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Dracula, blood banks…and getting serious about malnutrition

Stuart Gillespie

Published: March 04, 2022


It’s World Obesity Day!

Yes, there are more “World Days” in the year than there are actual days…but let’s hope today’s words and actions strengthen and accelerate actions to tackle the growing problem of obesity, across the world.

I was late in reviewing the UK government’s National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) for the 2020/21 school year, published at the end of last year. Covering children in Reception (aged 4-5 years) and Year 6 (aged 10-11 years) in mainstream state schools in England, the report contains analyses of Body Mass Index (BMI) classification rates by age, sex, ethnicity and geography.

The results were a huge shock, for two main reasons – the trend and the growing disparity.

The worsening trend:

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The stark disparity:

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[note: based on BMI centile above/below reference population using the British 1990 growth reference (UK90):  BMI centile >=85 and <95: Overweight; BMI centile >=95: Obese; BMI centile >=99.6 Severely obese]

We are learning more and more each week about the ways in which obesity is generating chronic diseases that sicken and kill people. Heart and lung disease, cancer, depression, diabetes, dementia, auto-immune disease – the list is long, and getting longer as research uncovers the links.

Humans have never changed so fast.

We’re stepping into unknown territory. We were adapted to forage and hunt and to find and consume food when we could. Feasting in times of plenty allowed us to survive in times of want…the latter a lot more common than the former. A strategy dictated by (and suited to) the environment in which we lived. Evolution’s good at that.

Now that the food environment has change in an evolutionary nanosecond, our bodies and their metabolic systems are struggling to cope. We’re maladapted. In a dangerous place. What used to be an advantage – our ability to harvest and store calories from whatever food we could find — has become a massive liability.

The scam of the century and the main reason obesity has rocketed is the way in which the ultra-processed food (UPF) industry has figured how to get people addicted to fake food and drink which they can mass-produce, incredibly cheaply. 

The behemoths of the food industry — companies like Nestle, Coca Cola, PepsiCo — each have revenues larger than half the countries in the world. The top ten control 80% store-bought products, with combined annual profits well over US$100 billion.

Ultra-processed foods are junk foods that are not really foods at all. Ultra-processing involves adding more and more steps to the processing chain, to add more and more profit. Sugar, salt, fat and carbs are combined with emulsifiers, sweeteners, stabilisers and preservatives in ways that maximise ‘bliss point’, ‘mouthfeel’, ‘flavour burst.’

The industry has developed a whole new language of addiction. It has harnessed the biology of desire to generate products that exploit the short-term, impulsive traits of our dopamine-wired brains. Cheap, addictive, long-lasting and four times more profitable than real food, these fake foods are extremely dangerous.

Ultra-processed foods are not only dangerous to people, they also wreck the planet.

The corporate playbook

When the spotlight is turned on the UPF industry, and difficult questions are asked, they have an array of tactics to respond, well-honed by Big Tobacco who walked this path before them.

They are experts in the dark arts of distortion, dispute, doubt, disguise, distraction, deflection and delay…

Lots of D words…

  • They distort the narrative/problem (reframing it as one of individual responsibility and/or physical inactivity), promote disinformation via carefully-cultivated media connections.
  • They dispute the science showing the multiple harmful consequences of UPFs.
  • They cast doubt on this research and often on the researcher/s who do these studies – and they often pay biddable ‘scientists’ to do pseudo-research into red herrings, and/or confer awards upon them.
  • They distract through ‘corporate social responsibility’ campaigns and projects, and funding a few ‘good causes’. Small-scale boutique projects and the media froth they generate are designed to confer legitimacy on large-scale core business practices that run in a very different direction. Nutri-washing, greenwashing, whitewashing, sportswashing…you name it…they’re really into laundry!
  • They deter and delay government regulation (bans, taxes etc) by promising to regulate themselves (a scam within a scam), and by hiring lawyers to appeal legislation. This buys them time for the other tactics to bear fruit.
  • They disguise themselves by hiding within ‘non-profit’ front organizations that have names that include the word ‘global’ or ‘sustainable’ or ‘development’. A Trojan-Horse tactic allows them to get to the policy table, by proxy. Once there — whether in the main discussions, the corridor meetings or the cocktail parties they throw – they get to make friends and influence people.

Ultimately, they just want to be loved. Being seen to be part of the nutrition and health community is a huge deal for the UPF industry, as it confers tacit approval of their products and practices…a highly valuable ‘get out of jail card’. 

So, they target individuals — many of whom have been offered thousands of dollars to write essays for their annual reports – and they swarm around conferences. If you want to understand their power, just look at the participants list for COP26 in Glasgow last year…just look at the activity around the UN Food Systems Summit before it.

It’s like Dracula being asked to manage the new community blood bank.

The latest ‘D word’ I’ve come across, and one of the most sinister, was described in an excellent paper published earlier this week – the dark nudge. Companies are now using artificial intelligence (including social listening, facial recognition, augmented or virtual reality) to alter products availability, to manipulate the position of products on menus, and for a whole new approach to immersive marketing that is targeted and aggressive.

These tactics needs to be revealed, resisted and reversed. At all levels and by every organization that’s serious about nutrition and health.

In doing so, we need both carrots and sticks.

  • Governments need to regulate malnutrition-generating companies, set parameters for their operation (using policy, legislation, tax, regulations on labelling, advertising, ingredients), and hold them accountable for harms they cause.
  • Civil society needs to continue to shine a light on harmful practices, challenge governments to do the right thing, and work to generate wider public awareness of UPF harm.
  • Academia and policy research organizations need to get more involved in political economy research and in studies of the commercial determinants of malnutrition. There is real scope for stronger advocacy/activism that’s fuelled by the results of such studies and disseminated through all channels (…far more than simply publishing a journal article),
  • And the food industry needs torespond to these signals and initiatives and get serious about producing food that is affordable, accessible and healthy.

After a year of conferences – whether online or otherwise — many of us are weary with the usual parade of pledges and promises. When there’s little transparency and accountability, commitments mean very little and again serve to distract and deflect.

We need to see real action…at a scale that matches the problem.

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