Paradise Lost: Leading “A Better Life” with Nestlé’s Peter Brabeck-Letmathe

On the cloudy evening of Monday 9th April, students gathered in the Hotel du Vin to listen intently as the Lafayette Club’s latest guest, the Chairman Emeritus and Former CEO of food giant Nestlé, enlightened us as to the ways in which his company plans to help each one of us to lead “a better life”.

Brabeck takes us on a captivating “journey” of two dimensions: from the beginning to the end of life, and from the earliest history of man to the hustle and bustle of the 21st century. He goes on to highlight four of the most pressing concerns facing the health of humankind today, including an aging population, over-nutrition, under-nutrition, and nutrition-associated disorders. He takes each in turn to propose some of the potential ‘solutions’ which Nestlé have in store. Unable to emphasise strongly enough how far he believes that Nestlé’s role has gone beyond simply producing products, he repeatedly asserts that the company has shifted its focus from the pockets to the wellbeing of its consumers. Improving the health of the general population is a subject which is “close to his heart,” he tells us, with right hand laid sincerely across it, as though one might otherwise fail to believe him.

Source: The Lafayette Club.

His narrative begins in the gardens of “paradise” where humans had to forage and hunt for what he terms “raw” ingredients. He traces this form of existence through to the much more “civilised” society of today and postulates, seemingly without any sense of irony, that humans were driven to develop their food preparation skills through what is described as “climate-induced deforestation”. Whilst intended as a gentle narrative to introduce his new schemes, Brabeck immediately sets the hackles rising. By implying that humans moved to a somehow ‘more civilised’ means of obtaining and preparing food after deforestation and the loss of ‘paradise,’ he seems to frame environmental destruction as beneficial to the quality of human life. His human-centric approach is disturbing, paying little attention to the devastating environmental impacts of the palm-oil induced deforestation for which Nestlé is notorious. Indeed, the dearth of consideration for the environment throughout the talk paints a picture of humanity as living in a bubble of infinite resources without the need to concern ourselves with an inanimate ‘environment,’ rendered irrelevant by its lack of purchasing power.

Perhaps the most admiral example which Brabeck addresses of Nestlé seemingly trying to improve the quality of life of people in the Western world is through their scientific research into finding a drug which could “cure” Alzheimer’s – or, more accurately, potentially mitigate the symptoms of the disease. While it seems Nestlé’s heart may be in the right place with such a development, unfortunately, Brabeck neglected to mention that AC-1204 – the wonder ingredient of these new ‘medical foods’ – has consistently failed to produce significant positive results in recent trials. And while one would think from his rhetoric that Nestlé was leading the way in these developments, Nestlé-funded Accera are in fact nowhere to be found among what have been considered the most promising potential drugs treatments for Alzheimer’s.

But while ‘under-nutrition’ is highlighted as just as serious an issue as an aging population, it is clear that Nestlé is doing very little indeed about it. One area of which it may have been wisest for Brabeck to steer clear was infant formula, and while he was adamant that he was not promoting it as a substitute for breast milk, he made claims that baby formula fortified with DHA “increases cognitive abilities”. Aside from the fact that DHA is already present in breast milk, Brabeck skirted addressing the controversy which, in February, found Nestlé to be guilty of selling infant formula containing harmful sucrose and flavourings in South Africa, despite their own nutritional advice warning of the health risks posed by both. Nestlé do not target these products at the developing world because they are particularly concerned with the welfare of the under-nourished, but because they are fully aware of the negative correlation between poverty and consumer choices. Those steeped in poverty have too few options to be able to run a mile whenever they set eyes on a Nestlé label.

Brabeck also highlighted seemingly noble intentions to tackle gestational diabetes in this section, implying this to be a problem particularly prevalent in the developing world. But it only takes a quick trip to Nestlé’s official website to discover that the studies which have been carried out into this condition took place in Australia, which appears to have the thirteenth highest GDP in the world. Brabeck was right to highlight that under-nutrition remains a dominant issue facing modern societies; all the more curious, then, why Nestlé appears to be doing virtually nothing about it.

It soon emerged that Brabeck’s main mission in coming to talk to us was to flog an exciting new gadget which Nestlé have produced in cooperation with Samsung. The advert – not yet available to the public – depicts a health-conscious, middle-class lifestyle involving every movement and bite being monitored by a shiny phone-like device. The robotic intruder even, at one particularly disturbing point, informed its owner that it was time to sleep, wishing them goodnight and turning out all of the lights. Although it is too early to say, maybe this ‘nourish project’ will facilitate marginal improvements in the eating and exercise habits of a narrow slice of the privileged population with both the financial means and inclination to submit themselves to it. But with so much money being pumped into these schemes, while so few initiatives are in place to improve health and nutrition at a basic human rights level in the developing world, it seems more explicit than ever that, hand over heart or not, Nestlé continues to put profits before anything else. That Brabeck refers to locally sourced produce as a ‘luxury’ item, unable to offer nutritional solutions to those less able to afford it, before going on to promote this expensive new technology without any hint of irony, highlights his limited understanding of the concept. This is brought to the fore when, while attempting to defend his position on water by drawing a distinction between “essential” and “non-essential” resources, he morally points out that despite owning his own swimming pool, he has the decency to pay for that water himself.

Standing up to defend and promote a company so notoriously riddled with controversies and scandal is not a job for the faint-hearted, and I commend his bravery and his unabated self-confidence. Having served as CEO for 11 years, he is used to watching the back of the company that made his name, and all with considerable personal charm and humour. Tales of the sugar in his grandmother’s home-made marmalade would almost be enough to melt the heart, were it not for the knowledge that for every young Peter tucking greedily into his grandmother’s home baking, there’s an impoverished child working day and night, without rights or reward, because of the company he now represents.

The fundamental problem with Nestlé is trust; how can the consumer ever trust anything that they claim? Their past is so steeped in controversy that even if the company suddenly decided that they were genuinely interested in our health, like the boy who cried wolf, no one would believe them. When sucrose-laden baby formula is ‘for baby’s good health’, and Nestlé’s Pure Life water provides ‘healthy hydration’, albeit teeming with microplastics, we have every right to question the nature of this ‘wellbeing’ advice. Despite the benevolent front, we cannot entrust the welfare of humanity to such a self-interested brand, since the whole point of Nestlé is to sell their products – Nestlé products. How can the consumer be sure that these ‘impartial’ technologies will be telling them to eat something because it is in the best interests of their health, rather than in the best interests of boosting sales of Nestlé’s latest ‘healthy’ snacks?

Brabeck valiantly attempts to justify the continuing relevance of Nestlé’s processed foods to a consumer base increasingly conscious of where its food is coming from and what exactly is being put into it. In doing so, he condemns the latest trends favouring ‘raw ingredients’ over processed foods as more healthy options, describing our growing preference for them as ‘basically wrong’. Since he does not elaborate, one can only presume that by this he means to victimise the humble, unprocessed fruit and vegetable, plucked directly from ‘paradise’. It seems that Nestlé have found one element of the food industry which they have as yet been unable to monopolise. And if only the consumer would stop being so stubborn as to keep eating 5-a-day instead of that nourishing KitKat, we could all lead a better life.

I have no doubts whatsoever that Brabeck’s shamelessly plugged book, Nutrition for a Better Life, would make an interesting read. But I for one would much rather invest in a genuinely ethical plate which helps to improve the lives of others than make any contribution to his swimming pool water funds.

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