Photo illustration for Junk Food Politics story

Junk Food’s Influence on Politics, Policy and Society

Eduardo J. Gómez investigates how processed food companies sway politics and policy in emerging economies.

Story by

Emily Collins

In the United States, the commercial determinants of health are well known. Criticism over processed food and soda companies and their products has rapidly grown, resulting in policy changes that support healthier decision-making for consumers.

But protective policies in some emerging economies are nearly non-existent, contributing to factors such as obesity and type-2 diabetes, especially in children and the poor in underdeveloped communities. Limited sales and marketing regulations, paired with manipulative partnerships, have allowed these companies to thrive.

What motivates ultra-processed food companies like PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Nestle to invest in emerging markets in countries such as Mexico, India, Brazil, China and South Africa? And to what extent are they influencing political policy?

Eduardo J. Gómez, associate professor in Lehigh’s College of Health and director of the Institute for Health Policy and Politics, investigates these questions and shares his findings in his latest book, Junk Food Politics: How Beverage and Fast Food Industries Are Reshaping Emerging Economies, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. In his book, Gómez provides a historical analysis of the rise and influence of major soda and ultra-processed food industries in several emerging economies, and looks specifically at why these industries emerged in these countries and what impact they have had on politics, policy and society.

photo illustration for junk food politics story

Gómez examines how governments are relating to these industries and whether they are seeing them as partners or enemies in the fight against the harmful effects of their products.

These industries have undermined most government's abilities and willingness to pursue effective regulations in the area of nutrition, such as marketing to children, limiting the sale of their products, creating soda taxes, and creating effective food labels, Gómez finds. And in many of the countries observed in his research, presidents often benefited from their partnerships with these major companies.

In some countries, the leading processed food and soda companies are involved in tax decisions, anti-hunger campaigns, exercise promoting programs, and other initiatives that seemingly promote public health—a perception that’s positive for both the companies and the government.

"On one hand, industries strive and are successful in influencing government and civil society," Gómez explains. "On the other hand, ambitious presidents reach out to industries and major corporations to achieve their political objectives."

These challenges won't improve until leaders put the health of their citizens first and stop allowing these industries to be involved in policy-making, Gómez says. But the opportunity for education makes him hopeful.

"One good thing is that more and more nutrition activists are receiving funding and support from the international community to raise awareness," he explains. "And I think the next step for society in general is going to be increasing knowledge to all citizens about the harmful effects of these foods."

Gómez says increased awareness could create incentives for politicians in these countries to do something more serious about their situation.

"What this book really shows is that we have to think about politics in a more sophisticated manner," Gómez says. "We must delve deeply into the politics that shape and allow for industries to have their influence on our health and society."

Taking his work a step further, Gómez became the lead editor of The Lancet’s first series on Political Science and Health. The series, published in May of 2022, explores how political science interacts and informs matters of health.

Gómez hopes his research, along with his work with The Lancet, will increase conversation surrounding the connection between political science and global health.

"Politics does matter and in many ways, it determines why industries are successful."

As part of Lehigh’s College of Health Colloquium Series, Gómez will present findings from his book and research on Tuesday, February 28, 2023 from noon-1:30 p.m. on Zoom. Free registration is required for the event, titled "The Politics of Food and Malnutrition: Understanding the Rise and Influence of Junk Food Industries and the Role of Government in Developing Nations.”

Story by

Emily Collins

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