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Health insurers make big bucks from Big Macs

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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insurance companies invest fast food billionLike most businesses, health and life insurance companies are out to make a buck, and one way they augment their income is by investing in other industries.

But a new study has found that $1.88 billion from this industry is backing the top five publicly traded fast food chains. Excessive consumption of this sort of food has been repeatedly linked to a host of health problems, including obesity and diabetes.

"Life and health insurance firms profess to support health and wellness, but their choice of financial investments has raised doubts," wrote Arun Mohan and his coauthors, all at the Department of Medicine at Cambridge Health Alliance and Harvard Medical School, in an article published online April 15 in the American Journal of Public Health

The largest burger backer was Northwestern Mutual, which had invested $422.2 million in publicly traded fast food corporations, including $318.1 million in McDonald’s, according to Mohan’s research.

It’s already common knowledge that the insurance industry has made even bigger investments in tobacco (handing over almost $4.5 billion, according to a 2009 study), but evidence is mounting that obesity and other dietary diseases are becoming as much of a burden on health—both individual and national—than smoking. People who live near fast food restaurants are more likely to have a stroke than residents living farther away, according to another 2009 study. And high-fat foods have been shown to be rather addictive, at least in animal models.

The researchers conceded that "fast food can be consumed responsibly," but Mohan and his colleagues asserted that "the marketing and sale of products by fast food companies is done in a manner that undermines the public’s health."

Although most companies—and many individuals—hand their investment portfolios over to financial firms (or separate company departments) to manage, the authors argued that, "insurers ought to be held to a higher standard of corporate responsibility."

"Our data illustrate the extent to which the insurance industry seeks to turn a profit above all else," Wesley Body, senior author of the study, said in a prepared statement. "Safeguarding people’s health and well-being take a back seat to making money."

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/Songbird839

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  1. 1. Iahmad 5:53 am 04/16/2010

    It is no surprize. After all it is the business and profit that matters and not human health or life. You can not ignore the war and media industry investing in each other. Pentagon thugs have huge investment in CNN, Fox, NYT and other corporate media. Similarly many of the commentators in these tabloids are on payrol of Pentagon. Thus profit far outweighs the death and destruction carried out by one and supported by other. Million deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine are no match to trillion dollars made by these thugs. American public needs to wake up and take head on foreign lobbies which are acting hand in hand with congress and senate to kill others and the ball will roll on them as well. There is already a warning from Israel for destruction of America and Europe. This is far more serious than Al-Qaeda threat propagated by Pentagon with support from cheerleading media.

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  2. 2. Richieo 6:24 am 04/16/2010

    What a bunch self-righteous hypocrites? or is it just good business and government policy.

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  3. 3. JamesDavis 6:43 am 04/16/2010

    No wonder the Senate (all the Republicans and the Republican/Democrats in the other houses) and health insurers fought so hard to get rid of the "Public Option" in the Health Care Reform. Put that Public Option back in the Health Reform Bill and let these greedy/stupid idiots eat their own fat.

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  4. 4. doug l 8:31 am 04/16/2010

    So, evidently the scientists who used to contribute to SciAm have left the building and the only ones left to produce the magazine are liberal arts majors, right?
    The notion that our health problems are the result of the Big Business of fast food rather than overcomsumption of the food that we have, regardless of who makes it or how its made, seems to be the focus as the "I suck at math" crowd are guiding the editoral efforts. Right?
    Here’s a clue; that bag of fries used as an illustration for the online article presumably as an example of all that’s wrong with our fast food nation. In fact it has about 1/3 the sodium in a typical bran-muffin you’d get at Starbucks. Continuing to compare it to an all so healthy bran muffin, the fries probably have less fat, carbohydrates, and preservatives. But never the less the fries have become the poster child of all that’s wrong with our diets. I wonder how many readers will recall how we were all cowed into believing that margarine was better for us than butter, based on equally dumb notions of diet just as we’re seeing now.
    The key, if in fact articles like this were to really address our growing metabolic diseases as they spread, would be looking for clues as to why we overeat, avoid exercise, and allow ourselves the comfort of ignorance when it comes to dietary science. Maybe Sci Am should investigate that instead of creating shame-generators over our unconscionable connection with the fast food industry which has more to do with political ideology than nutritional science.

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  5. 5. janekm 9:27 am 04/16/2010

    Alternatively, one could see this as a form of hedging… If people consume more fast food, the profits of the fast food companies go up, making up for the increased costs on the health delivery side.

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  6. 6. killroy53 1:28 pm 04/16/2010

    So, if health plans stopped investing in tobacco and fast food, we’d all stop smoking and gorging? Well, all right then, problem solved! Whyntcha just say so?

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  7. 7. harvurd 1:36 pm 04/16/2010

    @doug l: Dude, this article is not about nutritional science. You’re projecting. You wish it were. In reality, it is simply a semi-interesting, non-opinionated article about the investment choices of a particular industry. Investments. It’s not that big of a deal. Anyway, I’m interested to know what percentage of Northwestern Mutual’s TOTAL investments are related to the food industry. You know, maybe $318m is a relatively small portion of their overall portfolio. On the face, it does seem like a hedge as janekm suggests.

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  8. 8. killroy53 5:15 pm 04/16/2010

    So, if health plans stopped investing in tobacco and fast food, we’d all stop smoking and gorging? Well, all right then, problem solved! Whyntcha just say so?

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  9. 9. elderlybloke 4:25 am 04/17/2010

    famulla . I believe Aspirin thins the blood to reduce the chance of clots forming- that means it decreases the viscosity.
    I don’t use Aspirin , but I have Arthritis in my knees. Why is that?

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  10. 10. focalist 10:45 am 04/18/2010

    Just about the only upside to my Crohns Disease is that junk food is nearly a prescription for me!

    When flaring, I can easily lose as much as a pound a day, for weeks. I’ve done a freefall of forty one pounds in one month. When flaring, it’s nearly impossible to eat due to nausea and vomiting- only "non standard" medication can put a dent in it, if you know what I mean, but that’s another discussion. Even when I can eat, very little gets absorbed, even things like Ensure provide almost no nutritional benefit. It’s not uncommon for Crohns patients to need TPN… being "fed" a glucose cocktail intravenously.

    However, when I am not flaring, I can gain weight very rapidly and am encouraged to do so. In either situation, maximizing my caloric intake while minimizing the "impact" on the GI tract is the goal. In that respect, absolutely nothing compares to McDonalds. No fiber, no vegetable matter to speak of, really.. literally everything contains sugar.. a good portion of the menu is deep-fried and just dripping with lardy goodness. (yes I know it’s not lard, but I like the word). Mind you, it’s not quality calories.. and the weight being gained is PURE fat. Even right now, being flare-free for about six months, my docs would like to see me another ten to fifteen pounds heavier, to be prepared for the next Flare. Baby back ribs… cheesecake (careful of the lactose).. lots of bacon and ham.

    Still, when I want to gain the weight, I go to McDonalds. When I want empty calories in massive quantity, Ronald’s got everyone else beat. Yeah, half the customers have Mayor McCheese’s figure, but for me… the scrawny guy in the corner with a book and a stack of cheeseburgers…. Crap is King

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  11. 11. my insurance life 7:10 pm 04/20/2010

    While it is immoral… it makes sense. Health insurance is meant to protect us, it IS a business. The goal of a business is to compete and bring in profits. Can anyone really be surprised? It would be different if it were a non-profit organization and/or received government funds, then they would be held to higher standards. Because they are private, it is up to us, the consumers, to demand better practices. Easier said than done.

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  12. 12. nwallace 7:56 am 04/21/2010

    "Dumb" does not really describe it. Science is an evolving process of gathering data. We knew about the dangers of saturated fat when consumers were being advised to choose margarine over butter; we knew considerably less about the dangers of the trans fats that were then present in virtually all margarines.

    I think fries are used as the epitome of bad food choices because they provide nothing that is nutritionally good; at least the bran muffin has some whole-grain fiber, albeit it also has plenty of added sugar and fat as well. Probably no one is touting Starbucks muffins as healthy eating, anyway.

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  13. 13. villar 12:23 am 04/23/2010

    What utter stupidity. Why is the scientific community so ignorant of business that they think buying stock in a company has anythingthing to do with advancing that comapnies profits. Do you think the money goes to the company? No, it goes to the guy you bought the stock from, you idiots. Are you among those moraons who go to a horse race and bet on Litty Lady to come in first in the second race that it actually promotes Little Lady to come up a winner? Or perhaps you think screaming for the Red Sox in front of your TV will help the ole’ hometeam to take the pennant?

    What a bunch of idiots. Try taking some business courses before shooting your mouths off.

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