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ESG Corporatists Champion Ultra-Processed Foods

The hottest new trends on Wall Street involve promoting foods that make Americans sick.


The hottest new trends on Wall Street are promoting foods that make Americans sick.

A Massachusetts-based public relations firm that specializes in promoting environmental, social, and governance (ESG) standards released its annual list of “100 Best Corporate Citizens” on Wednesday. The list ranks 1,000 of the largest U.S. public companies on their compliance and transparency efforts to “align with the Sustainable Development Goals and rebuild an equitable economy post-pandemic.”

“Now more than ever, corporate leadership on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues is imperative,” wrote the East Coast PR firm responsible for the list. “Each year, 3BL evaluates the largest public U.S. companies on ESG transparency and performance.”

Seven major American food processors made it on the list, five of which landed in the top 50. Corporations include PepsiCo at 6, Hershey at 10, Mondelez at 45, Kellogg at 40, and General Mills at 49. Kraft Heinz was listed at 61, and Coca-Cola at 79. These corporate food giants, however, are some of the worst offenders for environmental and public health.

Earlier this year, General Mills and Kellogg threatened the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over new rules that could strip the “healthy” labels from the producers’ boxes of chemically processed grains drenched in sugary syrups marketed as cereal. The food companies behind Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms claim the FDA’s latest guidance discriminates against corporate free speech.

“We know cereal is a nutritious, affordable, accessible breakfast choice for many families across cultures, lifestyles, age and socio-economic demographics,” the companies wrote in a joint filing with Post Consumer Brands, the producer of Fruity Pebbles. “Yet, the restrictive criteria put forth in FDA’s proposed rule for ‘healthy’ would disqualify many grain foods, including the overwhelming majority of the ready-to-eat cereals on the market from using the term ‘healthy.'”

Cereals are also among the most contaminated products for endocrine-disrupting pesticides in the food supply. Beyond the average 20 grams of sugar per typical serving, which alone will cause blood sugar spikes leading to chronic disease and obesity, packaged cereals harbor toxic contaminants such as glyphosate, a key component of the popular weed killer Roundup.

Glyphosate is the most common weed killer in the United States. In the book Food Fix: How to Save Our Health, Our Economy, Our Communities, and Our Planet–One Bite at a Time, Dr. Mark Hyman cites a 2013 study that shows “just 0.1 ppb of glyphosate is enough to harm your gut bacteria and microbiome.” A recent report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found glyphosate levels dropping from 2018 but are still found in ultra-processed products at levels exponentially higher than 0.1 ppb.

Kellogg and General Mills were both on 3BL’s list of “100 Best Corporate Citizens” in 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022. Many other companies on this year’s list have made repeat appearances. Hershey made the rankings in 2020, 2021, and 2022. Coca-Cola appeared in 2019, 2021, and 2022. Mondelez was listed in 2019, and PepsiCo was ranked in 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022. The major soft drink producer came in second place last year. According to OpenSecrets, Coca-Cola and Hershey were among the top corporate lobbyists in the food industry last year. So was the American Beverage Association, of which Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are members.

The food industry has a long and well-documented history of manipulating science to sell ultra-processed products. The industry also has a history of lobbying governments to industrialize the world’s food supply with genetically modified organisms (GMO) to the detriment of environmental health (and, therefore, human health). The same “corporate citizens” praised for adhering to ESG standards have long been industry leaders driving this growth.

Dr. Hyman recounted in his 2020 book that Coke, Pepsi, General Mills, Kraft, and Kellogg joined Land O’Lakes to spend $12.6 million against GMO labeling laws.

GMO seeds, meanwhile, “have led to the rampant use of herbicides and pesticides, as pests and weeds became more resistant.”

“Ironically,” Hyman added, “agriculture is now locked in a hubristic arms race against superbugs and superweeds, which have evolved to resist the very chemicals that are supposed to kill them.” Sounds good for the environment for corporate environmental scores.

Corporate power players have tried to sell GMOs to Americans as safe. Industry data, however, is often contaminated with corporate-friendly bias to sell whatever products are being offered. In 2016, for example, The New York Times published an exposé on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The group operates as an advisory organization for the federal government, and its panel on biotechnology was found to be infected with significant conflicts of interest as members prepared a new report on genetically engineered seeds.

“The report could have broad implications for the industry,” the Times reported. “Big food companies like Coca-Cola and Archer Daniels Midland, for instance, have invested in synthetic biology, a term used for the more sophisticated genetic engineering now coming into use that was the panel’s area of study. Food companies are exploring its use in creating flavorings and sweeteners.”

The report came just after a paper from the University of California, San Francisco, documented how the sugar industry manipulated the science on obesity to shift the blame to fat. For decades, Americans were sold the low-fat diet as the premier avenue to metabolic health. While the study remains behind a paywall, here’s what the New York Times reported on the paper in 2016:

The documents show that a trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation, known today as the Sugar Association, paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of about $50,000 in today’s dollars to publish a 1967 review of research on sugar, fat and heart disease. The studies used in the review were handpicked by the sugar group, and the article, which was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, minimized the link between sugar and heart health and cast aspersions on the role of saturated fat.

The FDA finally proposed an update to the agency’s definition of “health” last fall to promote foods higher in saturated fat, such as salmon, over ultra-processed cereals. Of course, the food industry is now up in arms.

[READ: FDA Let Marketers Label Sugar-Soaked Cereals As ‘Healthy’ For Years, And Big Food Is Fighting To Keep It That Way]

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