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Uninvited from food industry event, obesity doc puts his talk online

December 10, 2012|By Rosie Mestel
  • What could food manufacturers do to improve public health? An obesity expert was going to offer some suggestions during a talk at an industry event. After his invitation to speak was withdrawn, he posted his talk online instead.
What could food manufacturers do to improve public health? An obesity expert… (Gene J. Puskar / Associated…)

Obesity doctor Yoni Freedhoff was invited by the Ontario Medical Assn. to give a talk at a food industry breakfast on health and nutrition policy -- and then was disinvited.

Ticked off, he's decided to take his talk to a broader audience.

Freedhoff, a professor at the University of Ottawa and founder of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute who is outspoken on nutrition issues, describes the experience on his blog, Weighty Matters.  He writes that he prepared his talk on what he thought the food industry could do to help further public health -- but then was told a few days before the event that its organizers, public relations company Fleishman-Hillard Canada, didn't want him to attend after all.

Since he had already had prepared his talk and slides, he decided to go ahead and present it anyway  -- on YouTube.  

Freedhoff’s talk is not exactly flattering about the industry’s marketing practices. Narrating against a succession of slides that feature processed food such as Froot Loops with sprinkles, Fruit Twists and more, the doctor begins: "I think the food industry could stop suggesting that fiber and whole grains make sugary cereals a good idea.  I think the food industry could stop putting cartoon characters on  the front of cereal boxes and paying for stores to put them at eye level for kids. ... I think the food industry could stop talking about no sugar being added to things.”

He devotes a fair amount of the talk on the “no sugar added” marketing practice, which he terms “disingenuous.” He says, for example, that Del Monte Fruit Twists contain more sugar than Twizzlers and 10 times the sugar of apples by weight, that Sunrype Fun Bites are 79% sugar by weight, that Welch’s grape juice contains 10.5 teaspoons of sugar in every glass.  

Of course, since this is a Canadian talk, some of the ads Freedhoff highlights have a north-o'-the-border-flavor. An advertisement for Vitamin Water suggest these drinks might be an antidote to those who routinely partake of poutine, a Canadian delicacy consisting of french fries covered with cheese curds and gravy.  (I would have tried them while in Montreal a while back but my younger brother stopped me.)

Freedhoff adds that he doesn’t really blame the food industry: “It’s not their job to do anything but try to sell food.” He blames us, and public health officials and governments, “because we could theoretically do something about it.”

An Ontario Medical Assn. spokesman confirmed the events as Freedhoff describes them, and added some context: In October, the association released a report saying there are lessons to be learned from tobacco control measures in the fight against obesity and proposing a package of measures inspired by them. These include increased taxes on high-sugar, high-fat junk foods, reduced taxes on healthful foods, printing information on packages about "health risks associated with excess consumption of high-sugar, high-fat foods that provide little nutritional value," and "restrictions on all types of advertising to children, including package advertising and sponsorships." 

We emailed Ron Reaman, head of Fleishman-Hillard's Canadian Food and Agribusiness Practice, for comment, and he sent back this reply:

"Fleishman-Hillard extended an invitation to Ontario Medical Assn. President Dr. Doug Weir to attend.  The OMA agreed.  Dr. Weir was always intended as the sole public health NGO sector representative.  The OMA approached us with a request to invite and include Yoni Freedhoff in the panel.  We were unable to accommodate their request.  I have never spoken to Yoni Freedhoff about this event.  Fleishman-Hillard’s inaugural Food Industry Breakfast Symposium was a successful event. We look forward to continuing the dialogue on important food industry-related issues such as Canada’s health and nutrition policy. Thanks again for your interest in the work we’re doing here in Canada."

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