To Fight Obesity, Swim Against a Corporate Tide

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Corporations go to a lot of trouble to neutralize potential critics. Two co-optations and one aggression serve as recent examples: McDonald's alliance with Weight Watchers and PepsiCo's with the Yale School of Medicine, and Disney's forced expulsion of the Center for Commercial-Free Childhood from Harvard.

Co-optation is the winning over or neutralization of opponents by bringing them into the fold. It works well.

Let's start with the new partnership between Weight Watchers and McDonald's. Sure, this is happening in New Zealand, not here, but it's still a good example. McDonald's New Zealand makes three meals that meet the criteria for a six-point Weight Watchers meal. Will Weight Watchers New Zealand suggest that its members cut down on fast food? Not likely.

Next, Yale. The Yale School of Medicine proudly announced that PepsiCo has agreed to fund a new fellowship creating a new position in the MD-PhD program for doctoral work in nutrition science.

Dr. Robert Alpern, dean and the Ensign Professor at the School of Medicine, says of this gift:

PepsiCo's commitment to improving health through proper nutrition is of great importance to the well-being of people in this country and throughout the world. We are delighted that they are expanding their research in this area and that they have chosen Yale as a partner for this endeavor.

You can't satirize something like this, but I am guessing that recipients of this fellowship are unlikely to study the effects of food marketing on obesity or fructose on metabolism—or to advise their overweight patients to cut down on soft drinks. (Thanks to Michele Simon who commented on it on her newly restored blog, Sunday, March 7).

And then there is yesterday's ugly story in the New York Times about Disney's retaliation against the Center for Commercial-Free Childhood which had successfully urged the company to back off on its Baby Einstein videos. By all reports, Disney pressured Harvard to evict the Center under truly shameful circumstances.

The moral: if you want to do something to prevent childhood and adult obesity, you are working against the interests of corporations profiting from kids eating too much food or watching too much television. And you must take great care to hold onto your independence.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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