Public Health and Profit: the Food Industry


As a general rule, the reason people are overweight is because they eat too much and exercise too little. Not that exercise is any use at weight reduction if you insist on eating twice as many calories as your body needs to sustain you. In fact, the majority of people who spend an hour and a half peddling like mad to the sound of 'Eye of the tiger' in an over-priced gym are wasting their time since they will generally treat themselves afterwards to a large Coke. Fact is, the keep fit industry has as many charlatans making ridiculous claims as the food industry does.

People treating themselves after a work-out is easy to understand, the reason they eat too much requires probing. Genetically, humans have not changed much in thousands of years but the world in which they live has changed. It's full of food producers dictating policy to their politician buddies, it's full of supermarkets plying addictive, fattening food labelled with false health giving properties. This a world where multi-billion dollar advertising, lobbying and marketing companies flood our senses with the messages of their food industry pay masters. And the giants of the food industry are taking advice from the investment banks on protecting their profits.

Increased cultivation

The 1970s saw massive increase in the production of corn in the USA as a result of government policy to bring more land into production. This led the food industry to increase its use of Fructose Corn Syrup, a by product of waste corn, it was cheap (a third cheaper than sugar) The food industry started using it in all types of food - pizzas, coleslaw, meat, bread and, of course, fizzy drinks. Curiously, the consumption of fizzy drinks doubled in the decade after the introduction of fructose, some say due to its addictive qualities. However, there was also a doubling of the waste size of a large number of citizens. The food industry said lack of exercise was to blame, not excess consumption of fructose drinks. This overlooks a physiological fact of body chemistry.


The Leptin effect

Leptin is a hormone that lives in fat cells and its job is to tell your brain when you have had a enough to eat, i.e. that you really do not need another can of Coke. However, fructose suppresses the action of leptin and you don't know your body's had enough fizzy muck.

Super Sized Profits

The upshot, the world started to get fatter and the politicians started to notice that things were not all well with the output of the food industry. However, the the food retailers also played their part by encouraging people to eat more, with their supersize gimmickry. Cinema chains were the first to start peddling oversized buckets of popcorn and fast food outlets soon followed suit. Profits and consumption increased. It turns out that hungry people often feel guilty about buying two items of the same food, but can be persuaded to buy one bigger portion. McDonalds tapped into this piece of human psychology big time for around a decade up to 2004, when they reviewed their menus in terms of the damage that continued supersizing might do to its bottom line. Coincidentally, 2004 was the year that J P Morgan took a critical look at what the big players in the food world were selling that might damage their profits.

The Low Fat Revolution

The food industry and their retail associates knew that changes were afoot, apart from increased wastelines, heart disease was becoming an major concern and scientists were pointing the finger at the fat content of food. A whole new food range began to appear in supermarkets, labelled 'low fat'. Consumers loved the idea and it got the industry off the hook with regulators, and kept the bottom line in tact. The low fat revolution had arrived, it wasn't just ready meals, everything from yogurts to biscuits were now low fat. Indeed it was low fat, with added sugar and salt, to make it taste of something. Back to brain chemistry again; sugar, fat, salt are just like any other addictive drugs to the brain and the food industry knew this. But the global health watchdogs were getting suspicious about the benefits of the low fat revolution.

There was also a major concern brought on in Britain, first by Edwina Currie's admission that all the nation's eggs were infected with salmonella and later BSE in cows, and its spread to humans - these events caused tremors across the food industry; the public needed to be soothed.

Healthy Food

Help was at hand for the food industry, the 2004 J P Morgan review alerted the industry that in order to protect profits more changed was required. Soon the supermarket shelves and the fast food outlets were packed with 'healthy' foods and what could be more healthy than 'organic' products. Another success story, the public loved it - that is, the idea that you could eat healthy and for information foods were labelled as such, you know, organic.

However, some people have a tendency to believe that if something is good for you, you should eat more of it - without considering the calorie implications of doing so. Also, letting a chicken run free for its short life doesn't make it better for you to eat, nor do its eggs taste any better than some battery hen.

Food Labelling

However, the regulators decided that consumers needed more information about the nutritional contents of the packets, especially the amounts of brain drugs like sugar, salt and fat. Some bright spark came up with the idea of a Traffic Light system to alert shoppers to dangerous foods. Strangely, it was a voluntary scheme, Sainsburys took up the idea with gusto and Tesco could not be doing with it. Nobody in government wanted to upset Tesco, employer to 300,000 people. Strangely, The Food Standards Agency had its responsibility for food labelling removed by Dave's government six months after coming into office.

MEPs in the European parliament were not worried about Tesco and were pushing for a cross Europe labelling scheme. The food industry spent over £1bn lobbying specifically MEPs with food related constituencies, oddly, no legislation relating to food labelling appeared.

The industry lobby group FoodDrinkEurope, provides us with its own take on the importance of food labelling, when it complained that MEPs had blocked attempts to use labels like "contains 15% less fat" and they claimed:

"...consumers will not be informed of important reformulations to foods so that they can make an informed food choice". It said the label would have enabled producers to "communicate incremental nutrition changes".

But can the public make informed choices?

The importance of food labelling was highlighted in a study by Pierre Chandon, from the Harvard Business School. Chandon re-labelled chocolate treats as 'low fat' and tells us:

"We found that just because [the treats] were called low fat, people consumed up to 50% more of them." "This is something I call 'the health halo'. It's the idea that when the food is marketed as being healthy, people think it has less calories."

Back in 2006, following studies on food labelling by the Food Standards Agency guideline_daily_amountsthere was good evidence that better food labelling was called for to head off the growing problem of unhealthy fatness. Looking at various options, the traffic light system was recommended by the FSA. Many of the big industy players didn't like the idea of having the red sticker of death on their products, so instead opted for Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs). Clearly, these companies were unprepared to make their foods genuinely more healthy, not considering the profit implications of having lots of green stickers on their products - not to mention the social contribution they might have made.


Government Policy

Here in Britain, policy is unchanged, ministers and their civil servants sit down with the likes of Unilever and Asda and listen to what the industry wants. Makers of unhealthy products are invited to sponsor sporting events like the Olympics. Obesity is the panic of the moment but it is being portrayed as an individual problem, the antics of the food industry since the introduction of fructose in the 70s is not uppermost in most minds. As far as government ministers are concerned, the public needs to be educated, if not patronised, about how to be healthy. See the Change For Life website for a real dollop of patronage.

2013 saw the introduction of a so-called consistent food labelling system and the coalition is congratulating itself and hopes that the uptake will be widespread within the industry. The proposed front of packet system of labelling combines the GDA and Traffic Light ideas but it's still voluntary.

Public Health Minister Anna Soubry crowed:

"By having a consistent system we will all be able to see, at a glance, what is in our food. This will help us all choose healthier options and control our calorie intake. Obesity and poor diet cost the NHS billions of pounds every year. Making small changes to our diet can have a big impact on our health and could stop us getting serious illnesses - such as heart disease - later in life."

And industry spokesperson, Barbara Gallani, of the Food and Drink Federation, tells us the industry in the UK had "led the way" on the issue.

"Our members are committed to continuing to provide clear nutrition information to consumers and we well be actively engaged in further discussions with the Department of Health... "


The key question is, can we trust the industry to look after public health when its past record is so shabby. It was the food industry who created the obesity problem with their lying nonsense about low fat, healthy food that wasn't and isn't, it was they who put fructose and wall paper paste in everything we eat, it was the industry that decided to supersize everybody - they just can't be trusted on health issues.

A government of conviction would dictate public health policy and would not enter into voluntary agreements with untrustworthy charlatans.