Obesity has more than trebled since 1980. If we carry on at our current rate, by 2050, 50% of us will be obese.
Over the past 30 years, our eating behaviour has changed. Many of us now snack more. We consume more takeaways. We eat more outside of the home in restaurants, fast-food chains and coffee shops. Our food is more calorie-dense and nutrient-poor.
Between 2006 and 2014, the amount of sugar in the average British shopping basket increased by 11% and the amount of fat increased by 12%. We are now, more than ever, exposed to foods packed with sugar, salt and fat.
It’s now possible to eat a diet that looks and tastes like fresh food but is in fact entirely processed. How did we get here?
In 1970s America, Richard Nixon was facing re-election. His voters were preoccupied with the soaring cost of food. Nixon appointed Earl Butz, an agricultural academic, who brokered a deal with the farmers, pushing them to farm corn on an industrial scale. Manufacturers of everything from cereals to biscuits to flour suddenly found uses for corn, but within a few years there was a surplus. To address this, scientists created high fructose corn syrup – cheap, sticky gloop that was used to sweeten, make products look like they were fresh from the oven and extend shelf life from days to years.
Advances in plastic packaging made processed foods easier to keep and marketing men pushed the benefits of convenience food. It’s quick! It’s cheap! It’s easy! And it lasts so much longer!
While not all known to be harmful, now, around 6,000 food additives – flavourings, glazing agents, improvers, bleaching agents – are now used in contemporary food manufacture. Even if you are a keen checker of labels, the food industry is likely to be one step ahead of you.
If you’ve ever picked up a healthy-looking, innocent-sounding, pre-packaged pot of fruit salad, you might have wondered why it stays looking fresh and delicious, while your home-made version is brown and mushy by the next day. It comes down to products such as NatureSeal – a chemical concoction marketed to food service professionals as ‘keeping cut produce looking and tasting fresh for up to two weeks’. What’s more, because NatureSeal is classed as a processing aid, not an ingredient, there is no obligation to declare it on the label.
You might think that the egg in your supermarket ham and egg salad is as wholesome as they come. But manufacturers can buy pre-formed 300g cylindrical eggs to create uniform perfect slices with no rounded edges. Eggs are also supplied to food manufacturers in powders, with added sugar, or as albumen-only high-gel specifications for whipping.
Products that give the impression they were lovingly handcrafted in a country kitchen with fresh, ‘real’ ingredients are, unsurprisingly, more appealing to consumers. But such a process is expensive and time-consuming. So over the past decade, the food industry has turned to newer, cheaper, alternative substances. Take rosemary extract, for example – it sounds natural and additive-free but is actually a poetic description for E392 – used to slow down the rate at which foods go rancid.
Modern preservatives taste bitter, so manufacturers add salt to counter the bitterness, and then sugar to counter the salt. The end result? A ready meal that looks like something your grandmother used to make but that’s packed with sugar, fat, hidden calories and is more familiar with the inside of a laboratory than a kitchen.
The power of persuasion
Food manufacturers use a sinister collection of marketing tricks to make us buy more.
Sugary cereals include free gifts for children to collect, banking on pester power working to their advantage. Supermarkets run attractive cheap price promotions on non-perishable items such as crisps, encouraging consumers to stockpile with buy one get one free offers. Sweets and crisps are strategically placed near the checkouts to entice hungry customers and encourage pester power from bored children stuck in queues.
Although some efforts have been made in recent years to reduce junk food adverts on children’s programming, these rules are riddled with loopholes. There are currently no legal restrictions on non-broadcast media, which includes sponsorship, packaging, text messaging, social media and the internet.
A 2011 report from the British Heart Foundation found that marketing techniques include offering downloadable free gifts of screensavers, posters, mobile phone apps and ringtones, which enable a company’s brand message to remain, even after the child has left a website. When a child takes part in an online game or competition, they usually have to give an email address, leaving the door open for a bombardment of follow-up communication. Some sites even encourage children to enter the email addresses of their friends under the pretext of sending them an ecard, or information about a game.
Brand awareness of junk foods among children is widespread. Depressingly, according to a report by Compass, 70% of three year olds recognise the McDonald’s logo, but only half of them know their own surname.
Tapping into our minds
How many times have you popped into the supermarket for a pint of milk and left with two carrier bags full? Supermarkets are masters of human psychology, triggering shoppers to buy more on every visit. Most people know about the age-old trick of pumping out the smell of freshly baked bread or coffee. Or that essentials such as milk and tea bags are often placed deep within the store, leading customers on a journey through several aisles and tempting us to pick up other items on the way. The same technique is behind placing major brands in the centre of an aisle, forcing us to walk further to find what we’re looking for. Different types of flooring are also employed to subtly steer us through the store, changing our pace and drawing our attention to specific areas.
The myth of “Lite”
In the past, it was common practice for products marketed as ‘diet’ or ‘lite’ options to just be contained in smaller packaging. Many manufacturers reduced the fat content and simply replaced it with sugar. Legislation came in to crack down on the practice, but the damage had already been done and their customers on the way to obesity.
Manufacturers, recognising they could achieve top profits with diet brands, bought or created their own. For example, many dieters are unaware that Heinz produces the Weight Watchers ready meal range.
Although nutrition labelling has been widely introduced over the past few years, there is little consistency between brands, making it difficult for consumers to interpret the details. Ingredient and nutrition listings are often in tiny fonts, not easy for the busy consumer to read and absorb.
The size of a portion may also vary considerably between products. Portion sizes are controlled by manufacturers, so we eat in multiples of their single portion. If a single portion is too small, you are more likely to eat two portions than buy two and eat one and a half. You may also be misled that the calories stated are for the entire packet, rather than one of two portions.
High-calorie products are often marketed with a health focus. For example, a box of cereal may be full of sugar, but will claim to boost concentration or offer valuable fibre, when better health benefits could be gained from products with fewer calories.
So what are we going to do about it?
On the surface, some attempts have been made to improve consumer health. In 2011, the Department of Health set up the Public Health Responsibility Deal – asking the food industry to agree to a set of pledges including clearer labelling, calorie reduction and removing artificial ingredients. Many believe the project to be a failure.
In a recent Telegraph interview, a spokesperson from the National Obesity Forum said: “We need the same sort of legislation over sugar and fat that we had over salt. The reduction in salt in our diet has been a triumph, and it came about because the Food Standards Agency was given the power to force food companies into line. Then responsibility for nutrition was taken away from the FSA and the government set up the Responsibility Deal, which has been a catastrophe because it has allowed the sugar industry to make merry. Processed foods are being bulked up with sugar and fat for preservation and taste, and because of the financial climate, it’s all people think they can afford.”
Let’s go back to that stat – if we carry on at this rate, 50% of us will be obese by 2050.
In the same way that smoking has become socially unacceptable in the UK, we need a co-ordinated stance to change our culture. As well as each individual taking responsibility for their own health, politicians, medics, journalists and our food industry all have a part to play in a healthier future.
Unless we take drastic action now, forcing our food industry to change, our children and grandchildren will be sentenced to a lifetime of diabetes, heart disease, infertility, arthritis and early death. What are you going to choose?