The Risk-Monger

We hear the warnings every day: Obesity rates exploding. Diabetes epidemic looming. Lifestyle and diet crisis will cut life expectancy rates. And of course: The fast food industry is making killer profits while killing us!

Should it come as no surprise that in a world where we blame industry for everything else (global warming caused by big oil, chemical companies contaminating us, factory air pollution causing lung disease, irresponsible bank lending, big pharma paying off our doctors …), that we should also blame industry for this obesity epidemic? So no one blinks twice when we share stories of how the food and drink industries have made us fat, clogged our arteries and rendered us incapable of making a healthy choice. We read all of the books, watch the movies and troll the social media pages until we are convinced that the food industry has behaved in a truly awful manner. Poor us.

So convincing is this blame game that the governments have joined in, defending poor us with ideas of revenue-earning “fat taxes”, most recently in Mexico. Maybe some of that tax revenue could be spent on investments on public parks, water fountains for joggers, safe sports facilities in urban areas and public information on nutritional health, but who am I to interrupt a great blame campaign with facts? See the Risk-Monger’s blog prognosticating the doomed results of the Danish “Fat Tax”.

The food and drink industry is not blameless – they produce a wide range of foods and drinks that can stress flavour over caloric sense, coming with tempting marketing campaigns (I have very low resistence when it comes to Belgian chocolate – a weakness responsible for at least 20kg of my body mass). Like everything in this world, there are some in industry who have transgressed (misleading labelling, poor quality ingredients and inappropriate packaging), but these companies usually pay the price of lost trust, lost markets and, as so often seen, lost existence. The large companies know enough to protect their brands with responsible practices and codes of conduct while the shady fly-by-night companies blacken the food industry’s reputation with questionable marketing practices. For sustainable business management, there is no incentive in industry to deceive or cheat.

Food and drink companies have to meet market demands to keep in business. One demand is inexpensive food (and industry seems to have been blamed for achieving this). Another demand is healthy food, and the industry has complied with a wide variety of safe and convenient fruit and vegetables, whole grain pastas and a wide array of nutritionally enhanced products (“nutriceuticals”). None of these evolutions were due to government regulations or taxes. The food industry is meeting market demands, not trying to poison people.

Still I got fat and now I am angry! Since my government is not taking responsibility and I certainly won’t fess up for what I put in my body or my failure to exercise, so, with the help of my friends who are also refusing to control themselves, we have agreed that the food industry (insert most hated corporate icon here) is to blame and must pay the price (lawsuits, petitions, campaigns to denormalise certain companies …).

What works even better is if these food industry poison campaigns can be linked to environmental destruction and adverse health effects (see campaigns against packaging waste, chemical additives, destruction of the rainforest for unhealthy palm oil, agricultural inefficiencies and food waste). Social media is full of these blame campaigns and we have a long history of successful books and movies (like Food Inc or Supersize Me) to reinforce this confirmation bias.

But what if industry were to provide a solution? The pharma industry has been chasing the Holy Grail of a diet pill that will allow fat to just melt away. We want answers without our own input – the panacea of a pill. We perform surgeries on our stomachs but still the issue doesn’t go away. The food industry provides healthy alternatives, we have exercise programmes and enough information, but still we choose bad habits and external blame. But what if our obesity epidemic is not due to the food we eat, but the way we metabolise it. Recent studies looked at whether obesity is linked to types of bacteria in our guts. For example, researchers from Washington University in St Louis reported in September in the journal Science that having the right type of gut bacteria has a significant influence on body weight.

If it is indeed the case that bacterial imbalances are the key to obesity, then it might well be the food industry that will introduce products to allow us to rectify it (either that or we have a faecal transplant done … something that does not sound too appealing). So will we adopt a more positive attitude toward the food industry (ie, how the food industry is working to innovate and deliver products that will make me thin by putting my gut back into bacterial balance)? Hardly. I am sure that we will complain about price gouging or limited access (the poorest population make up a larger percentage of the morbidly obese). People will object to any non-natural products that will play with our bacterial levels (there will be some fear spread around that adding bacteria will cause other problems). Some organisations will no doubt mislabel or misuse products they market and others will, for obvious interest, demand that it be regulated as a pharmaceutical (biocidal?) substance. Oh, and let’s not forget all of the diet plans and best-sellers!

Then there will be the obvious question of whom we should blame for this bacterial deficiency in the first place. Maybe the cleaning products industry? Or what about the use of antibiotics? Feed the rage!

Until we learn that we cannot continue to blame others for our weaknesses, we will remain children. The food industry did not make me fat, I most certainly did (… actually it was my wife, but that would be a complicated blame to pull off!). The 20kg that I lost (and kept off) over the last five years was to my credit, but I had help from the food industry with the easy access to high fibres, convenient fresh salads and clear labelling (voluntarily initiated by industry). Running two to three marathons a year didn’t hurt either.

Those like the Risk-Monger who are able to lose weight can afford to be honest. Those who have not been able to keep their weight down continue to feed their depression with an overabundance of sweets, sodas, snacks … and an unhealthy outrage at the food manufacturers. Don’t despair, the food industry will hopefully have an easier solution for you – let’s hope that the fear campaigners don’t interfere with innovations clearly in the public interest. And as for those governments continuing to tax certain food and drinks, maybe they could … OK, forget that one.

Postscript 3 December: See the Risk-Monger’s reaction to CEO’s recent attack on the food industry on his Facebook page.

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    1. Thank you Sue for this link. The problem with studies like this is that it is designed with the conclusion up front (confirmation bias) – that the food and drink industry (which ones, well, all of them) have only the goal of making more profits by giving us more unhealthy foods. This is a naive preconception that the authors did nothing to question in the article. For example:

      Thus, industry maintains profit only if it undermines attempts to tax and regulate, or if people who consume more healthy commodities continue to consume profitable, but unhealthy commodities;

      So companies make healthy products so that we continue to consume unhealthy products … interesting logic. In my days in industry, regulation was only a problem if it created an unfair playing field and distorted competition – you can be profitable in an evenly regulated field (like pharma or automotive industries). Are unhealthy commodities prima facie profitable? Hostess (maker of the Twinkie) went out of business last year not because of regulation but rather that they did not change to meet the evolving health narrative.
      The article you cite also claims that Kraft removed trans-fats voluntarily under fear of legislation – really? Which ones? If the companies are that evil, then I don’t get why they would volunteer to remove unhealthy products until the legislation forces them to (and by the way, they can just lobby more to stop the legislation, right?). Let’s avoid the claim that Kraft saw healthy food as a good thing (most of us would never be prepared to believe that line), but could you not accept that Kraft saw a competitive advantage to having products that tasted great with less fat? Is everyone so myopic?
      Putting the food industry in bed with big tobacco is a childish attempt by the authors to villainise an industry – that they introduce healthy products in developed countries while poisoning the third world where the real profits are? I kept looking for the word “Bhopal” – the authors missed a good chance to denigrate the industry more … pity. There may be growth opportunities in emerging markets, but profits? The authors were clearly not economists.
      What the article you reference does is simply reinforce my argument – that it is easy to paint industry as evil and do nothing more. You and I are responsible for our healthy eating and lifestyle. The food industry provides me with the products and alternatives I need (not so that I would continue to eat unhealthy products as the narrow-minded authors insist, but because I would want to be healthy or have my kids lead healthy lives). Did the article put the blame on governments for failing to provide the means for sports, public water fountains, provide public education on healthy eating? No, apparently, governments are helpless to do anything against the cruel machinery of big business. If you want to believe what the authors took as self-evident (ie, no need to examine our prejudices), fine, blame the usual suspects. I don’t think we are that helpless or stupid, but if enough people repeat these prejudices, maybe I will start to believe it.
      Instead of the prayer: “Lord, if you can’t make me thin, please make my friends fat”, we should be looking at what we can do to make ourselves thinner – and guess who will help us in that quest? The food industry.

  1. for transfat I have the answer by experts.
    they are used to give good solid shape to food at normal temperature, and melt in the mouth.

    if people were accepting loose looking food, they could use no trabsfat.
    also if all companies drop trans-fat, there is no competition of trans-users to fear.

    note also that contrary to the green myth, in production zone, palm oil is good.
    they keep the equivalent of the sunflower part for local use, and sell the more solid part for cooler climates, where it is hydrogenated to match food engineering needs.

    palm oil pollute less than sunflower or colza in France, and use less land. it gives work to poor people (my dear is from there).

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