This is a guest post from my husband, Jason Leake, and is part of his new interview series for the blog. To learn more about Jason check out our team page or his post entitled “Real Food From a Man’s Perspective.”
Most of us have heard at one time or another about how the food industry is the devil. But is it really? Or are all these kale-loving real food bloggers (like us) just overreacting? Today I am talking with Bruce Bradley, a former Big Food exec turned food advocate, blogger, and author, to find out the real deal. To my knowledge, Bruce is the only former Big Food marketer actively speaking out about concerns over the food we eat, and he has just published a novel called Fat Profits which exposes the industry.
Interview with Bruce Bradley
Q: What was it like working as a marketer for Big Food companies like General Mills, Pillsbury, and Nabisco? How did the industry and your feelings about your job change during those 15 years?
A: I started working as a processed food marketer in the early 1990s. The industry was very different then. Obesity rates weren’t making headlines. Walmart wasn’t selling groceries. And it was before the food industry went through a massive wave of consolidation that has whittled down the control of our food supply into the hands of a very small group of HUGE companies.
In the beginning I didn’t have any qualms about Big Food. My first couple assignments were on LifeSavers Candy and launching IceBreakers gum. Then when I moved on to work at Pillsbury I ran their cake and frosting business. None of these brands were advertising health benefits, and I figured I was marketing occasional indulgence, which didn’t seem evil.
Fast forward ten years and red flags were popping up. Obesity rates were climbing, and I saw more and more products making questionable health claims. I wasn’t enjoying my job anymore, and I wondered what sort of example and legacy I was leaving for my son. The final kicker happened when my dad became very ill. It was then that I decided to leave Big Food, help take care of my father, and follow my passions and dreams.
Q: What do you think every parent should know about Big Food?
A: The most important thing to remember is that Big Food companies are run for profit, and not the long-term health of consumers. Let’s face it, Big Food first and foremost answers to Wall Street, and in most cases the concepts of good nutrition and food safety fall by the wayside.
We also need to realize that Big Food is smart, stealthy, and wants to create an emotional relationship with us. After all, food is powerfully linked to our feelings, friendships, and family traditions. Big Food companies use this to their advantage. My guess is that many of the moms and dads reading 100 Days of Real Food are already clued in to this. They realize that something is very wrong. Unfortunately, the vast majority of parents think everything is fine. They trust Big Food and haven’t discovered a lot of information is being hidden from them. That’s got to change, and that’s one of the reasons I’m speaking out.
Q: How does Big Food decide what products to produce and how to formulate them?
A: Well, they’re experts at this game. Big Food spends billions of dollars examining food trends, understanding consumers’ needs, and then building products and marketing campaigns that appeal to consumers.
Some real food lovers may wonder, “If that’s true, why don’t we see more products coming out of Big Food that we like?” Although organic and minimally processed foods are definitely growing strong, they still represent a small niche for these huge, multinational food companies. Also, the profit margins are typically much smaller.
So what ends up happening? Big Food crafts highly processed look-a-likes that appear to be good for you but really aren’t. By focusing on a hero ingredient like “whole grains,” pressing the limits of current regulations, and lobbying for loopholes or lax food regulations, we find ourselves on a slippery slope where a lot of products your average consumer considers healthy are in reality highly processed junk.
Q: I can only imagine what goes on during marketing brainstorming sessions, but you’ve been there. What are some of the more deceptive examples of marketing campaigns Big Food has conceived to sell us more processed food?
A: You’re right, most marketing campaigns are incredibly misleading. Here are two that deserve a special place in the Hall of Shame:
- Kid’s Cereal: Take refined GMO corn, lots of GMO sugar, and add a fun, playful tiger and what do you have? Probably one of the worst cereals out there for your kids. But despite being a nutritional disaster zone, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes markets itself to kids using little league sports, catchy slogans like “Show Your Stripes,” and aspirational phrases like “fuels you up for the game.” With Tony the Tiger acting as “coach” and leveraging the insight that kids desperately want to excel in sports, Frosted Flakes manipulates young minds into believing a highly processed breakfast cereal can make you perform better on the field. I’m sorry, Kellogg’s, that’s wrong. As an alternative you can get the kids involved and make homemade granola together instead.
- Beverages: Water and vitamins both sound like a pretty good thing, right? But when you put them in the hands of a global beverage behemoth, what do you get? VitaminWater. This faux healthy brand embodies slick marketing. With packaging that has clean lines, empowering flavor names like “revive,” and advertising that is devilishly effective, Coca-Cola has effectively convinced millions of consumers that VitaminWater is healthy. The sad truth? VitaminWater is merely water, lots of sugar (32g—the equivalent of 8 sugar cubes), GMOs, very little real juice, and some vitamins. Talk about misleading! Instead, try some water with a splash of juice, a slice of lime or lemon, or some fresh mint leaves.
Q: It’s easy to paint the picture of the “big bad food corporations” and pin all of our problems on them. But what about their side of the story?
A: I believe the average person that works in the food industry is well intentioned. Nobody I knew was trying to hurt anyone. The problem is, it’s hard to see the forest from the trees. It’s very easy to get lost in the mentality of “I’m only selling Oreos. They’re fun and fine as long as you eat a balanced diet.” Unfortunately, this attitude shifts all the responsibility to the consumer.
The fact of the matter is we need ethical leadership in the food industry. Obesity rates skyrocket wherever the Western, highly processed diet takes root. Big Food companies need to step up and take responsibility, but that’s not going to happen any time soon.
While I’m no fan of a lot of regulations, government plays an important role. It needs to get its act together, set the rules of the road, improve food safety, and increase the transparency of what’s in our food.
Q: I get that corporations are driven by profits and they need to sell more product, so long as they stay within the confines of the law. But changing the laws, now that could lead to selling even more products. How does Big Food influence our government policies?
A: This is the deep, dark secret that your average consumer and most food company employees are completely unaware of. Behind the scenes, Big Food spends millions of dollars on lobbyists that shape food policy and regulations. These lobbyists also create tax-exempt, “charitable” organizations that are public relations machines and take up issues and causes that food companies want to influence, but don’t want to be associated with. The kicker? Due to tax laws, Big Food’s contributions to these organizations are a complete secret.
This is the ugly underbelly of food politics. It rarely sees the light of day, but it’s a constant, powerful force that impacts what this country eats. It’s the machine that made pizza a vegetable for school lunch programs, and it’s literally fighting to keep Americans in the dark about their food.
Q: It’s interesting to me that poll after poll shows the vast majority of Americans feel genetically modified (GMO) food should be labeled, but after Big Food spent $46 million to fight Proposition 37, it was defeated 53% to 47% this November. Proposition 37 called for labeling GMOs in California, not banning them. Why are Big Food and Big Ag companies willing to spend so much money to keep us in the dark?
A: There’s no doubt in my mind that a GMO labeling law would result in Big Food switching to non-GMO ingredients. Obviously, Big Ag companies like Monsanto that sell the GMO seeds and the pesticides designed to work with them have a lot to lose, so they’ve convinced food companies that prices for commodities like corn, soy, and sugar will go up if GMOs are labeled.
Even though there are plenty of reasons to believe prices wouldn’t increase long-term, Big Food is frightened by the threat of rising input costs. Why? When the price of corn or other inputs rise, Big Food must take price increases on their products to maintain or grow their profits for Wall Street. But it’s difficult for Big Food to take prices up, especially during this recession. In fact during recent price increases, less expensive private label knock-offs have stolen volume, and Big Food’s profits have suffered.
Not surprisingly, this all comes down to profits. With Wall Street at their throats, Big Food is trying to minimize any risk to commodity prices by fighting efforts to label GMOs.
Q: Do you think the real food movement will continue to gain momentum? What, if anything, will hold it back?
A: Yes, the real food movement will continue to grow. Big Food is deeply entrenched in their deceptive ways, and it’s only a matter of time until we reach a tipping point and a broad base of consumers say “enough is enough.” Unfortunately, I don’t think that day is right around the corner. Things will probably get worse before they get better.
One of the key challenges for the movement is unifying under a common vision. Right now I still see a lot of disagreements between factions, each trying to prove the other wrong. That’s not unusual since the real food movement encompasses a wide swath of people—vegans, vegetarians, paleos, omnivores, etc. But if we can work together and unite under the common goals of real food, achieving greater transparency, and improved food safety, success will come sooner.
Finally, I think we can’t underestimate the challenge of how we welcome people to the real food movement. As a single parent who works a full-time job, I know the struggle of juggling an overwhelming number of balls. Accepting people where they are on their journey, kindly helping them along the way, and not judging them if they shop at the wrong place or still have some “bad” habits will be essential in growing the movement. The more hurdles we put in place, the more daunting joining the movement will become.
That’s one of the reasons I like 100 Days of Real Food. It’s extremely helpful, provides lots of tips, has great recipes, and encourages people to make simple changes they can fit into their lives.
Q: I’ve enjoyed browsing your blog, Facebook, and Pinterest content. What can readers expect from you there and what are some of your more surprising findings? I must say some of what I’ve learned really angered and astonished me!
A: My food marketing experience gives me a unique perspective. I can spot Big Food’s shenanigans from a mile away, so on my blog I share the tricks, traps, and tools marketers use to get us eating more and more processed foods.
Advertising is an area of expertise, so a lot of my posts, like this one about Oreos, examine manipulative ads. I also try to uncover misleading product claims. For example, one of my most popular posts exposes the process used to make Truvia and challenges their “naturally sweetened” claim. Finally I’ve recently joined Pinterest, and I’ve created a new board called “Packaged to Deceive” where I share deceptive processed food packages that don’t live up to their claims.
My genuine hope is to educate people and give them a keener sense of how Big Food manipulates. It’s always a great feeling when you know you’ve helped someone “see the light.”
Q: Tell me a little bit about your novel Fat Profits, why you wrote it, and your intended audience.
A: I wrote Fat Profits for many different reasons. I’ve known since college that I’ve wanted to write professionally, but life just swept me up on another course. So when I left corporate America, it was in part to chase a dream.
Using my food industry experience and growing faith in the real food movement, I decided a novel would be a powerful way to illustrate Big Food’s greed and corruption. So blending the fast-paced action of a thriller, a heartfelt story of friendship and love, and an important message about food, Fat Profits was born.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Real food enthusiasts are entertained and love getting a behind the scenes glimpse into Big Food. Thriller aficionados savor the action and suspense and are left wondering, “do I really know what’s in my food.” As one early reader put it, “Fat Profits is a fun, heart-pounding, suspenseful read! What a great way to start a conversation about real food!”
So I’m very excited. It’s amazing when you follow your dreams what wonderful things can happen!
Thank you Bruce for sharing your inside perspective. It’s hard to plead ignorance after hearing such information, but I know the barrage of messages from food marketers – in many disguises, I might add – can still be very confusing and overwhelming. I encourage everyone to take a look at Bruce’s content, which will hopefully keep you from being deceived.
On a side note I’d also like to make sure everyone knows about our sponsor, No More To Go (as in No More “To Go” Meals!) They are a meal planning service that will email you 5 complete dinner recipes along with a corresponding grocery list every week. They’ve made recent improvements to their site including a clickable mobile grocery list, recipe ratings, and the ability to view all your past menus. All recipes have modifications for gluten free, vegetarian, and kid friendly meals. Check them out!
Please share your thoughts on today’s interview in the comments below – Bruce and I will both be checking them periodically. And I’m very curious to hear who you’d like me interview next! No promises, but let me know and I just might get my people in touch with their people :)