’re just taught to think there’s something “better”.

4. Are Disgustingly Profitable

Why do manufacturers push cereal/chips/crackers/cakes and the liquid sugar we call soda and fruit drinks? They have a long shelf life (remember the Twinkie in Wall-E?) and they’re disgustingly profitable because the raw materials used to make them (water, wheat/corn, fat and sugar) are the cheapest and most plentiful ingredients on the planet. And, with the proper additives, you can make them taste like just about anything. (And those additives are essential—ever eaten a spoonful of sugar, salt, fat or flour on its own? Revolting!)

5. Have Government and the Law on Their Side

Very simply, we subsidize high-fructose corn syrup in this country, but not carrots. While the surgeon general is raising alarms over the epidemic of obesity, the president is signing farm bills designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing, guaranteeing that the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest.
— Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

The food guides of major food-producing countries reflect the lobbying power of Big Phood, as does the allocation of government funds. In the U.S., the majority of food subsidies go to corn and soybean growers, the main ingredients included in most processed phoods and in the production of most animal feed. The result? More emphasis on grains, meat and dairy than necessary. What do fruits and vegetables get? Nothing but PSAs, and those represent only a percentage or two of what Big Phood spends on its products.

A recent example is the US-based GMO labelling controversy. In the U.S., Big Phood spent $101 USD on this issue alone in 2015.

HOT OFF THE PRESS: March17, 2016, the U.S. senate defeats the DARK Act. There may be hope yet!

Real food has no voice unless government decides that threats to its peoples’ quality of life necessitate intervention. Real food is relegated to the position of loss leader, a product that grocery stores stock because they need to to pull through other phood sales, not because it makes them money, and the result is the creation of real food deserts (map of US food deserts). Add to that the fact that people are increasingly too busy:

  • working longer hours to make ends meet/get ahead/buy the stuff they want,
  • commuting and/or
  • spending hours in front of screens, too tired to do much else.

Who is going to learn to cook and make/grow their own food in this new reality? We simply don’t seem to value it anymore. The return on investment just doesn’t seem high enough to make any effort toward food self-sufficiency. The quick fix seems so much easier. We’re complicit because we’ve been taught that good food has no social value, so why bother. 

6. Continue to Consolidate

When four global companies known as “ABCD” own 73% of the global grain trade (privately-held Cargill is the largest), no one can argue that this represents significant lobbying power. It makes sense when the base commodities they produce, buy and sell can be stored, some almost indefinitely, much like money can. These companies also own a large share of meat and dairy production, much of which is vertically integrated from land to supermarket, including all necessary inputs.

7. Offer Me-Too Products  

Water, grains (wheat/corn), fat and sugar are the main ingredients in most of the boxed and bottled foods we consume. That means that over 90% of a grocery store’s 30,000+ products doesn’t represent variety at all. It’s the carefully crafted illusion of variety because that’s what the manufacturers and the retailers want you to buy. The profit margins on these products are much greater, the phood has a shelf life measured in years—if not decades (that best before date is just for show) and these perfect concoctions have our lizard brains coming back for more. How else can we explain why a manufacturer would create 37 flavours of Doritos? They want you to eat more of what makes them the most money!

8. Value Secrecy

We don’t know just how big the biggest players are in the phood industry, and that’s by design. Sure, we know the big phood brands, but what we don’t appreciate is the high level of consolidation within the phood industry. Giants are owned by giants and they’d rather you not know that most of the food-like stuff in your cart is supporting the same few entities. 

9. Market & Sell Aggressively

It’s rare to see an ad campaign or fancy packaging for real food. At most, unprocessed fruits and vegetables get a small sticker and maybe a name brand. The profit margins associated with them just doesn’t justify an honourable mention, unless it’s thanks to a public service announcement. 

Anything that’s advertised makes a lot of money. That’s because the advertisement is cost efficient: a small increase in high-margin products makes the manufacturers and retailers a lot of money. Essentially, the more a product is advertised, the less value it really offers, especially when it comes to phood. You’re paying for them to advertise to you to repeat the cycle. And they hope that if you do it often enough, you won’t even need any advertising to entice you to keep buying. It’ll just be a habit and a very profitable one, for them at least. 

10. Offer No Cure

Phood manufacturers and retailers don’t want to get you off your processed phoods  of choice. If anything, they want you to use more of them more often. Your needs and theirs are not aligned. All the proof you need is what products you see at the ends of the aisles and at the cash register. They’re in the business of driving and catering to our cravings. Nourishment is the least of their concerns. They want to keep us perpetually hungry for their products and real food is just bad for business.

How Can You Measure Big Phood’s Influence?

Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
— Michael Pollan

Want to know just how much phood you buy (at least at the grocery store)? Look at your grocery bill. As real food isn’t taxed in most countries, the lower your percentage of tax on your food groceries, the more real, unprocessed food you’ve purchased. Not only will you be eating well but you might experience other benefits too:

  • Less money spent on Big Pharma because you’ll be getting healthier
  • A lower percentage of your food bill going to sales tax
  • Lower overall spend on phood, thanks to fewer cravings and impulse purchases
  • Weight loss because eating real food usually results in a sexier version of you
  • More for your money—unprocessed food is usually low margin, thanks to a lack of investment in advertising

Any thoughts on Big Phood?

Image credit/copyright: Suat Eman/

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