By Emma Mitchell •
Updated: 26 Nov 2023 • 0:56
Who is to blame for obesity. Credit: Image by Freepik
Look at a crowd photo from the 1970s and count how many overweight or obese people you see in it. The chances are the answer will be few to none. Fast forward to 2023 and the rates of obesity have tripled globally since 1975. Who’s to blame for this, is it us? Do we all have free will but no discipline? The answer is quite startling.
The Gasol Foundation 2022 PASOS report states that in Spain 21.6 per cent of children are obese and 11.8 per cent are overweight. It is estimated that, by 2035, 37 per cent of people in Spain will be overweight or obese. This seems bewildering because the Mediterranean diet is always upheld as one of the healthiest in the world and a big contributor to staying slim. The reality is that the average consumption of fish and seafood in Spain decreased by approximately 30 per cent between 2000 and 2019. The Spanish are drifting away from their traditional Mediterranean diet.
Obesity is a ticking time bomb that is waiting to go off in almost every country in the world. It’s estimated that by 2035 around 38 per cent of the world’s population, approximately 4 billion people, will be overweight or obese.
The World Health Organisation lists obesity as one of the key risk factors for many noncommunicable diseases (NCD) including coronary heart disease, hypertension, stroke, type 2 diabetes, gallbladder disease, dyslipidemia, osteoarthritis and gout, pulmonary diseases and 13 types of cancer.
Not only does obesity have a catastrophic impact on health, but it also damages the economy; it’s predicted that obesity will have an impact ranging between 2 and 3 per cent on the Gross Domestic Product (i.e. the value of all goods and services produced and sold in that country in a year) of most countries in Europe and, in the US, a staggering 4 per cent impact.
Obesity is so bad that it’s now listed as a non-communicable disease in its own right and it affects us from the cradle (20 per cent of women in Spain and the UK are estimated to be obese when they become pregnant) to the grave. It also impacts lower-skilled, lower-income households more, with ENSE data revealing that the children of unskilled workers were three times more likely to suffer from obesity than those of parents in management positions.
It is, in fact, a type of malnutrition, something we normally associate with starving people in the Sub-Sahara. However, where their suffering stems from a lack of nutrients and too few calories, in the majority of the world the problem is a lack of nutrients and far too many calories.
In a study ‘Big Food, Food Systems, and Global Health’, the authors note that 1 billion people in the world are hungry, whilst 2 billion are overweight. In countries like India, they are suffering from both issues simultaneously with a section of society poor and starving and another section affluent and increasingly fat.
The study says, “Over- and undernutrition reflect two facets of malnutrition. Underlying both is a common factor: food systems are not driven to deliver optimal human diets but to maximize profits. For people living in poverty, this means either exclusion from development (and consequent food insecurity) or eating low-cost, highly processed foods lacking in nutrition and rich in sugar, salt, and saturated fats (and consequent overweight and obesity).”
Around three-quarters of world food sales are processed foods. In the United States, the ten largest food companies control over half of all food sales and worldwide this proportion is about 15 per cent and rising.
It’s known as Big Food, giant multi and transnational companies manufacturing and distributing what public health scientists like to call ultra-processed foods and the rest of us call ‘junk food’. Ultra-processed foods are those high in sodium, sugars and fats and a classic example used to explain them is that corn on the cob is an unprocessed food, canned corn is processed or minimally processed, and a bag of Doritos is ultra-processed. A bag of Doritos bears no resemblance to a corn-on-the-cob and has 28 ingredients, and that’s not even counting all the different artificial colours and vegetable oils separately.
Big Food is one of four industries (the other three being tobacco, alcohol and fossil fuels) that the World Health Organisation says is responsible for at least a third of global deaths a year and they manufacture ultra-processed foods. We eat a lot of ultra-processed foods and are eating more all the time; in the US they make up more than half of all the calories in an American’s diet.
But what’s so bad about ultra-processed foods? Well, for one thing, medical studies have found that cravings for junk food may be as strong as an addiction to heroin or cocaine. Why? Well the whole purpose of a Big Food company is to get you to buy more of its products so it’s in the company’s interests to make something you can’t stay away from.
Marion Nestle, a microbiologist, nutritionist and author of the blog foodpolitics.com, has read more food studies than I’ve had hot dinners and talks about one undertaken by the National Institute of Health in 2019 where people were put on a controlled metabolic ward to ensure that the only food they ate was the food given in the experiment. One group was given a diet of ultra-processed food and the other group a diet of minimally processed food. Both diets were matched in their nutritional composition. The group on the ultra-processed food diet ate an average of 500 calories a day more than the group on the minimally processed food – 500 calories a day excess equates to gaining a pound of weight a week.
There’s a simple reason why; take a packet of chocolate chip cookies and a massive bowl of salad. It’s extremely hard to stop eating the cookies, but it’s quite easy to reach a point where you’ve had enough salad.
Big Food companies develop products that are loaded with fat, carbohydrates and sodium in combinations that trigger the brain’s reward system and disrupt fullness signals in a way that the ingredients don’t if consumed individually. No food in nature exists that combines elements in the way an ultra-processed food product does. Scientists call the phenomenon of combining sugar, fats, carbohydrates and other natural, or synthetic, ingredients to produce a product that is hard to resist ‘hyper-palatable food’ and, these days, 68 per cent of food sold in the United States fits that description.
So worrying is the addictiveness and terrible health consequences of hyper-palatable ultra-processed foods that UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, put out a plea to the food industry, saying “I especially call on corporations that profit from selling processed foods to children to act with the utmost integrity. I refer not only to food manufacturers but also the media, marketing and advertising companies that play central roles in these enterprises.”
In a report published in the journal Addiction in September 2023, researchers made a startling discovery – the origins of ultra-processed food, designed to be additive, was not in the food industry, but in Big Tobacco. The University of California has millions of old internal documents from the tobacco industry in its Industry Documents Library and the researchers discovered some amazing information buried there.
In the 1960s the US government started making moves to legislate against tobacco as more started to be known about how harmful it was. In response, the tobacco giants started moving into the food industry with Philip Morris buying up Kraft and General Foods and RJ Reynolds taking over Del Monte and Nabisco.
One RJ Reynolds’ internal memo sheds some light on why that move took place:
“R.J. Reynolds is in the flavour business,” one insider wrote, adding that many of the flavours the company had created for cigarettes “would be useful in food, beverage and other products,” leading to “large financial returns.”
Big Tobacco companies installed their executives in the food companies they had bought and began to apply all the marketing tricks they had used to sell cigarettes to adults, and children, down the decades. They had been adept at deliberately making tobacco products more addictive and they turned that know-how to food production and marketing.
Until the 2000s, Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds controlled popular food brands like Oreo cookies, Kraft Mac n Cheese, Kool-Aid, Jell-O, Oscar Mayer Hot Dogs, Ritz Crackers, Teddy Grahams and many, many more. The researchers looked at the nutritional composition of 105 of these Big Tobacco-owned food brands and compared them with 587 similar products sold by competing brands that were not owned by tobacco companies.
They discovered that Big Tobacco-owned foods were 80 per cent more likely to contain potent combinations of carbohydrates and sodium that made them hyper-palatable and were also 29 per cent more likely to contain similarly potent combinations of fat and sodium. The findings suggested that the tobacco companies had deliberately engineered the foods to hit what’s known as the ‘bliss point’ and trigger cravings.
The tobacco giants also applied marketing strategies to the food that they had for tobacco, for instance, Hawaiian Punch was a brand that had been marketed as a cocktail mixer for adults until RY Reynolds took it over and started marketing it to children. They created a brand mascot, ‘Punchy’, which appeared on TV adverts, and in comics and was made into toys and they launched many more flavours to appeal to different consumer segments.
In 1988, Philip Morris owned Oscar Mayer launched the ‘Lunchables’, a plastic TV dinner-style packet containing processed cheese, ham and crackers and marketed it at busy Mothers who wanted a quick, convenient packable lunch for their kids. The cache of internal documents includes a memo where one Philip Morris executive jokes that the healthiest item in a packet of Lunchables was the napkin.
The research concluded that tobacco companies appeared to have been selectively disseminating hyper-palatable foods into the US food system between 1988 and 2001. Though Big Tobacco no longer has a financial interest in those companies, the reality is that the ingredients of the products have changed very little down the years and the brands have gone global and been joined by many hundreds, if not thousands, of more hyper-palatable ultra-processed products.
Novo-Nordisk, makers of the obesity-diabetes drug, Wegovy, announced in 2022 that it’s sales of ‘obesity care’ products had doubled, causing a surge in its market value and making it the second largest company in Europe after luxury giant LVMH. The irony is that it pushed Nestlé out of second place and they had announced, shortly before Novo Nordisk’s announcement, that they acknowledged that 54 per cent of their products were not “generally healthy” because of their high content of saturated fats, sugar and salt.
Novo-Nordisk’s obesity drugs, Wegovy and Ozempic, have quadrupled the company’s share price in just four years. The drugs, which are once-weekly injectables of a medication called semaglutide which decreases the appetite and slows down the emptying of the stomach, have already reached around 9 million prescriptions a year in the US alone. The global market for them is reckoned to reach 100 million US dollars by 2035 and the global market for obesity drugs is estimated to be worth 77 billion US dollars by 2030.
In other words, Big Pharma’s obesity drugs are set to be as big a business as Big Food’s ultra-processed foods. But this is not a case of Big Pharma riding in on a white horse to ‘solve’ the problem of obesity. Far from it. This is a symbiotic relationship for, without ultra-processed foods, there wouldn’t be a global obesity epidemic and therefore no need for obesity, or indeed diabetes, drugs.
The cynics amongst us may conclude that big industry is deliberately and without a slither of conscience, making the world’s population sick in order to profit from it. The truth is that, just like tobacco, junk food is an addictive habit and one we need to break now for the good of our health and the good of our children’s health.
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Emma landed in journalism after nearly 30 years as an executive in the Internet industry. She lives in Bédar and her interests include raising one eyebrow, reckless thinking and talking to people randomly. If you have a great human interest story you can contact her on email@example.com
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