It seems like hardly a week goes by without a book landing in my mailbox on the latest weight-loss advice, the newest and (supposedly) best diet, the supplements you need to take, the uber-cleanse guaranteed to detoxify you or the recipes that will change your life.
But I’m skeptical.
So when I received Jeff Scot Philips’ new book, Big Fat Food Fraud: Confessions of a Health-Food Hustler, I was pleasantly surprised.
Philips created the Fit Food healthy meal home delivery service, which later became Lean Eats. And in his book’s easy-to-absorb conversational style, he describes his journey from personal trainer to mom-and-pop healthy meal purveyor to wealthy international businessman. The relatively small food company Philips took pride in creating was bought by a fitness conglomerate where, he says, profit was all that mattered. What happened after that was something he — and likely many of his readers — could not have imagined.
Next Avenue talked with Philips about the book and some of the, um, unsavory things he learned about the food industry. Highlights:
Nutrition labels aren't there to educate you. They're there to help the food industry market to you. So stop reading them.
— Jeff Scot Philips, health food entrepreneur
Next Avenue: You initially got into the food business because you were interested in fitness and healthy eating. But then you began to see a dark side to the industry that you hadn’t expected. What happened?
Jeff Scot Philips: I got in it organically. I was a trainer and nutritionist and started making food, not because I was trying to be in the food business. I was just trying to solve a problem that clients and customers had.
But once we got bigger, once we took on investors and were shipping food across the country and private-labeling, there was no free rein. Early on, all we ever talked about, me and my people, was how are the customers doing? Are they losing weight? Are they reversing their type 2 diabetes? Are we helping them with their blood pressure?
Once we took on investors and started having board meetings every week, the conversations switched to: What was the bottom line? What was the revenue? How can we increase that next month?
We would literally have conversations where they’d say, ‘This ingredient over here that we’re using costs too much. We could save a couple cents by switching to this one.’ And we would sometimes get in an argument: [We’d say] ‘That’s harmful, people shouldn’t be eating that.’
The customers didn’t matter anymore. It was all about the numbers.
You also write that you were shocked at the actions — or lack of actions — of federal agencies.
Yes. Working with the USDA was very much like the game Operation. They had boundaries. Very loose, vague ones. And as long as you stay within those boundaries they won’t sound the buzzer. But while you’re within those boundaries, you can get away with tons of stuff and not only get away with it, but they actually would force us at times to do horrible things.
I talk about salmon in the book. Here we are making salmon [meals] — one of the best foods a person can eat — it’s natural, it’s full of omega 3s, and we’ve been making it forever. The USDA comes along and says because of the regulations, salmon’s not a healthy food, it’s not a lean food [because of the healthy fat]. They made us put pastas or breads in it, and all of a sudden if you up the sugar and keep the fat where it’s at, now it’s a healthy food.
You also talk about the pressure to make gluten-free claims.
Right. A lot of the companies that make gluten-free foods, especially ones that take orders over the phone, if you contact them and tell them you have celiac disease, they’ll talk you out of ordering their food. And the reason is, it may or may not be gluten free — we just say it to reel people in, knowing that the vast majority of people aren’t celiacs. But when someone with celiac or someone who claims to have it tries to order it, we could harm them. So [we say] something like, ‘We can’t guarantee there’s no cross-contamination.’
But once a competitor [makes the gluten-free claim] … we’re put in a weird place. We don’t want to claim that it’s gluten free when it’s not. But everyone’s going to buy from them now so we have to do it. … I’m not justifying what we did. It’s the nature of the business.
‘Gluten-free’ seems to be everywhere now. Avoiding gluten is supposed to solve all sorts of ills that anyone might have.
Yes. Of course, there are people who have allergies to gluten. That’s a real thing. But as soon as the food industry discovers there’s a market for something, we’ll just ‘attach’ to anything that we know people have.
If we’re trying to market a line of gluten-free food to people 50-plus, we’re going to say things like, ‘You’ve got joint pain? Could be because of gluten. Low back pain? Migraines? Trouble sleeping? That’s probably because you’re eating too much gluten.’ We know they have those things, or they’re going to, and it’s not necessarily because of gluten. But we’re trying to move products that are called gluten-free.
There is a very personal side to this story. You talk openly about pouring vodka into your coffee every morning. You went broke, you hid from your friends for a time, you broke up with a longtime love. What was going on?
It was very much an emotional roller coaster. I didn’t want to do the things I was doing a lot of the time. It was interesting at how it chipped away at how I viewed myself.
When I started off, I felt like the good guy. I was helping clients lose weight. I was helping them reverse diseases they had for years. And then as I started doing these things that go against what I know is right, I didn’t necessarily like myself. Eventually, that’s why I had to get out.
Honestly, writing this book was difficult. I didn’t want to talk about that [personal] stuff. The editors convinced me to do it because it was important to show people the food industry has a face. It’s made of people. And they’re not necessarily wanting to do this — to lie and to trick consumers, but this is how it happens.
What’s the solution? Is there one?
As long as there is money in politics it’s just too easy for these companies to buy [influence] in these things. Reversing Citizens United would be a nice start.
What can people do on an individual level to help? If they stop listening to every new diet fad or nutrition advice that comes out, then they take away our marketing power. If they stop buying the foods, if they start buying more vegetables, more meat, stuff that we really don’t control, then we have no interest in pumping a bunch of marketing dollars into these fake sugary smoothies or protein bars or whatever it might be.
Also, nutrition labels aren’t there to educate you. They’re there to help the food industry market to you. So stop reading them. You won’t find any useful information on them because no one is checking to make sure they’re accurate.
Any other messages you want people to get from your book?
People need to watch out for blanket statements about food or ingredients. That’s one of the biggest ways the food industry tricks people. Because as soon as people hear something like, ‘Antioxidants are good for you,’ ‘Fiber is good for you’ or ‘Gluten is bad for you,’ the food industry can, for instance, trick people into eating a cereal that’s just pure sugar.
To really sum it up, people should not confuse real food with health food. If the food’s making claims about itself or what it can do to help you, it’s lying. It’s not going to do those things.