Type 2 Diabetes Epidemic in US Linked to Profit-Making Food Industry

According to the 2011 National Diabetes Fact Sheet released by the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on January 26, last year saw an increase in the numbers of people with diabetes in virtually every age category.

The federal agency reports that some 25.8 million Americans, or 8.3 percent of the total population, have diabetes. Fully a third of these individuals do not know that they have the disease and are unaware of the serious risks it creates for their health. In a staggering indictment of the state of public health in the US, the CDC found that a further 79 million people in the country are prediabetic, meaning that their blood sugar levels are elevated, but not yet to the point where they meet the criteria for a full diabetes diagnosis.

Even these stark statistics likely under-report the real situation, with research showing that 35 percent to 40 percent of deceased diabetics did not have the disease listed anywhere on their death certificates.

Ninety percent of diabetics in the US have Type II diabetes, which, as the CDC report points out, is preventable. Once a diagnosis has been made, the severity of the complications can be dramatically reduced with timely and continuing care, including a careful combination of diet, exercise, often oral medication and, not infrequently, insulin administration.

However, what the CDC report fails to note is that such a high level of medical attention is widely unavailable to millions of Americans, who are unable to afford health insurance. With growing poverty, increasing numbers of people cannot buy nutritious food or the glucose test strips needed to monitor sugar levels. For families working multiple jobs and handling the stress of endless financial problems, adequate exercise is also often out of reach.

The rise in the incidence of Type 2 diabetes has come alongside a decline in the overall quality of nutrition in US society and a sharp growth in obesity. These processes are bound up with subordination of the food industry to the profit motive, a fact that has even garnered attention in the mainstream press. In May 2009, the news magazine Businessweek observed that “evidence is mounting that the obesity crisis is not the result of a lack of personal responsibility,” going on to note that “the processed food industry’s practices may be just as much, if not more, to blame.”

The omnipresence in the food industry of federally subsidized corn carbohydrates and dairy fats, coupled with advertising campaigns aimed at the most vulnerable segments of the population—the young and the working poor—have been cited in studies as chief reasons behind the enormous weight gains of the American people over the last 40 years.

At the 2009 European Congress on Obesity in Amsterdam, Dr. Boyd Swinburn of Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, pointed out to Heartwire that the food industry has been targeting the most impressionable layers of society. “They’ve worked their marketing out to the nth degree,” he noted.

In 2009, Kelly D. Brownell from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University and Kenneth E. Warner from the University of Michigan published an article entitled, “The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar is Big Food?” The authors noted:

“To protect profits, the food industry must avoid perceptions that it is uncaring and insensitive, ignores public health, preys on children, intentionally manipulates addictive substances, and knowingly, even cynically, contributes to death, disability, and billions in health care costs every year. Stated another way, it cannot afford to look like tobacco.”

As Brownell and Warner point out, the food industry buys access to key associations, including the professional organization for US nutritionists, the American Dietetic Association. The Association regularly publishes “fact sheets” on nutritional advice for the public. The food industry pays $20,000 per sheet, which industry lobbyists then write for the association.

According to Brownell and Warner, the food industry’s strategy for deflecting attention from its practices for the poor state of nutrition in the US includes the following:

“Focus on personal responsibility as the cause of the nation’s unhealthy diet; raise fears that government action usurps personal freedom; vilify critics with totalitarian language, characterizing them as the food police, leaders of a nanny state, and even ‘food fascists,’ and accuse them of desiring to strip people of their civil liberties; criticize studies that hurt industry as ‘junk science’; emphasize physical activity over diet; state there are not good or bad foods, hence no food or food type (soft drinks, fast foods, etc.) should be targeted for change; plant doubts when concerns are raised about the industry.”

On the very day of the CDC’s 2011 Fact Sheet release, Robert Langreth of Forbes noted that sections of the pharmaceutical and health care industry were pleased with the latest report.

“What’s bad news for Americans is good news for companies that make diabetes treatments. One company that has ridden the obesity and diabetes epidemic like no other is the Danish company Novo Nordisk…. Other companies helped by the bad news include Merck (of the popular diabetic pill Januvia), Allergan (obesity surgery supplies), Orexigen Therapeutics (new obesity drug pending FDA approval).”

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