Food for thought... and concern

Last week, dietitians marked the 10th anniversary of Israeli Nutrition Week with a conference in Tel Aviv.

A McDonald's Big Mac meal 370 (photo credit: McDonald's Israel)
A McDonald's Big Mac meal 370
(photo credit: McDonald's Israel)
Last week, dietitians marked the 10th anniversary of Israeli Nutrition Week with a conference in Tel Aviv. The event was co-organized by the Chicago-based Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics (formerly known as the American Dietetic Association), the American Overseas Dietetic Association and Israel’s Preventive Nutrition-United Forces, a private organization. There were dozens of lectures, workshops and informative panels as well as opportunities for professionals to meet and exchange clinical experiences.
The annual event should be a cause for much celebration. However, the organizers’ choice to accept financial backing from commercial groups such as McDonald’s and Tivol calls into question the motivation and goals of the co-organizers.
It would be hard to overstate just how cynical companies like McDonald’s and Tivol are being in sponsoring a conference ostensibly dedicated to promoting healthy eating behaviors, or how cynical conference organizers are for accepting the sponsorship.
THE WHO has declared obesity to be an international epidemic. According to the Center for Disease Control, in 2009 obese adults comprised 35.7 percent of the adult population and children about 17 percent. According to the Knesset committee for research report in 2009, over 10% of Israeli children and more than 30% of adults were overweight.
The contributions of fast food to the obesity trend in both children and adults are well-documented. Fast foods are typically rich in empty calories, fats and sodium, and they lack vitamins A and C as well as milk, fruits and vegetables. A review of fast food consumption studies from the Harvard School of Public Health warns “sufficient evidence exists for public health recommendations to limit fast food consumption.”
Processed foods are not natural foods. They generally contain astronomic amounts of salt. An estimated 75% of the salt we consume derives from processed foods. There is hard evidence that too much salt is not healthy. For instance, studies looking at the effect of salt intake on blood pressure overwhelmingly show that blood pressure rises as salt intake increases.
Another difficult point is the economic realities of fast food, at least in Israel. Whereas the fast food model in Western society is to provide cheap, filling meals, here in Israel fast food is notoriously expensive. In a country where the average monthly salary is NIS 8,500, a McDonald’s dinner for a family of five will cost somewhere between NIS 150-200.
TO BE sure, there is nothing new about corporate entities sponsoring conferences in the medical field. The economic realities of hosting a major conference push organizers to accept corporate funding, not only in the field of nutrition. There is undoubtedly a conflict of interest for food or pharmaceutical companies to sponsor medical conferences.
But the current issue is fundamentally different. Simply put, fast food companies actively promote eating behaviors and foods that responsible dieticians counsel against.
Many colleagues argue that dieticians should work with the food industry to further our goals of making processed and fast foods more nutritious. Their arguments are not convincing. Like other industries, food companies are motivated by market demand. Wal-mart, the largest retail store in the United States, carries milk without growth hormone due to consumer demand, not because they took advice from dieticians or doctors.
In Israel, the Beigel-Beigel company has invested heavily in an attempt to produce healthier pretzels – but market research has shown that the public is not satisfied with the innovation.
It’s quite possible that dieticians would achieve far more working outside the food industry.
Indeed, economic realities can force professional organizations to make less-than-professional decisions when it comes to sponsorships. This need could be eliminated by sufficient government support as well as paring down expenses by, for example, using more modest venues, which would be preferable to me and many of my colleagues.
But whereas the Israeli Dietician Association has distanced itself from the conference in recent years, the ministry has continued to tacitly approve of the conference by attending. Echoing my professional colleagues, the head of the Health Ministry’s Nutrition Department, Dr. Ziva Stahl, told me the “ministry works with fast food chains to improve the nutrition of their meals.”
But there is a qualitative difference between “working with fast food chains” and sitting down at a conference sponsored partly by them. The latter sends a signal to industry professionals and to the public at large that fast food is already acceptable. That, in turn, could lower the level of confidence dieticians have in the ministry.
PERHAPS THE most serious element in this travesty is the near universal yawn delivered by health journalists in Israel and abroad, including at this newspaper. Over the past three weeks, during the run-up to the conference, I approached health journalists in the US and in Israel in an attempt to expose these irregularities. Only one newspaper ran a piece about the controversy, some three weeks ago. Is it not the role of any self-respecting media to expose and to report on inappropriate behavior in the public sphere?
Conferences that provide a forum for health professionals to improve the care they provide are an excellent feature of that landscape, but it is unfortunate for those sessions to be compromised by a link with the sources for some of the most unhealthy behaviors in our society.
Several mechanisms to assist the public in moving towards a healthier lifestyle are already in place. The Health Ministry’s initiative of working with food establishments as well as the government’s Health 2020 Project both promise to foster healthier lifestyle.
The Choices International Foundation system, introduced in Israel last year, needs to be reemphasized to the public. The foundation grants the healthy choices stamp to products that meet the criteria for sugar, sodium, trans fat, saturated fat and fiber content. If consumers purchase more products with the CIF stamp, this will likely result in positive feedback to the food manufacturers to revamp more products to meet the CIF standards.
The Israel Consumer Council, a government agency, enforces food-related regulations and provides nutrition information on its website. The assistant spokeswoman for the council is not aware of any school initiative in which school children are taught to search for information on this site. Heightened public awareness and use of this website is essential and would presumably effect upgrading the quality of the site.
Top-notch PR for these organizations must continue to be implemented in schools and in the media. In addition to promoting improved lifestyle, this may also help to obviate the perceived need for in-house dietitians in the food manufacturing industry.

The writer is a licensed dietician, nutrition coach and co-innovator of ACHLA ACHILA workshops.