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Communication, Media and Culture

Using Anthropology to Understand Public Trust in Big Food

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On Thursday, November 14, 2019, Professor Christy Shields, a food anthropologist from AUP’s Department of Global Communications, welcomed guest speakers Dr. Chelsie Yount-André (Montpellier, CIRAC) and Dr. Gyorgy Scrinis (University of Melbourne) to AUP to discuss public trust in the agendas of multinational food corporations. The speakers addressed an audience of students, staff and faculty in the David T. McGovern Grand Salon of AUP’s Combes Student Life Center.

Dr. Chelsie Yount-André’s talk focused on one example of a multinational food and beverage company that had struggled to rebrand itself as more “health-conscious” in the context of increasing global mistrust in Big Food companies. The company aimed to keep up with the trend of “local is better” and the increase in environmental awareness movements that emphasized the health benefits of local foods and whole foods over food sold by big corporations. Yount-André assessed several strategies used by the company to appeal to the public. For example, one strategy in South Africa was to rebrand packaging with local patterns and colors. Yount-André, an anthropologist, argued that the company did not research the local population enough to realize that a preference for Westernized packaging was linked to racialized tensions in society; this meant that the rebranding strategy was not nearly as successful as they had imagined it would be.

This example illustrates a wider problem for large multinational corporations: that of being detached from their local audiences and not sensitive enough to the everyday preferences and choices of consumers. Yount-André explained that, in her example, the company’s employees were “caught in the tensions of economic goals and pressure from branch managers” and were not given enough time or resources to solve larger ethical issues in the workplace, such as the gender pay gap or compliance with labor laws.

Next, Dr. Gyorgy Scrinis delved into the nitty-gritty of nutrition science. He highlighted the misleading way in which consumers have been taught to read the Nutrition Facts panel on the packaging of processed foods in order to gauge a food’s healthiness. He called this phenomenon a “reductive interpretation of nutrients.” Scrinis claimed that when packaging decontextualizes nutrients in this way, without explaining which ingredients provide which nutrient, it gives the consumer misleading information about the properties of the food item. For example, the human body absorbs the iron in green vegetables in a different way than it absorbs the iron in red meat; when processed food claims to have “added iron” without providing the source or context it is very unlikely that the free-floating element will be properly integrated into our systems.

Misleading information around nutrition has led to certain foods being vilified, as occurred in the margarine vs butter debate: margarine was initially considered a healthier option to butter as it contained less saturated fat, but research into margarine’s high levels of trans fats later indicated that the risk of heart disease was not reduced by switching products. “In a nutshell we can’t know what is true [healthy food], and everyone mistrusts nutrition science’s conflicting advice,” explained Scrinis. He argued that companies benefit from this confusion and try to provide a “health-halo effect,” or an idea of healthiness, around their processed foods. Often this is through adding buzzwords such as “protein” or “antioxidants” to packaging. In Scrinis’s view, food companies are doing this because they know that a narrow focus on nutrients takes emphasis off the ingredients themselves, tricking the consumer into ignoring a food’s highly processed nature – which might be truly harmful to consumer health in the long run.

The lectures were followed by a Q&A session, chaired by Professor Shields. She remarked that, despite shifting trends, food marketing seemed to follow the rule that “the more it changes, the more it remains the same.” The speakers agreed that suspicion of Big Food corporations is high, while people’s awareness around what is beneficial to their health is low. Recent movements to eat local and eat whole foods are shifting the way we eat as a society, but we are still largely caught up in a global corporate system where Big Food companies dominate the market.

Written by Isabelle Wheeler. Isabelle is studying for an MA in Global Communications at AUP. She is an avid traveler who has lived and worked in Argentina, Scotland, Senegal and Paris.