As governments and health insurers wring their hands over an epidemic of costly chronic disease — obesity, heart disease and diabetes — there’s a lot of talk about personal responsibility. You should eat less! You should exercise more! But in reality, our increasingly large bodies are being shaped by forces greater than ourselves.
Food and diet companies try to convince us that the key to solving our health and obesity problems is to eat more of their food. There is a growing trend to reject this thinking, for example, the Slow Food movement, Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, or Marion Nestle’s considerable body of work. But it’s not yet mainstream.
Instead, we are fed "health" messages by companies with vested interests (think margarine companies telling us we need more Omega 6 — which happens to be in their products), or by diet companies peddling foods that do little to change lifestyles and plenty to create a reliance on their products.
Even so, when McDonald’s and Weight Watchers announced earlier this month a partnership to label some McDonald’s menu items as suitable for Weight Watchers dieters, many were shocked. How was it that these two old foes, the king of fast food and a diet company, could have become so cosy?
Yet it’s not so surprising. Both McDonald’s and Weight Watchers are in business to make money. And right now, the mighty dollar is doing more to influence our health than any well-meaning government campaign could ever hope to do.
As far as weight loss programs go, Weight Watchers is less reliant on products than others. It focuses on a combination of group support and information about everyday foods. Options include counting points or choosing foods that satisfy hunger.
Of course, there are still plenty of branded products, from baked beans to sour cream, from chocolate desserts to rice crackers. And where Weight Watchers falls into line with its competitors is that it doesn’t distinguish between fresh, whole foods and manufactured, salt-laden, artificially sweetened products. Under this system, an egg counts for 2 points, but so does a serve of "choc cream biscuits". A value system like this makes it very difficult to keep a sense of perspective about food.
Nutrition is a complex science and the biochemistry behind it is advancing rapidly. It’s even hard for the professionals to agree on major issues, such as the value of carbohydrates versus protein, for example.
When that information gets filtered through food companies, weight loss companies and the nutritionists and dietitians they employ, it becomes yet more complicated for individuals to make good choices.
And so, consumers end up as collateral damage in the food wars. The major food companies exist in a competitive market driven by shareholder returns. If they didn’t constantly innovate by developing new foods and dreaming up big new value propositions, growth would stall. Traditionally, food marketing was about seeing a need and filling it. A more sophisticated approach is to create a need, to tell people they have this need and then to offer the solution.
It works like this. "Fruit is inconvenient to buy and eat. Your kids don’t like it." Here is the solution — "With 99 per cent fruit ingredients, equivalent to one serve of fruit, Uncle Toby’s Fruit Fix makes a truly nutritious snack ideal for lunchboxes."
In his blog — Raisin Hell — David Gillespie expresses concern that while a strawberry contains around 4.6 per cent sugar, by the time it ends up in a Fruit Fix, it’s part of a product which is 72 per cent sugar.
After Gillespie published his post, he heard from lawyers representing Nestlé, Uncle Toby’s parent company. They pointed out that the bar isn’t only made from strawberries but also from apples and grapes, making the comparison unfair. (Grapes are sweeter than strawberries with 15.5 per cent sugar). The lawyers also pointed out that there’s no sugar added to the Fruit Fixes — it’s simply a high concentration of fruit juice and puree.
Gillespie is a lawyer too and his response to Nestlé makes for interesting reading. The point is, products like the Fruit Fix offer a fruit alternative — to fruit. At what point did we decide we need such a thing?
The tension between manufactured and whole foods becomes even more apparent in that other big business: weight loss.
When you visit the Jenny Craig website, you can meet their spokesperson and poster girl, Magda Szubanski. According to the welcome video, which features Szubanski, "You would think that the point of the Jenny Craig program is to get you addicted to the food permanently, but the whole idea is to wean you off the food gradually."
It’s an admirable intention, but if that’s the point, why are most of the meals modelled around the high-fat, highly refined foods that would have led so many to obesity in the first place?
The wonders of food processing may be able to give us "diet" beef pies, sausage rolls, chocolate mousse and toffee puddings — which all appear in the menu plan — but how does that help to encourage healthy eating habits? How does that give someone the tools to choose good food once the program is over?
Pharmacist Tony Ferguson’s weight loss program tramps down a well-trodden path: giving people quick wins at the outset to get them motivated. This is achieved by drinking two branded shakes each day and eating one real meal — protein and vegetables — at dinnertime. As you might expect, this doesn’t meet all the body’s nutrient and fibre requirements, so dieters need to add fibre, chromium and multi-vitamin supplements — all helpfully sold by Ferguson himself. The combination is all the more interesting because, according to the fine print, "supplements do not replace a balanced diet".
Once you’ve progressed, it’s time to introduce more real food, with a shake featuring only on the breakfast menu. However, "if you’re too tired to cook", Ferguson has made some "Easy Meals" for you. Each one "requires no refrigeration and is simple to heat and serve in just a few minutes". Modern science has produced a beef casserole and chicken curry that can live on a shelf indefinitely. In fact, there are more than 25 products available in the store including desserts and soups which just require the addition of water.
The marketing blurbs on Ferguson’s products are remarkably light on details such as ingredients, salt or sugar content. I thought I had made a breakthrough when I stumbled across the website FAQs which included the question, "What’s in the soups and shakes?" Alas, the answer was very vague: "50 per cent carbohydrate, 30 per cent protein and 20 per cent essential fats and nutrients".
Similarly, I thought the tab named "Nutritional Information" would link to ampler details about the nutritional content of Tony Ferguson products but instead it led to a collection of articles on nutrition.
Plenty of people do lose weight on these diets and some keep it off for good. But there are also plenty who don’t. And just as billions of dollars circulate through the fast food and weight loss industries, millions of words, often highly contradictory, have been written about what we need to do as individuals to stay healthy or lose weight. There’s a lot to navigate but we must remain cognisant of the subtle and constant influences of businesses who have a lot to gain from our reliance on their food products.
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