Thursday, October 15, 2009

Being Normal

The 30 Second Skinny Danone's have been told not to make further claims in their advertising about Actimel being better for a child's immune system than not having Actimel. Increasingly medical claims are being made for food products. Actimel is particularly of note because its entire marketing and identity is of a sciencey, medicinal product, not a foodstuff. This is becoming increasingly typical of food products, usually when there is no evidence to back up whatever claims is being made for it.

On Wednesday the ASA upheld a complaint about an ad for Danone's Actimel product. Danone, the multi-billion dollar food giant, couldn't provide sufficient evidence to prove that a child that drinks Actimel daily will have a healthier immune system than a child that doesn't. They supplied the ASA with various studies, but each one was flawed, for instance by looking at much larger servings, or focusing exclusively on Indian children suffering from diarrhea. Danone's view was that although none of the papers proved the benefits existed, they formed some kind of patchwork quilt that added up to proper evidence. Quite rightly, the ASA didn't agree, and the claim can no longer be made. The jury is still out, pretty much, on whether eating live bacteria of the kind that is found in your gut will have a positive impact on those bacteria and, in turn, a positive impact on your health. Danone, perhaps realising that it is easier and cheaper to market their supposition than to seek out the evidence, don't seem concerned enough about the question to fund any quality research into it; there's more profit in "maybe". Which is a shame.

But really I'm not all that concerned either way in gut flora and the reality or otherwise of the healthy benefits of probiotics. What does concern me, and this has been commented on by better brains than mine, is the way these claims and ideas and behaviours are being normalised in the lives of children.

Now, it is fine to teach children of the importance of nutrition, that they will be healthier if they enjoy a varied diet and eat lots of fruit and vegetables. What is not fine, however, is to over-medicalise food. Actimel is a yogurt. Here's how it's marketed.

It's given a small unique portion, and the caveat, which not only manages to conflate any effect it might have with the effect of having a properly balanced diet, is reminiscent of doseage instructions, and most obviously of all there is no information on the actual eating experience. Nothing about flavour, consistency, product colour... I have no idea what Actimel is like beyond that it comes in little white bottles.

But that's all fine, if you're peddling this stuff exclusively to grown adults who ought to know better. It gets a bit more sinister, though, when the target market is children. Kids don't know that we, as a race, have survived in all manner of conditions and environments without the need to specifically target their intestinal flora. If a well-meaning mother turns around and teaches her child that they need a pot of gloop a day then it will be taken on board. It will be normalised. And it's that that is so concerning, that sense that these companies are getting to people when they're young, laying the foundations for future, on-going, relentless, lucrative behaviour.

The Durham fish oil "trials" are another example; little more than a science hoax about the impact of taking a pill on a child's school performance that normalises the taking of supplements; to start each morning with a bowl of all-bran and three pills. That's the consequence, intended or otherwise, of the "smart pill" phenomenon, to teach children that the normal way of living involves popping pills. Goldacre makes the point that in many of these cases, the pill is there not even to solve or benefit the individual in a particular way, but to solve a social ill. If you take this pill three times a day, you'll manage to get your school out of special measures.

And finally, that is the consequence of kiddy chiropractic, and a plausible motivation for chiropractic practitioners to promote spine manipulation as a treatment for colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying. Chiropractic treatment, with its belief in interrupted flows of innate intelligence, is a form of alternative medicine; by seeking out children to treat, chiropractics can normalise their treatments, safeguarding future custom.

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