I stumbled onto a great YouTube video of a 2004 report on obesity by the late ABC news anchor, Peter Jennings. In it Mr. Jennings blames the unholy alliance between government and the food industry for making us all fat.
There are many amazing things about this video, not the least of which is that both Michael Jacobson and Marion Nestle come off looking like they have good sense. Even Michael Jacobson, and that’s a real feat. Both give answers to Jennings’ questions that are reasonable and even sensible. Jacobson even goes so far as to say that exercise doesn’t bring about weight loss.
I think the video is pretty much on the mark with a few exceptions. Before we get to those exceptions, though, let me expound a little about what I think is going on with the food industry in terms of the obesity epidemic.
First, the givens. Companies in the food industry – like all companies in whatever category – are in the business of making money. The product that food companies sell is calories. The calories are in many different forms, but they are still calories. Raw calories are less profitable than processed calories. If I sell you an apple, some flour and sugar, and a bit of lard, I don’t make a lot of money. If I convert all these raw calories into apple pie, I make a lot more money. The ingredients for an apple pie cost maybe $2-$3, the whole apple pie costs $12.95 (I saw one for that price at Whole Foods a couple of days ago). So, the processing of those calories adds about ten bucks to their value. It takes pennies worth of corn to make a box of corn flakes that sells for $3 or $4.
Food companies need to satisfy their owners or shareholders by making a decent profit. If they don’t, investors put their money elsewhere, and the stocks decrease in value, meaning that the whole company decreases in value. The only way to prevent this decline in value is to keep earnings and profits up to at least competitive levels. And these earnings and profits have to grow.
How do they grow? They grow by increasing the sales of product, calories in this case, and/or by increasing the profit margins on the product sold, i.e., by processing it more.
The market for this product – calories – is determined by the population of the US (it’s really the world more or less, but let’s keep it simple), which is growing at a certain rate. If you take the number of people in the US and multiply that number times the number of calories each eats, you’ve defined the food market. This food market can grow by two ways: by increasing the number of people and by increasing how much each person eats.
In the 1950s, 60s and early 70s the population was growing like crazy with the baby boomer boom. The food industry could count on the increasing population to fill their coffers. Once the population growth began to stagnate, however they have had to resort to other strategies.
Food companies have basically only two ways to get a bigger market share and grow their own earnings: they can try to take market share from other food companies (which they all do with their advertising, marketing and pricing strategies) and they can try to get people to eat more calories (which they also do with their advertising, marketing and pricing strategies).
They can implement both of these strategies by coming up with highly processed foods that cram a lot of calories into tasty, inexpensive, cleverly packaged products. Which they have successfully done. And since most of these highly processed foods contain a lot of inexpensive carbs, the people who eat them suffer the consequences of obesity and type II diabetes among other problems.
In the Peter Jennings video some of this comes out, but not the part about the carbs. In one section of the video the food pyramid is manipulated to show what it would look like were it based on where government subsidies go. As shows like this do so often, they’ve manipulated the data to show things in the way they would like them to be seen. They show how the lion’s share of subsidy dollars go to what they call ‘sugars & fats,’ with the implication being that it is really fats that are being subsidized. What they don’t say is that huge amounts of these subsidy dollars for fats don’t go to what we typically think of as fats, i.e., meat, lard, etc., but go to corn oil, soybean oil and other vegetable oils, many of which – at that time, at least – were converted to trans fats and used in food processing.
As you watch this video, notice how virtually all the foods shown are monstrously high in carbs. Look at the aisles and aisles of high-carb foods in the grocery stores; look at the high-carb foods being served in the footage showing restaurant dining; look at all the corn and corn products. I think the implication is pretty clear as to what’s causing us all to be fat irrespective of what they say it is.
And, finally, watch at the very end where a solemn Peter Jennings looks directly into the camera and tells us how the food industry is today where the tobacco companies were 30 years ago. The government, he says, brought the tobacco companies to heel and publicized the dangers of smoking. And smoking rates have decreased because people have listened to Uncle Sam. The same action needs to be taken with Big Food today. Government intervention will do the trick, says he. And this from someone who was dying of smoking-induced lung cancer at the very time he piously spoke those very words. I imagine government intervention in the food industry will have about the same effect on many people as government education about the evils of tobacco had on Peter Jennings. In fact, it will probably be worse because the government will intervene in absolutely the wrong way.
Here’s the video. Enjoy.
(Hat tip to: U.S. Food Policy)
Peter Jennings' report on obesity in America