Fat profits: how the food industry cashed in on obesity
Ever since definitions of healthy bodyweight changed in the 1990s, the world has feared an obesity epidemic. But the food giants accused of making us fat are also profiting from the slimming industry
Weight-loss has become a huge global industry
When you walk into a supermarket, what do you see? Walls of highly calorific, intensely processed food, tweaked by chemicals for maximum “mouth feel” and “repeat appeal” (addictiveness). This is what most people in Britain actually eat. Pure science on a plate. The food, in short, that is making the planet fat.
And next to this? Row upon row of low-fat, light, lean, diet, zero, low-carb, low-cal, sugar-free, “healthy” options, marketed to the very people made fat by the previous aisle and now desperate to lose weight. We think of obesity and dieting as polar opposites, but in fact, there is a deep, symbiotic relationship between the two.
In the UK, 60% of us are overweight, yet the “fat” (and I include myself in this category, with a BMI of 27, slap-bang average for the overweight British male) are not lazy and complacent about our condition, but ashamed and desperate to do something about it. Many of those classed as “overweight” are on a near-perpetual diet, and the same even goes for half of the British population, many of whom don’t even need to lose an ounce.
When obesity as a global health issue first came on the radar, the food industry sat up and took notice. But not exactly in the way you might imagine. Some of the world’s food giants opted to do something both extraordinary and stunningly obvious: they decided to make money from obesity, by buying into the diet industry.
Weight Watchers, created by New York housewife Jean Nidetch in the early 1960s, was bought by Heinz in 1978, who in turn sold the company in 1999 to investment firm Artal for $735m. The next in line was Slimfast, a liquid meal replacement invented by chemist and entrepreneur Danny Abraham, which was bought in 2000 by Unilever, which also owns the Ben & Jerry brand and Wall’s sausages. The US diet phenomenon Jenny Craig was bought by Swiss multinational Nestlé, which also sells chocolate and ice-cream. In 2011, Nestlé was listed in Fortune’s Global 500 as the world’s most profitable company.
These multinationals were easing carefully into a multibillion pound weight-loss market encompassing gyms, home fitness, fad diets and crash diets, and the kind of magazines that feature celebs on yo-yo diets or pushing fitness DVDs promising an “all new you” in just three weeks.
You would think there might be a problem here: the food industry has one ostensible objective – and that’s to sell food. But by creating the ultimate oxymoron of diet food – something you eat to lose weight – it squared a seemingly impossible circle. And we bought it. Highly processed diet meals emerged, often with more sugar in them than the originals, but marketed for weight loss, and here is the key get-out clause, “as part of a calorie-controlled diet”. You can even buy a diet Black Forest gateau if want.
We think of obesity and dieting as polar opposites, but there is a deep relationship between the two
We think of obesity and dieting as polar opposities, but there is a deep relationship between the two
So what you see when you walk into a supermarket in 2013 is the entire 360 degrees of obesity in a single glance. The whole panorama of fattening you up and slimming you down, owned by conglomerates which have analysed every angle and money-making opportunity. The very food companies charged with making us fat in the first place are now also making money from the obesity epidemic.
How did this happen? Let me sketch two alternative scenarios. This is the first: in the late 1970s, food companies made tasty new food. People started to get fat. By the 1990s, NHS costs related to obesity were ballooning. Government, health experts and, surprisingly, the food industry were brought in to consult on what was to be done. They agreed that the blame lay with the consumer – fat people needed to go on diets and exercise. The plan didn’t work. In the 21st century, people are getting fatter than ever.
OK, here’s scenario two. Food companies made tasty new food. People started to get fat. By the 1990s, food companies and, more to the point, the pharmaceutical industry, looked at the escalating obesity crisis, and realised there was a huge amount of money to be made.
But, seen purely in terms of profit, the biggest market wasn’t just the clinically obese (those people with a BMI of 30-plus), whose condition creates genuine health concerns, but the billions of ordinary people worldwide who are just a little overweight, and do not consider their weight to be a significant health problem.
That was all about to change. A key turning point was 3 June 1997. On this date the World Health Organisation (WHO) convened an expert consultation in Geneva that formed the basis for a report that defined obesity not merely as a coming social catastrophe, but as an “epidemic”.
The word “epidemic” is crucial when it comes to making money out of obesity, because once it is an epidemic, it is a medical catastrophe. And if it is medical, someone can supply a “cure”.
The author of the report was one of the world’s leading obesity experts, Professor Philip James, who, having started out as a doctor, had been one of the first to spot obesity rising in his patients in the mid-1970s. In 1995 he set up a body called the International Obesity Task Force (IOTF), which reported on rising obesity levels across the globe and on health policy proposals for how the problem could be addressed.
It is widely accepted that James put fat on the map, and thus it was appropriate that the IOTF should draft the WHO report of the late 90s that would define global obesity. The report painted an apocalyptic picture of obesity going off the scale across the globe.
The devil was in the detail – and the detail lay in where you drew the line between “normal” and “overweight”. Several colleagues questioned the group’s decision to lower the cut-off point for being “overweight” – from a BMI of 27 to 25. Overnight, millions of people around the globe would shift from the “normal” to the “overweight” category.
Professor Judith Stern, vice president of the American Obesity Association, was critical, and suspicious. “There are certain risks associated with being obese … but in the 25-to-27 area it’s low-risk. When you get over 27 the risk becomes higher. So why would you take a whole category and make this category related to risk when it isn’t?”
Why indeed. Why were millions of people previously considered “normal” now overweight? Why were they being tarred with the same brush of mortality, as James’s critics would argue, as those who are genuinely obese?
The companies that make you fat, also make a profit from trying to make you slim… but you just keep getting fatter, so BigPharma step in with ‘pills’ and you still keep getting fatter.
The psychology is there for all to see.
Let’s look at pre-1980.
That was before the big companies started making so many prepared foods and recreational snacks.
You ate at home, you ate what your mother cooked, and you didn’t get fat.
Post-1980 mother had to go to work, she didn’t have time to cook, you started eating ‘TV Dinners’ and snacking outside the home, and you got fat.
Do you see the equation here?
It is simple.
Mothers at home, obesity goes, mothers at work, obesity prevails.
But of course that doesn’t work any more. Because the mothers at home have forgotten how to be pre-1980s mothers. Remember when Home Ec (home economics and cooking) used to be a subject at school, mandatory for all girls. What happened to Home Ec? It disappeared!
Who made it go ‘whoosh’?
Ah, this is where the skulduggery comes in. Lobbyists! Lobbyists lobbying for the food companies convinced the education department that Home Ec wasn’t necessary.
Of course it was vital that Home Ec disappeared, so that new mothers didn’t know they were feeding their families on corporate profit-making fat-generating shit!
Bring back 1950s mothers, bring back Home Ec it’s the only solution.
Here’s the crunch!
Everything that corporations try to sell you that is ‘diet’, ‘light’, ‘low cholesterol’, ‘zero calories’ is bullshit! Pure bullshit!
Because the artificial sweeteners they use are worse than the original products. Aspartame, sucralose, HFCS, these products are POISON! And they are in every diet product on the planet. They have adverse effects on every organ in your body, from your brain to your big toe.
But governments will never step in to prevent these products from being used, BECAUSE THE CORPORATIONS WON’T LET THEM!
The governments are a façade, the real owners of the world are corporations, the real owners of you are the corporations. The governments are just the puppets to make you slaves feel good; yes, you are slaves, you have lost control, you are controlled.
Smell the coffee!
… and I don’t mean Starbucks!