Don’t Judge a Food by its Wrapping!

Watch out and get to know your food on a deeper level.

Obesity is on the rise all around the world with a staggering 700 million cases globally¹. Cases of diabetes are expected to reach an estimated 439 million by 2030, doubling since the turn of the century². Additionally around 17,9 million people die every year of cardiovascular diseases, a number that continues to grow³. The global health of humanity is under attack as non-communicable diseases (NCD’s) such as diabetes, heart disease and even cancers become more and more prevalent. Smoking tobacco, alcohol abuse, inactivity and pollution have a significant influence on these NCD’s, yet it is estimated that 40% of deaths due to these diseases are because of unhealthy diets⁴. And though in some parts of the population there is a growing awareness of the dangers of bad diets, we must remain vigilant as our negligence may become our undoing. Get to know your food beyond the wrapper, learn about the industry behind it and get to know what you eat.

“Seventy percent of adults and 30% of children in Mexico are obese or overweight” a BBC report stated in 2014 as the country introduced restrictions on TV advertisements for ultra-processed foods (soft drinks and other high-calorie foods)⁵. In the western world we often perceive the processed food and drink industry as an issue of the past, one that is brought to light by awareness of the dangers of an unhealthy diet, one that is now being fought with policies and an issue that now is more problematic for “less developed” parts of the world. In a way, this idea is not wrong. Eighty percent of the NCD’s deaths in 2004 occurred in low and middle income countries⁶ and the ultra-processed food and drink industries have aggressively expanded into countries with emerging economies that do not yet have protective policies against their products⁷. In non-western nations obesity can be seen increasing with greater numbers than in Europe and North America⁸ ⁹, yet it would be foolish to think it is therefore no longer of concern to those in the “developed” world.

The western world has now largely become aware of the increasing dangers of NCD’s through harmful diets propelled by the sugar and ultra-processed food industry. In reaction to this, taxations and campaigns have been enacted to counter the troublesome statistics concerning high-caloric products and sugar excess. For instance, along with Mexico, Ireland, Iran and South Korea all have (admittedly vastly differing) restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks. Finland, Hungary and France have introduced taxations on sugar, there have been public awareness campaigns, restrictions on the availability of unhealthy foods in schools and some countries demand front-packet labelling displaying the nutritional contents¹⁰. Sixty-five percent of these policies are in “developed” nations and have had varying effects. But just as the idea that the malnutrition epidemic is a distant problem, it is foolish to think the developed world has thereby defeated this enemy. Though there have been improvements with policies, these are merely relative improvements as obesity rates are still on the rise and the prospects remain grim.¹¹

When thinking about the threat of NCD’s and our unhealthy diets that cause them, we can consider these issues as distant or presently dealt with. But our war with the sugar and ultra-processed food industry has many faces. Through lobbying, advertising and particularly marketing to children, the big food conglomerates have been able to keep their hallmark products a steady presence in the minds of (“developed”) societies. They do rigorous surveillance regarding anything in the companies’ interests¹² and “use similar tactics and strategies to the tobacco companies to undermine public health interventions”¹³, even funding scientific research with favourable outcomes¹⁴. These efforts can be seen slowing the wheels of progress and potentially stall much needed change. Awareness of these problems can help us in our daily life, especially when combined with proper public policies. Increasingly, people in the “developed” world have a reasonable level of knowledge of the dangers of an unhealthy diet and are more often aware of the products that we commonly consider to be the threat. However, the idea of having traced the origin of this danger back to its roots, could lead us to the flawed conception of victory, or worse, an ignorance to other threats.

This final threat is the hidden agent of the sugar and processed food problem. Though marketing can portray the idea of a sociability, nostalgia or even just call upon primitive sensory impulses¹⁵, there is another enemy far more unsettling: One dressed as an ally. There are products that seem as if they are healthy, yet hide the fact that they can be just as bad for you. For instance, yogurt can be seen to contain as much as “7 teaspoons (29 grams) of sugar per serving. A breakfast bar made with ‘real fruits’ and ‘whole grains’ lists 15 grams of sugar. A single cup of bran cereal with raisins, in a box advertising ‘no high fructose corn syrup,’ contains 20 grams of sugar per serving. [And] a cranberry/pomegranate juice product, also advertising ‘no high-fructose corn syrup’ and ‘100% Vitamin C,’ contains 30 grams of added sugar.”¹⁶ We usually consider these products safe — not surprising considering the way they are advertised — but they in fact could become the greatest threats.

We should immediately try to avert the rising presence of NCD’s, especially those caused by malnutrition, everywhere in the world. However, we should not let our idea, or perception of the problem affect our ability to fight it. We should not think of the health crisis as a distant problem, nor of a problem in which all the players are known and being dealt with accordingly. Doing this, we will focus merely on the threatening products we know and lower our guard towards others, some perhaps just as dangerous. The improper framing of “being healthy” that some products portray is the hidden agent with which we should educate ourselves. Front-package labelling (especially colour-coding) and other such policies can help us in our daily life as consumers; it will help us be more informed in the choices we make, and how they relate to our overall nutrition. If we all foster our awareness and vigilance towards our nutritional intake, we can not only make better individual decisions, but we can demand more policies to simplify these daily quests. Hopefully, this attitude will grow in prominence and eventually lead to positive results, not only in the “developed” world, but everywhere. We are at a crucial crossroads of global health, at a critical moment of action and “if you do not use it to clear away your clouds, it will be gone […] and the opportunity will not return.”¹⁷ So now is the time. Get to know your food better, look beyond the attractive wrapping, look at the nutritional contents, learn what you should eat and what to avoid, and begin the way to a healthier future.

[1]: Andrew Jacobs and Matt Richtel, (16 September 2017). ‘How Big Business got Brazil Hooked on Junk Food’, The New York Times.

[2]: David Stuckler and Karen Siegel, (2011). ‘Evaluating the health burden of chronic diseases’, Sick Societies: Responding to the global challenge of chronic disease., p. 11.

[3]: WHO. (2016). Cardiovascular Diseases. URL: <https://www.who.int/health-topics/cardiovascular-diseases/#tab=tab_1>. (Accessed 13 January 2021).

[4]: Stuckler, D. And Siegel, K. (2011). ‘Evaluating the health burden of chronic diseases’. p. 13.

[5]: BBC; Gallagher, James; Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School; Kiag, Michael J; Department of Health Behavior & Society. (9 June 2015). ‘Mexico Restricts Soft Drink TV ads to Fight Obesity’. CSPI Collection. Center for Science in the Public Interest. https://www.industrydocuments.ucsf.edu/docs/ghbm0229.

[6]: Stuckler, D. And Siegel, K. (2011). ‘Evaluating the health burden of chronic diseases’. p. 6.

[7]: Rob Moodie, David Stuckler, et al., (12 February 2013). ‘Profits and Pandemics: Prevention of harmful effects of tobacco, alcohol, and ultra processed food and drink industries’, The Lancet, 381(9867), p. 671.

[8]: Ibid. p. 672 (Table 1).

[9]: Jacobs, A. and Richtel, M. (2017). ‘How Big Business got Brazil Hooked on Junk Food’.

[10]: Popkin, Barry M, and Corinna Hawkes, (2016). ‘Sweetening of the Global Diet, Particularly Beverages: Patterns, Trends, and Policy Responses.’ The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, 4 (2), pp. 180–182.

[11]: Jacobs, A. and Richtel, M. (2017). ‘How Big Business got Brazil Hooked on Junk Food’.

[12]: Goltzman, Michael; Largacha, Pablo; Mortensen, Andrea. (27 January 2016). ‘INFORM — Marion Nestle’s South Pacific tour….’, DC Leaks Coca Cola Emails. DC Leaks. https://www.industrydocuments.ucsf.edu/docs/llcl0226.

[13]: Rob Moodie, David Stuckler, et al., (12 February 2013). ‘Profits and Pandemics: Prevention of harmful effects of tobacco, alcohol, and ultra processed food and drink industries’, p. 673.

[14]: Ibid. p. 673.

[15]: Gary S. Cross and Robert N. Proctor, (2014). ’The Carrot and the Candy Bar’, Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionised Desire. pp. 3–7.

[16]: SugarScience.UCSF.edu. (2021) Hidden In Plain Sight. URL: <http://sugarscience.ucsf.edu/hidden-in-plain-sight/#.X_3kki1Q034> (Accessed 13 January 2021).

[17]: Marcus Aurelius, Martin Hammond (trans.), (2006). Meditations. Book 2:4.