I am still smarting from a recent suggestion by the highly competent technical boss of this erudite platform. He rightly chastened me for setting out in a post the vexed problems of addiction without offering any solutions. Fair point, I thought but Brian there is nothing new under the Sun only the prevailing ideologies that are neither right nor wrong just what society, at any given point in time, is willing to tolerate. With a lack of political will to resolve complex social problems, those responsible just pretend to be doing something with bits of services here and there and a naive hope the public won’t notice.
I risk further censure addressing the expanding problem of obesity so from the start I will state the solutions; regulate to do two things; (1) eliminate simple sugars from processed foods and (2) reduce by 80% fast-food outlets.
The UK’s obese Prime Minister nearly died from complications of Covid-19, and his corpulence was likely the main reason his prognosis was, for a day or two, bleak. Thankfully he survived and is in good health. Now he wants to eliminate obesity but off course he won’t, he will merely introduce lots of small, timid initiatives that won’t work because he will not address the central issues that have expanded the national waste-line over the past 40 years. We eat too many calories, and we eat too many calories from simple sugars. After Boris has done his bit, the problem will still be with us. The food business lobby is simply much too powerful. They will say things such as exercise is more important. It’s not; calories are the most critical issue, and calories from sugar specifically.
Sugar formed the basis of the confectionary industry started in the mid-19th century by the famous Quaker families; Fry, Rowntree and Cadburys. And it was a combination of cheap flour and sugar that formed the basis of the cake and biscuit industries. Indeed sugar is a very flexible and vital component in making foods palatable and desirable, and it goes beyond its sweetness.
The contribution of the soft drinks industry to the obesity crisis is significant if not central. The sugars in soft drink products were mainly glucose (from cane sugar), but from the mid-1970s in the US, this changed to fructose (from corn syrup and termed High-Fructose Corn Syrup). Scientists in Japan found a way to produce a cheaper sweetener HFCS. This was six times sweeter than cane sugar and was made from corn which was in surplice supply at this time. HFCS meant that the cost of producing soft drinks could be slashed. Using it in frozen food product protected the products against freezer burn. It is very flexible providing longevity for products in vending machines, and it conferred a more natural look to biscuit products. America’s obesity problem, where half the population is obese, is primarily due to the broader use of HFCS. In Europe, we have more restrictions on its use, but these restrictions will disappear post-Brexit. Soft drinks containing sugar can be consumed quickly. In large quantities, as there is less impact on the body’s satiety system compared to solid foods, therefore a more substantial amount of calories can be consumed at one sitting.
Marketing and merchandising by the soft drinks industry has always been innovative and set international standards. The drinks and vending machines in American and British schools, both junior and higher were nothing short of a national scandal. Vending machines have been taken out of primary schools, but the change in secondary schools has been slower to happen.
In the UK between 1984 and 1993, the number of fast-food outlets doubled at the same time as the prevalence of obesity doubled. Obesity is much less prevalent in Spain and Italy, where spending on fast food is relatively low. The fast-food industry’s success is based on a commitment to business principles; quality, efficiency, uniformity and marketing. This pursuit has produced successful global brands such as McDonald’s® Burger King® and Kentucky Fried Chicken ®. Marketing is core to the success of fast-food brands, and this was the first industry to apply marketing techniques directed at children.
Processed foods, the staple for the fast-food industry, are given their proper taste by flavourists who will also consider issues such as “mouth-feel” that unique combination of textures and chemical interactions that affects how the flavour is perceived. Mouth-feel is modified by use of fats, gums, starches, emulsifiers and stabilisers. A French fry’s crispness, for example, is determined by sugar content and in the Autumn sugars are added to the potatoes whereas in the Spring sugars are leached out. In this way, the uniformity of taste is maintained throughout the year.
So there you have it; the problem and its solutions. But there will be no appetite to tackle obesity in this way. Exercise is important for not putting on weight; fat does not make people fat; sugar makes people fat, and excess calories from sugars are the most critical reason why we have an obesity crisis.
I am a pharmacist in Belfast.