Healthy diet? Eat your words

March 15, 2002

Marion Nestle and Chris Bunting open a four-page special on food and the future with a look at the power of the US and UK food industries.


Each week, the average Briton gulps down about two litres of milk and cream, two cups of fruit juice, a lot of cups of tea and coffee, two cans of Coke, a can of Diet Pepsi and a can of lager. Man, woman and child, we guzzle the very rough equivalent of half a slab of cheddar, a rump steak, a couple of breasts of chicken, a string of sausages, a bit of fish, a couple of eggs, a big knob of butter, five tablespoons of Flora, a quarter of a cup of oil, twenty teaspoons of sugar, a dollop of honey, seven potatoes, a few sprigs of broccoli, half a bag of carrots, two bananas, two apples, two small oranges, a loaf of bread, half a box of cornflakes, a couple of bowls of pasta, a bowl of rice, a chocolate eclair, a Mars bar and a serving of ice cream each week. That is before we even get outside the house: the average British consumer supplements this generous diet with another £7.36 spent eating and drinking out.

We are what we eat, and the diet we eat today makes us fat. Of Britons in their mid-20s, only about one in four is overweight. That proportion increases to about half at age 34. In middle age, 75 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women are overweight and, after they reach retirement, women gradually catch up with the men. Most Britons sooner or later become overweight through a combination of a lack of exercise and eating too much of the wrong things. About one in five adults is clinically obese, almost three times the proportion in 1980. In the past two decades, the number of obese children in the UK has almost doubled, and the first cases of adult-type diabetes have been noted in very overweight youngsters.

The cost to the National Health Service is huge. About 30,000 people a year die of illnesses related to obesity, and £500 million is spent on treatment. Philip James, chair of the International Obesity Taskforce, has said obesity is a tidal wave hitting the developed world, with Britain being swamped faster than any other. But health campaigners see little evidence that the government takes Britain's weight problem as seriously as, say, it takes the country's tobacco habit.

Tobacco promotion is banned from television, but television earns millions from companies trying to persuade a nation already eating and drinking too much to eat and drink more. A large proportion of these advertisements are aimed at children. A study last year by the food pressure group Sustain uncovered what its coordinator, Jeanette Longfield, described as a "hidden world" of food advertising. Just 21 per cent of ads during adult viewing hours (after 9pm) were devoted to food and drink, but the sector accounted for 48 to 58 per cent of ads during children's programming. Between 95 and 99 per cent of those ads were for fatty, sugary and/or salty products - the very foods that nutritionists have been trying for decades to dissuade us from eating.

Two years ago, the campaign to introduce strict regulations to replace the relatively lax rules on food advertising, which include voluntary codes forbidding producers from promoting children's snacks as replacements for main meals, received a big boost with the creation of the Food Standards Agency, a government food-safety watchdog. Although its primary role was to re-establish public trust in food-safety regulation after the BSE crisis, the agency, run by a diverse board made up of representatives from inside and outside the food industry, had a broad remit to put consumers first in all aspects of the regulation of food marketing.

High expectations from health campaigners seemed to be justified in September 2000 when board members backed a new code of conduct on food advertising to children. The minutes of the board's discussions recorded some members arguing for mandatory rather than voluntary regulation.

But since then, the trail has gone cold. The food and advertising indus5tries have fought against any real change to the rules, arguing that children's advertising simply encourages brand switching rather than increased consumption of unhealthy foods (a Food and Drink Federation spokeswoman asks: "You wouldn't expect us to advertise frozen broccoli to the children, would you?").

In the face of intransigent non-cooperation in the formulation of new regulations, the FSA appears to have subtly changed its proposals from a "code of conduct", which might imply a regulatory system with sanctions, to a set of "guidelines". The agency is reviewing research on whether advertising influences children's behaviour, but its representatives are soft-pedalling on the issue. They cite a survey showing that parents are more interested in poor food labelling than in the advertising of unhealthy products to their offspring.

To understand the apparent change of direction, Longfield says, it is necessary to "grasp the huge power that the industry can wield when it needs to". Food is one of Britain's biggest industries, and policy-makers ignore its concerns at their peril. The food-and-drink industry employs 500,000 people and has a turnover of £65 billion. Its exports alone are worth £9 billion, and its largest companies are big donors to both main political parties.

The industry has never been shy of wielding its power. In 1983, the groundbreaking National Advisory Committee on Nutrition Education report, which marked a long-overdue change in public-health advice from an emphasis on food deficiencies to an acknowledgement of the problem of overeating, had to be rewritten 13 times to mollify industry lobbyists.

In 1994, a Department of Health report on nutritional aspects of cardiovascular disease raised the industry's ire because it suggested an "illustrative healthy diet" in which the average consumer might halve soft-drink and biscuit consumption to eat more healthily. A delegation of industry executives was reported to have met ministers and civil servants to ask for a change because of the danger to their business. When that was unsuccessful, they were reported to have asked civil servants to leave the room and to have threatened to withdraw Tory Party donations (some later did). When ministers still resisted, they leaked the report to The Daily Telegraph , which ran a story ridiculing the report's authors for trying to regulate the British diet. A year later, The Economist wrote that a national report on obesity had been "gutted" because of the dangers it posed to the industry.

In 1997, another report was pulped after last-minute manoeuvrings over advice on an upper limit for daily consumption of red meat. The same year, the Labour Party decided not to implement targets on reducing obesity, which had been proposed earlier but were widely viewed as unrealistic.

Jack Winkler, director of Food and Health Research, says such setbacks were to be expected. "Even if the industry were not exercising huge power behind the scenes, when you look at obesity from a politician's perspective, it is quicksand. There are just no votes in putting the nation on a diet."

But Winkler believes there may be cause for hope. He was the complainant in an Advertising Standards Authority judgment last year that ruled that Ribena Toothkind, a soft drink that claimed not to encourage tooth decay, was being advertised misleadingly. The makers of Toothkind - one of a new breed of "functional foods" that purport to include supplements that offer health benefits - took the judgment to the High Court, and threatened repeatedly to sue Winkler, but failed to overturn it. It is believed to have lost 15 per cent in sales of the product as a consequence.

Winkler believes nonetheless that functional foods could well play a part in transforming the food industry. "Over the next 20 years, these kinds of products have great potential to take us away from the mass-marketed food industry we live with now. Functional foods are high-margin products and - with the coming of things like genetic screening - we are going to see a raising of people's attention to nutrition because they will know their specific risk factors. I believe we will see a fragmentation of the industry, less motivation for big food corporations to push millions of units of one product, and highly profitable niche markets that address individuals' real needs.

"This is all hopeful, but the critical issue will be for the industry to get the people's trust, which is why cases like the Ribena one are so important. What I am not sure of is whether the food industry will mess it up."

FOOD AND THE FUTURE

The public lecture will take place at 7pm on March 18 at the Royal Institution, Albemarle Street, London W1.

Tickets cost £7, concessions, £5. They may be bought at the door, by credit card (020 7670 2985), by fax (020 7670 2920) or by email ( bookings@ri.ac.uk ).

The conference is supported by The THES , the Royal Institution, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the British Nutrition Foundation.

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