National parks conservation. Getting kids to read. Breast cancer awareness. These are all great causes, and it can be worth applauding when corporations donate a portion of their profits to supporting them.
But corporate social responsibility by food companies should be scrutinized carefully. The same companies donating to good causes in the name of their popular brands are spending orders of magnitude more money to advertise those same brands in ways that obscure the science linking sugar to health problems like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high triglycerides, and hypertension — together known as “chronic metabolic diseases.”
Over the past 15 years, General Mills, for example, has donated $50 million through its Yoplait brand to support breast cancer research. The company boasts proudly that it aims “to take a stand for something that impacts the greater good” and connect with consumers through social issues and shared values.
Obviously, funding breast cancer research is a good thing. But, for General Mills, this funding and their promotion of it is also intended to make people who buy Yoplait — and the people who see it in stores — feel like they’re supporting public health when they buy General Mills products. When we reach for the strawberry flavored tub of Yoplait yogurt — or the “Strawberry Milkshake” flavored Yoplait GoGurt tube for our kids — we’re supposed to think not just about how it feels on our tastebuds but about how General Mills helped our Aunt Bernice beat breast cancer. Every creamy spoonful should taste like both strawberries and the love we feel for the survivors among our family and friends. Every bite should taste sweet with hope. Yoplait yogurts, however, along with many other popular General Mills brands, aren’t just sweet with hope and strawberries. They’re sweet with sugar.
A lot of it.
A single serving of Yoplait strawberry-flavored original yogurt contains 26 grams of sugar — that is, more than six teaspoons, more than half the USDA’s daily intake recommendation for adults, and fully more than what the American Heart Association recommends for women for an entire day.
And it isn’t that we, the consumers, are independently — in a state of perfect freedom — choosing to eat a lot of super sweet yogurt. We make our decisions about food in a carefully constructed marketing framework, and General Mills is spending a lot of money — a lot more than it’s spending on breast cancer research — to shape the context in which we shop. In 2012 alone, General Mills spent over $112 million to advertise Yoplait brand products. Meanwhile, the company is spending an average of little over $4 million over fifteen years — for a total of $50 million — to support breast cancer research. It only sounds like a lot until you compare that sum to what the company spends to advertise this single brand in a single year.
Americans’ food landscape is engineered to make us feel good about buying things that are bad for us. It’s not an accident that loading up our shopping carts with strawberry-flavored yogurt is easier on our wallets than buying real strawberries — or blueberries or blackberries or raspberries. What we need is real, science-informed change in our food policies, so that we’re not subsidizing the commodity crops — corn, soy, sugar beets — that are making us sick. If food companies genuinely wanted to be good corporate citizens, they’d invest in initiatives that did not prioritize profits over public health.
Consumer choice shouldn’t just mean a false choice between added sugar and more added sugar. We should have actual choices when we go to the grocery store that are accessible and affordable to all.
And funding breast cancer research shouldn’t be just another form of advertising.