The World Health Organisation is right. The invisible hand of the market will only make us fatter

Today another shudder was felt on the developing fault-line between public health campaigns and the private companies that feed us

Memphis Barker
Monday 03 February 2014 20:15 GMT
(Getty Images)

This column appears in the Tuesday 4th February edition of the i paper

I have in my mind a lunchbox, one that promises its owner five portions of fruit and vegetables, or in other words the Recommended Daily Allowance. The menu goes like this. To start, one pack of Kiddylicious Strawberry Fruit Wriggles; for the main, a tin of Heinz spaghetti hoops, washed down by a Robinson’s My-5 Fruit Shoot. Desert would be a Nākd Cocoa Delight bar. And the coup de grace - for any gourmand yet to plump their stomach - a snack bag of Yu! Jus Fruit Mango pieces. Of course, not one of these lunchables is exactly a fruit, or precisely a vegetable. But each has allied itself by a label to the Government’s ‘five-a-day’ campaign, which advises UK citizens to eat 400g of greens as they chew their way from breakfast to dinner.

Any half-awake shopper can fill in the obvious but uncomfortable truth that not one item in my lunchbox points out. If you were to eat these foods in place of an actual piece of fruit or vegetable, switching the tomato in spaghetti hoops for the red thing that comes off a vine, you would swallow some quantity of processed gunk on the side. In some cases, as with the Kiddylicious Fruit Wriggles, which contain 78 per fruit sugars, the makers have cottoned on to the fact that you can design something to look like the Government’s ‘five-a-day’ logo and whack it on a pack of sweets. In others, as with your Spaghetti hoops, Heinz provides the basic requirement of vegetable while selling a meal that remains high in fat, salt and sugar.

Today a shudder was felt on the developing fault-line between public health campaigns and the private companies that make feeding us their business. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) – the body behind the “five a day” project - the UK Government’s relaxed approach to regulation of the fast-food industry is contributing to a steep rise in obesity rates. Study author Professor Roberto de Vogli told the i that it was “pure illusion” to think that big corporations will safeguard public health voluntarily – a principle that is, unfortunately, slap bang central to the ‘Responsibility Deal’ signed in 2011 between the Coalition and 150 private makers and sellers of food.

More bile is spat at Big Food by the month. Sugar was branded “the new tobacco” in January, as campaigners gestured to quantities of ‘hidden’ sweetener in everyday staples like bread. Don Barrett - the lawyer who challenged and brought down Big Tobacco in the US – has turned his attention to Big Food (“It’s poisoning us for profit”, he says.) And last month’s Sundance film festival saw the premiere of Fed Up – a documentary claiming to expose a “30 year campaign by the food industry to mislead the American public”. Any attempt to merge junk food – which we could just about live on – with tobacco – which we couldn’t – has its awkward points, but the tactics of fast food makers, “engineering” their products to make them ever more addictive, make parallels impossible to dismiss. So too the fact that obesity is now being compared to HIV in its capacity to curtail how long a sufferer can expect to live.

And yet, any time the prospect of greater government intervention is raised, a familiar cry goes up. Attacks on “liberty” are invoked. The “nanny state” – which spends £6bn a year on diet-related illnesses - decried. What the defenders of our right to eat how we choose overlook is that we ‘choose’ only in a loose sense of the word. Brain chemistry – and the way food interacts with it – makes some people far more likely to become obese than others. To put it indelicately, a skinny person with a good metabolism has more free will by a snack trolley than an obese person without one.

Some say the market should correct itself as consumers learn more about the health risk posed by sugar and fat. And it’s not an impossible theory to swing. As part of a voluntary effort to ‘go healthy’, America’s largest food and beverage companies sold 6.4 trillion fewer calories in 2012 than 2007 – equivalent to one cookie less per US citizen per day. But the theory only swings so far. PepsiCo employ a CEO, Indra Nooyi, with a passion for healthy eating, yet her attempts to lead the company away from a reliance on sugary fatty products – its full-fat soda and Doritos chips – spooked Wall Street investors, and have yet to convince the man on the sofa.

“The invisible hand of the market”, says de Vogli “will continue to promote obesity worldwide”. By 2050, the National Obesity Forum believes that 60 per cent of British men could be obese. Carry on trusting the makers of Strawberry Fruit Wriggles and Spaghetti Hoops to solve the problem, and our tailoring may well prove them right.

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