The first part of Jacques Peretti’s three-part documentary The Men who Made Us Fat did a simply excellent job of unearthing the roots of our current obesity crisis – showing how high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) became omnipresent in the Western diet, before people realised how devastating it is to human health.
It also explained how the mistaken low-fat dogma of the 1970s and 1980s led to an explosion in processed foods which were marketed as ‘healthy’ but were just the opposite.
These two different but interlocking developments in my view – and I think this is what Peretti is saying – created a nutritional disaster leading to our current obesity crisis.
But there is also a common underlying theme in both these trends, and we need to face up to this if we are going to tackle our problematic food culture. And that is our obsession with ‘cheap food’ and ‘convenience’.
It’s taken 30-40 years of increasing ill health in the USA and Europe, an explosion of obesity, heart disease and diabetes, to begin to see that there is no such as thing as ‘cheap food’ – only hidden or externalised costs – which we pay for with our health, the degradation of our environment and the impoverishment of our food culture.
HFCS came about as a solution to the over-production of maize in the USA, itself the result of a political decision by the Nixon Administration to provide ‘cheap food’. The surplus maize was used to make HFCS which the food industry began to use in everything from fizzy drinks and biscuits to pizza, not just in the States, but anywhere where the Western diet could penetrate.
In what now looks, with hindsight, like a deadly pincer movement, the low-fat = health hypothesis also gained traction in the late 1970s and early 1980s This turned out been an absolute boon for the food industry.
Seeing a whole new profitable market, they took the good, healthy fat out of naturally fatty foods, and replaced it with low-cost, nutritionally poor fillers such as modified maize starch (from all that lovely cheap corn that US farmers were producing) and low-cost, dangerous HFCS (from all that lovely cheap corn etc….) and sold it to us as ‘heart healthy’ and ideal for slimmers (oh the irony).
As long as the food was labelled ‘low fat’, did it matter if it was stuffed with weird, new lab-engineered fillers and flavours which temporarily fooled our tastebuds into thinking we were eating real food?
However, at the moment, taking the healthy route is not the convenient or easy option – nor it is the cheapest choice at the till.
Here’s an example of a six-pack of low fat ‘fruit’ yoghurts (it happens to be Sainsbury’s but could be any supermarket offering). It is marketed as Probiotic Strawberry, Raspberry & Cherry Yogurts. The ingredients of the cherry flavours (in addition to the yoghurt) are as follows.
Cherries (8%), Sugar, Rice Starch, Plant Extracts: Hibiscus Concentrate, Carrot Concentrate; Flavouring, Stabiliser: Pectin; Lemon Concentrate. The strawberry and raspberry flavour pots also only have 8% of fruit or fruit concentrate in them.
The cost of this melange of rice starch, stabilisers and sugar is £1.12 or 15p per individual tub of 125g
If at the same supermarket you buy a 500g tub of plain low fat yoghurt (£1) and add some fresh raspberries (£2 for £225 grams) to provide six portions of fruity yogurt, each portion would cost 50p.
That is more than three times the cost of the six-pack, it won’t be as convenient to throw into your bag for a packed lunch and it might be hard to get the kids to eat it as it won’t be nearly so sweet.
So as you try to make the best decision at the supermarket shelf, the hard choice is:
- pay more for real food – that is, only buy plain yoghurt and fresh fruit – you are somehow going to have to manage without modified maize starch, sugar, carrot concentrate and stabiliser (and hibiscus concentrate, whatever that is)
- spend a little more time preparing the food
- risk rejection of the food by family members who have a sweet tooth
- risk leaking of goo all over your bag as you commute to work (speaking from bitter experience)
buy cheaper, beautifully packaged, sweetened, food-like objects which will
- guarantee being eaten
- make your blood sugar spike more quickly (and thus make you feel hungry sooner) and
- in the longer term play their part in expanding waistlines and the risk of heart disease and diabetes
It’s clear which one of these options will benefit your health in the long term and in the short term help you feel fuller for longer, as it is more nutritious and satisfying – but in the moment, can we make the right choice?
It’s going to be a long hard slog to resist The Men Who Make Us Fat.
Here’s a challenge.
Decide that one day next week you will not eat any food that comes with a label. Only one day! You will have to plan and prepare because it will prove extremely hard – but it is one baby step you can make to a healthier you.