Interview with Public Health Advocate Nick Freudenberg

April 23, 2014 | SPH in the News

by Charles Platkin

April 23, 2014

Meet Nick Freudenberg, a Distinguished Professor at Hunter College and the City University of New York School of Public Health, and a tireless public health advocate who has worked for more than 30 years with community groups, schools and public agencies to create and evaluate programs and policies that promote health and reduce health inequalities.

Dr. Freudenberg is also faculty co-director of the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter.  I’ve been fortunate to work with Nick Freudenberg for the last four years, and I must say it’s been enlightening.  Nick Freudenberg has changed my thinking about food, public health, social inequities and the power of community. He is the definition of public health advocate.  I was able to do an email interview with Nick about his new book, LETHAL BUT LEGAL: Corporations, Consumption, and Protecting Public Health. Here are my questions and his responses.

Diet Detective: What compels you to create awareness of how corporations negatively affect public health?

Nick:  Today the gap between the health that is possible for the United States and the world, based on our scientific knowledge and our wealth, and the growing burden of premature death and preventable illness and injuries, has never been greater.  In the past, people died early because we lacked the evidence or resources to improve health. Now, big corporations in the food, tobacco, alcohol and other industries use their knowledge and power to promote profit at the expense of public health.   As a public health professional and researcher, that troubles me, so I want to help find a better path.

Diet Detective: You have written that “many unnecessary injuries and chronic health problems are spurred by what might be dubbed the ‘corporate consumption complex’—a network of consumer products companies, financial institutions, trade associations, and public relations firms that deliberately urges people to buy unhealthy foods and unsafe products.”  I’m wondering how you can stop such a powerful force.

Nick:  The corporate consumption complex is powerful.  I borrow from President Eisenhower’s 1961 warning that the “military industrial complex” was a threat to our well-being and democracy.  But  here’s the good news: Only a couple of thousand corporations produce the vast proportion of consumer goods that are associated with the rising burdens of chronic diseases and injuries—today’s leading killers in both the United States and globally.  Shouldn’t it be easier to change the business and political practices of these few corporations than the behavior of billions of people?  After all, about 1.3 billion people are overweight; 1.2 billion people smoke tobacco; and 140 million people around the world are alcoholics.  Even if we were more successful than we are at changing behaviors that cause premature death and preventable illnesses, we’d need to start over after every success, since these industries continue to aggressively promote their lethal but legal products.  As either public-health or economic policy, allowing corporations to promote lifestyles and habits that make people sick doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Note that I am not calling for prohibition—simply for restricting promotion of disease.

Diet Detective: What do you consider “unhealthy” foods in this equation? Isn’t it difficult to define “healthy?”

Nick: While there’s debate at the margins, for the most part independent scientists have for several decades agreed on what constitutes the foundation of a healthy diet: more vegetables and fruits, whole grains and lower-fat dairy products, and less meat, sugar, salt and empty calories.  Unfortunately, the least healthy foods are also the most profitable for the food industry, encouraging them to promote policies that favor those products.

Diet Detective: How powerful are the corporate lobbies that influence U.S. food policy? What are the other key issues that influence what we eat?

Nick:  A political scientist recently estimated that about 100,000 lobbyists and corporate influence peddlers work in Washington to persuade our elected officials to adopt policies that advance their employers’ interest, often at the expense of public well-being. In 2013, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, agribusinesses and food and beverage companies spent more than $180 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies.  It’s a big part of why we have a food system that’s better at generating profits than reducing hunger and diet-related diseases.

Diet Detective: You’ve discussed how corporations design “hyperpalatable” foods to make consumers crave more unhealthy treats, but isn’t that their job?  Can you explain why this is a problem?

Nick: Humans evolved in times of scarcity, so craving sugar, fat and salt bestowed survival advantages and hard wired us to stoke up when we could.  Today the food industry has made these blended fat, sugar and salt hyperpalatable products ubiquitous and cheap.  Putting these products within reach of every child—and promoting them relentlessly—contributes to obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases.  It also risks leaving our children and grandchildren a world in which their health is worse than the current generation’s.  That’s not an ethical path for a society that cares about its children—or its rising health care costs.

Diet Detective: What can the average person do to combat corporate influences in government relating to foods?

Nick:  In my book, I propose several strategies.  First, we can evict commercial influences from our schools, health centers, parks, sports stadiums and other public spaces.  We owe our kids safe spaces where they aren’t enticed to consume unhealthy products—not only food, but tobacco and alcohol as well.  Second, we can support policies—and the candidates who advocate for them—that limit companies’ rights to market unhealthy products directly to children or to make misleading health claims (e.g., that high-sugar cereals with a few added vitamins are healthy).  Third, we can support the many efforts to remove the influence of money in politics by limiting campaign contributions and lobbying and, therefore, slowing the revolving door between government and industry.  Unfortunately, this goal faces the obstacle of the most corporate-friendly Supreme Court in a few generations.

Diet Detective: Marion Nestle has commented that corporations are not social services, and they have an obligation to their shareholders.  How can you ever see companies like Unilever, Coke, Pepsi, Nabisco and General Mills changing their tactics?

Nick:  Almost everyone agrees that government has the authority and responsibility to protect public health.  What people disagree about is which particular decisions should be left to markets and corporations and which to government.  In my view, beginning in the 1970s, corporations and their allies began a counter-offensive to roll back the added health protections won by the consumer and environmental movements of the 1960s.    In the early part of the 20th century, our spectacular advances in public health depended on government action to bring clean water, sanitation, safe food and drugs and better working and living conditions to millions of Americans.  As a nation, we need to bring our approach to public health into the 21st century.  My three recommendations for food—and other—companies? First, every company should have the duty to disclose what they know about the health effects of their products.  Second, no company should be able to pass on the costs of the health damages their products cause to consumers and taxpayers. The 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, which required tobacco companies to reimburse states $240 billion for the costs of tobacco-related illnesses, sent an important deterrent message.  The growing scientific evidence of the role added sugar plays in diet-related disease provides a similar opportunity for using the law to discourage companies from promoting unhealthy products.  Third, no company should be able to bypass parents to market directly to children, who lack the capacity to distinguish between facts and persuasion.  New laws that require companies to follow these three steps would reduce the ability of Unilever, Coke, Pepsi, Nabisco, General Mills and other companies to promote products that contribute to premature death and preventable illness.

Diet Detective: The following is a quote from your book:  “Corporations had long used the revolving door between the corporate suite and government offices in Washington to shape policy by sending top executives to advise presidents, and offering corporate jobs to departing public officials.”    This is basically like the fox guarding the henhouse—do you have suggestions for a policy change? Can you give a few examples from the food industry?

Nick:  A good literal example is Earl Butz, who was President Nixon’s secretary of Agriculture in 1973.  He left the directorship of Ralston Purina, a big agribusiness company, and was replaced at Ralston by the outgoing secretary of Agriculture, Clifford Hardin. Butz played a key role in transforming USDA from an advocate for farmers to a promoter of Big Food corporations.  His advice was “get big or get out.”

In 2011, a group called the Sensible Food Policy Coalition, a front group for the food industry, hired Anita Dunn, former White House communications chief under President Obama, to run media strategy for their campaign to derail voluntary guidelines on food advertising to children that the Obama administration had proposed.  With big spending on lobbying and media savvy, the industry forced the Federal Trade Commission to withdraw the proposal, a very clear example of industry triumphing over public health.

Diet Detective:  Why has the effort to regulate the food industry’s marketing of unhealthy products towards children been so ineffective?  I would think this would be an easy compromise for “big food.”

Nick: The truth is that the core business for McDonald’s, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s and others is their high sugar, fat and salt products.  What PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi calls “fun-for-you” foods (and I call “make-you-sicker-quicker” products) are the source of major profits.  So these companies are unlikely to agree to changes that jeopardize this important part of their business. Instead, they agree to cosmetic changes, such as offering a few healthier product lines and touting these limited options as providing “choice,” but continue to spend their marketing dollars on the unhealthy foods.

A few words on the following:

Diet Detective: Organic foods?
Nick: Partial solution to a sick food system.
Diet Detective: Locally grown foods?
Nick: Necessary, but not sufficient to improve health.
Diet Detective: Food lobbyists?
Nick: Vectors of diet-related disease.
Diet Detective: Food additives and preservatives?
Nick: Lesser threat than sugar, fat and salt.
Diet Detective:  GMO Foods?
Nick: Consequence of industrialized agribusiness.

A few personal questions:

Diet Detective:   Your favorite healthy food?
Nick:   Fresh berries.
Diet Detective: What was your breakfast this morning?
Nick:  Yogurt, nuts, fruit and coffee.
Diet Detective: What’s in your refrigerator and pantry right now?
Nick:  Sadly, empty. Time to go shopping.
Diet Detective: Your last meal would be?
Nick:  Fresh grilled swordfish (no worries about mercury on last meal!), Long Island corn, fresh tomatoes.
Diet Detective: Your favorite “junk food?”
Nick:  Bittersweet chocolate. (Not a health food in my view!)
Diet Detective: Your worst summer job?
Nick: Weeding a neighbor’s garden for sub-minimum wage.
Diet Detective: As a child you wanted to be?
Nick:  A field naturalist.

Fact Sheet
Your Website:
Location (Where you live): New York City
Your current location … right now: New York City
What is your current job title?  Distinguished Professor of Public Health
Education: DrPH, MPH Columbia University School of Public Health; BS Hunter College
Résumé (brief):   Hunter College and City University of New York (1979 to present)
Hometown: Bound Brook, N.J.
Favorite healthy food and living website: Eat, Drink Politics (

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