Organic Articles: The Bigger Picture ­ The Politics of Obesity

The Organic Consultancy

The Bigger Picture The Politics of Obesity

Simon Wright
The Organic Consultancy

This article originally appeared in the April 2003 edition of Organic Business.

This year’s USA Expo West trade show was accompanied by the Nutracon conference for functional foods and nutraceuticals. The opening address at Nutracon was given by Dr Marion Nestle of New York University and was entitled “Obesity, Politics and Nutrition: Issues and Opportunities”. She painted a bleak picture of an epidemic of obesity across America, leavened by occasional flashes of humour, such as the cartoon featuring two bewildered consumers surrounded by a plethora of fast-food outlets and captioned “Weapons Of Mass Expansion”.

Marion’s hypothesis is that increasing obesity is an inevitable consequence of having a food industry that is not constrained by nutritional regulation. In order to become more profitable food companies need to sell more food and/or sell more expensive food. In the absence of population growth in their key industrialised markets this means persuading consumers to eat more food, and replacing unprocessed fruit and vegetables with more highly processed items, of higher added value. In order to make such processed foods palatable high levels of sugar, salt and fat are added. The result is a nutritional disaster.

It’s a persuasive argument which Marion effectively illustrated by practical examples, such as the increase in portion sizes of soft drinks served in US cinemas. The traditional 8oz cup is now extinct but you can have a Double Gulp of Coke containing an astonishing 64 ounces! Even more chilling was an infant feeding bottle carrying the Pepsi logo. In at least some instances the content of the bottle is also Pepsi, to the point where TNS can track consumption of fizzy drinks by toddlers of two years old or less. We too should be worried – where the US goes we tend follow, in this as in so many other areas.

Earlier this year the UK tabloids got suitably outraged by rapidly increasing levels of UK child obesity. In the US magazines are taking a different approach. Articles titled “Is Food The Next Tobacco?” suggest that it might be lawyers that bring about nutritional improvement through issuing class actions against the so-called “Big Fat” food manufacturers, in the same way that they have already attacked tobacco companies.

The other way would be for all of us to start behaving like responsible citizens and exercising restraint over the foods that we and our families select and consume. So just the seven organic Easter eggs for me this year.