Reduced fat: food giant is forced to join the fight against obesity

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The Independent Online

Amid growing concern about the threat of fat-related lawsuits, the world's second biggest food manufacturer is to cut back on the fat and sugar content of most of its products and reduce the size of the portions.

Amid growing concern about the threat of fat-related lawsuits, the world's second biggest food manufacturer is to cut back on the fat and sugar content of most of its products and reduce the size of the portions.

Kraft - maker of Dairylea slices, Toblerone and Bird's desserts - announced yesterday that it would overhaul its range of products around the world to make them less unhealthy. Many other food manufacturers are expected to follow suit - to avoid the risk of being sued by overweight consumers in the way that tobacco companies have been sued by smokers.

The decision of Kraft, which is a subsidiary of the tobacco giant Philip Morris, comes as consumers suffering from diabetes, heart disease, strokes and cancer linked to their weight are increasingly turning to the courts, accusing food companies and fast-food chains of making them fat.

Michael Mudd, Kraft's vice-president of communications, said: "First and foremost, why we are doing it, is that it is right for the people who use our products and right for us. Sure, if along the way it prevents people bringing lawsuits, we are favourable to that."

Kraft's move is seen by some critics as a cynical attempt to keep lawyers at bay, but there is continuing concern about worldwide levels of obesity. The World Health Organisation has warned that more than one billion adults are considered overweight and at least 300 million of them are obese. This is measured using the body-mass index, or BMI - a calculation that divides a person's weight in kilograms by their height in metres squared. A BMI of more than 30 is considered obese.

Last week experts in Britain warned that obesity among men in the UK was fast approaching US levels, with one in five now considered obese. In the US 127 million adults are considered overweight, 60 million obese and 9 million are judged to be severely obese.

Eight hundred British parents surveyed last year named Dairylea Lunchables, made by Kraft, as the worst kind of lunchbox food. One parent described the pre-packed meat and cheese slices with wheat crackers as "vile overprocessed rubbish". Sunny Delight, an orange drink made by Procter & Gamble, was the other brand which drew the most criticism.

It is in the US that Kraft's overhaul is likely to have the most immediate impact. Not only will the company limit the size of single portions and provide more nutritional information but it will also stop all its in-school marketing.

McDonald's is currently facing lawsuits filed on behalf of a number of obese children who allege that they were lured by the company's enticing advertising only to discover that not everything beneath the golden arches sparkled with health and vitality.

Earlier this year a lawsuit was also filed against Kraft in California seeking to ban Oreo cookies on the grounds that the company had engaged in "fraudulent and deceptive marketing". The lawsuit - which was criticised in legal circles as being an abuse of the US courts system - was withdrawn after two weeks, though the lawyer who brought the suit said the intense media coverage had made people aware of the alleged health risks from eating America's favourite biscuit.

Sam Hirsch, the New York lawyer who brought the lawsuits against McDonald's, told USA Today that food companies were trying to protect themselves from being sued in the way that tobacco companies have been sued. "You can't stop tobacco from being unhealthy," he said. "But you can make food less unhealthy."

Others are ready to follow Kraft's example. McDonald's - already having suffered its first quarterly loss and seen its expansion slow - has been promoting a new range of salads. This summer it is to start trials for a new Happy Meal in the US, allowing customers to drop the fries in exchange for a bag of fresh, sliced fruit. Some branches in the UK are already offering Happy Meal customers a bag of apple slices and grapes for an additional 59p.

Three months ago McDonald's appointed Ken Barun as its first senior executive to oversee "healthy lifestyles". Mr Barun said the company's move to providing healthier products had been driven by the demands of the market. "We see in our research that this is becoming more important to consumers," he said. "Mums want to provide healthy options for their kids."

But many food industry analysts believe that these food giants are doing little more than putting a new spin on products that are inherently unhealthy. Marion Nestle, chairwoman of the nutrition department at New York University, said: "Every major foodmaker is terrified about lawsuits."

William Sears, the author of two books on children and nutrition, said: "The bottom line for the food industry is money. What motivates the food industry and health-minded mothers is worlds apart."

THE GLOBAL EPIDEMIC

WORLD

300 million obese adults

22 million children under 5 are obese

Number of obese people has risen by 50 per cent in the past seven years

USA

30 per cent of adults are obese

One in seven children aged 11 to 16 is obese

EUROPE

Obesity increased by up to 40 per cent in the past decade

Yugoslavia tops the European league, with 40 per cent of women and 35 per cent of men obese

In Malta more than half of 10-year-old girls are overweight or obese

AFRICA

In sub-Saharan Africa, obesity affects nearly one-third of the population

JAPAN

Obesity in men doubled in the past two decades

HEALTH COSTS

Up to 8 per cent of healthcare costs in Western countries linked to obesity

Severe obesity is associated with a twelvefold increase in mortality in people aged 25 to 35

Sources: Word Health Organisation, International Obesity Task Force, American Obesity Association

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