Food industry has bone to pick with nutritionist

It's not entirely accurate to call Barry Popkin a flame-thrower, because he doesn't ignite controversy for the sake of igniting controversy.

But the economist and nutrition professor at UNC-Chapel Hill has sparked his share of conflagrations in the food wars. Just last week, he declared that red meat is not only bad for human health, but a cancer on the global environment.

Not surprisingly, the meat people were ticked, calling his comments unfair.

They took a place in line behind the soda people, and the high-fructose corn syrup people, and the infant-formula people -- all of whom Popkin has stirred up during his 30-year career.

"He's not afraid to take a position on the issues," says Dr. Barbara Entwisle, director of the Carolina Population Center, where Popkin is a fellow. "He is willing to take some heat if he feels the science backs a particular position."

Popkin takes the flak in stride.

"My name is mud to a lot of people," he says, laughing.

He says his positions are based not only on science, but also on years of observation. His most recent book, "The World is Fat: The Fads, Trends, Policies and Products that are Fattening the Human Race," explores the eating habits of five families in the United States, Mexico and India to establish his premise that waistlines around the world are expanding as people adopt Western diets.

He witnessed many of the changes firsthand during research trips around the globe, beginning with a trip to India in the 1960s as an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In that visit, he saw gripping poverty and vast numbers of malnourished people, sparking his interest to study both economics and nutrition.

After earning his doctorate in agricultural economics from Cornell, he worked in the Philippines in the 1970s, studying mothers who breast-fed or used infant formulas. He later returned to India, and also conducted nutritional research in China.

Obesity among the poor

"At one time it was all about hunger," he says. But as weight crept up in the United States in the 1980s, and then across other developed countries, a subtle shift began occurring elsewhere. Even in poor countries, he noted that people were growing fat.

Popkin described a "nutrition transition" that occurred when traditional diets were replaced by cheap, highly processed foods full of fats and sugars. And as the people got bigger, they also got sick. Problems such as diabetes and heart disease began escalating among the world's poor, who can least afford medical care or medicines.

"It took years to convince the world that obesity was a problem for low-income countries," Popkin says.

But by this decade, there was no question that obesity was replacing malnutrition as the bigger problem in many poor countries. In 2004, the World Health Organization counted 2 billion obese and overweight adults and issued a Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health to encourage healthy diets and regular physical activity.

Acerbic about sweeteners

Popkin was also one of the first to raise alarms about high-fructose corn syrup, the sugar additive that has become ubiquitous in everything from soda to salad dressing. He rankled the industry in 2004 when he linked rising obesity rates with the widespread use of the additive, speculating that it had unique characteristics that made people gain weight.

Popkin has since revised his position, noting that added sugars -- not high-fructose corn syrup per se -- are the danger.

Sweeteners are especially troublesome, he says, when they're consumed in sodas, juices and sports drinks that offer little to no nutritional payoff for their high calories. As he sips a Diet Snapple Tea in his office at University Towers in Chapel Hill, he says his "feather-ruffling" of the beverage industry got serious when he worked to ban soda sales in schools. He has also called for a tax on high-calorie beverages.

The meaty subject

Now he's added meat producers to the list of food industry giants who take umbrage at his views. In a commentary last week in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, Popkin noted that eating meat has both personal and global risks. People who eat large quantities of meat die earlier than those who eat modest amounts. But the global consequences of meat-based diets, Popkin said, are worse, contributing to global warming, pollution and resource depletion.

Popkin's perspective raised immediate ire.

"It's unfortunate that he's chosen to pile on with that commentary," said Daren R. Williams, executive director of communications for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "The issue of the carbon footprint of beef production has been greatly exaggerated on a number of fronts. The point is, all food production has an environmental footprint. In the U.S., all agriculture contributes 6.4 percent of greenhouse gases -- and what we get is food, fiber and energy. We get a huge return on that 6.4 percent."

But Popkin's point of view rings true in the growing green movement, gaining credence beyond animal activists and vegetarian advocates.

"He has a real eye and ear to important topics," says John S. Akin, chairman of UNC-CH's economics department. "He has a strong feeling for doing what's right." Akin, a fellow at the Carolina Population Center, has worked with Popkin for decades.

And Popkin's not shy about stating his beliefs. He is widely quoted in major national newspapers and magazines, and maintains a busy schedule of appearances at academic conferences. He is described by his colleagues as energetic -- he often rides his bike to work -- and his publications number in the hundreds.

At 64, Popkin says he has no plans to slow down. He's working on research in the United States, China and Russia, exploring diet shifts.

"I plan on doing more research," he says, "and trying to change the world."