Junk Food for Profit: Fat, Sick and Addicted


“We are what we eat,” as the old adage says. “If you eat a hamburger one day, then its atoms and molecules will end up making your cell walls and different organs and tissues,” explains Logan McCarty, a lecturer on chemistry, chemical biology, and physics at Harvard University. For humans, as for other animals, it is essential to replace regularly the atoms and molecules in the body, and the food that we ingest supplies these atoms and molecules to fuel indispensable chemical processes and generate new cells.


Food is related to cellular division for an elegant reason: cells suffer damage over time, and division continuously replaces the old and dying cells with new ones. Mitosis and meiosis, the two different division processes, cannot create something from nothing. So the body incorporates new atoms and molecules from our food into dividing cells to generate fresh ones. Such cells accrete to replace the tissues and, ultimately, complete organs. These organs, obviously, are necessary for the body’s vitality.


It is important to keep in mind that copying errors and metabolic pathways with sensory and feedback systems are inherent to the cellular growth and division process. The kinds of foods that we ingest to sustain our lives are not all equal: some are hardly food at all. In many world markets, there has been an increase in the levels of fat, salt and sugar in foods. These food elements are not in themselves problematic; however, the excessive ingestion of such things can create problems. Among other things, the world is growing obese, and the costs of health insurance and health care are rising. This is an issue, not only for markets where people have money to spend on such foodstuffs but also in emerging economies with millions of potential consumers. Furthermore, increased insurance premiums and food prices generate a lot of revenue in existing markets. Ultimately, the fatter a nation gets, the more it pays economically and health-wise.

United States of America: Heavy Costs

In the United States, the quintessential neoliberal state, there is much to dissect regarding the relationship of big food businesses and the induction of poor public health. The problem is also heavily economic. The cost of healthcare is rising faster than inflation. Healthcare is also one of the biggest catalysts for the federal deficit. It is a major impediment to improved living standards for the country’s poor. An American Journal of Preventive Medicine report on obesity predicts that more than 40 percent of Americans will become obese by 2030. This represents an increase from today’s rate of about 35 percent. Obesity and health problems related to eating might cost Americans more than $190 billion. Such problems are expected to cause increases in insurance premiums and government expenses. Some reports hold that currently the cost per individual household runs upwards of $1,700; such expenses will continue to rise as Americans grow more obese and less healthy.


What Shapes Diet in Canada and the World?

According to a Nielsen survey, the two most important considerations of Canadian shoppers are “good value for the money” and “convenience.” Such values in consumption also relate to dietary habits. For example, about one tenth of Canadians consume the recommended daily dose of fruits and vegetables; more than two-thirds of Canadian adults eat three servings or less. The same survey reports that shoppers from the Asian Pacific, Latin America, Middle East and Africa qualify “freshness” as being their most important consideration. Furthermore, more than half of those surveyed overall cited rising food prices as having a prohibitive effect on their purchase of fresh foods, such as meats, seafood, dairy, produce, deli and baked goods. These constitute more than 30 percent of food sales in Canada (in all retail avenues), 60 percent in the Asian Pacific, more than 50 percent in Europe, 30 percent in the US, and 25 percent in Latin America.


New Zealand: Disease on the Horizon

In New Zealand, diabetes brings economic hardship in excess of $775 million per year according to the non-governmental organization (NGO) Diabetes New Zealand. The Ministry of Health further indicates that more than 200,000 New Zealanders had diabetes in 2011. The government expected a 10 percent increase by the end of that year alone. The incidence of Type 2 diabetes, which health professionals commonly associate with obesity, overshadows that of Type 1 diabetes, which accounted for less than ten percent of the population of diabetics. Overeating, when compounded by high levels of sugary and fatty foods, can lead to high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and many consider the incidence of cardiovascular disease to be high in New Zealand.


Japan’s Diet Debacle

An increased consumption of Western foods has been linked with a swift increase in disease in Japan. For example, researchers note that Japan has experienced more than 70,000 cases of the inflammatory bowel disorder called Crohn’s disease. The rising incidence of this disease is associated with an increased ingestion of fats and sugars. Experts predict that the incidence will continue to rise. One prediction includes a nearly 27 percent increase within the decade, putting Japan at roughly 90,000 cases. This compares poorly with the findings of the British research company, Global Data, which reports an average increase of only 11 percent in Canada, India, the US, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, France, and Spain. The next largest possible increase, approaching 16 percent, is predicted for India.


Craig Willcox, of Okinawa International University, notes that the Japanese are eating much more fat. They are also consuming greater amounts meat and milk products, which are “sources of low-quality” carbohydrates. Foods like bread, noodles and white rice have replaced traditional staples like the sweet potato. The overall change in the Japanese diet is not only correlated with the rise in Crohn’s disease but also an increase in cancers of the intestine and colon, as well as problems with high cholesterol and blood pressure. These health problems are compounded by other factors, such as general inactivity, increased consumption and other issues related to obesity.


Food for Profit: Latin America

Latin America is joining the rest of the world’s 1.5 billion overweight, as the region follows a global pattern of increased obesity. Free-trade agreements have made processed and packaged foods, and sweet drinks, more readily available than ever. Jobs have grown more sedentary, and children spend more time idle, rather than playing or keeping active. Barry Popkin, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill expert on global nutrition, claims: “There is an increased push by global food companies,” due to “growing incomes in Brazil and all the growth in China.” This pattern is inflamed by rising wages in low- and middle-income countries, and food and drink companies prey on these newly enriching markets.


Chile, for example, is currently second only to the US in its consumption of carbonated beverages per capita. In 2012, the yearly per capita consumption of carbonated drinks was estimated to have reached 120 liters (about one can of soda per person per day), and the annual growth of carbonated beverage sales is expected to exceed four percent by 2017. The Chilean market was dominated by Coca-Cola brands like “Andina,” one of Coke’s 10 biggest global bottlers. Coke is set to invest another $1.3 billion in the next few years into expanding its reach. Markets that consume carbonated drinks at per capita levels of 100 liters or more per year are given special attention. Despite attempts at a healthier diet, Chileans continue to consume these carbonated beverages at voracious rates.


Today, 25 percent of Chileans are obese, and studies have shown that even a quarter of first-graders are clinically obese: meaning that their body mass index (BMI) exceeds or equals 30. BMI is weight (in kilograms), divided by the square of the height (measured in meters). Chileans almost rival the British for obesity and are quickly closing in on Americans. Yet, Chile is not alone in Latin America’s obesity conundrum.

Depending on the study, Mexico vies with the US for world’s “heaviest nation,” though overall, North America surpasses South America in obesity. One problem in Mexico is that, more and more, the traditional diet is becoming industrially packaged. Fried foods are ubiquitous; cooking oil prices have plummeted; large quantities of sugary liquids are consumed, including Coca-Cola drinks. Some government statistics indicate that 70 percent of adult Mexicans are overweight, and nearly 30 percent of these are obese. More than a quarter of Mexican children (ages five to 11) are overweight, and at least 40 percent of adolescents are thought not to exercise.


Historically, obesity has tended to be more prevalent in economically developed countries; however, studies show that the obesity rates of Latin America have exceeded those of many developed nations. The rates are rising even in highly malnourished regions of Central America. For example, in Guatemala, which has one of the world’s highest rates of child malnutrition, the number of obese individuals increased from 34 to 45 percent between 1995 and 2002.


Around the World

Upon entering the second decade of the new millennium, the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) reported that slightly more than eight percent of the world’s adult population between 39 and 79 years old, or more than 366 million people, had diabetes. China had more than 90 million diabetics, India more than 61 million, and the US more than 23 million. The IDF projects that, by 2030, nearly 10 percent of the world’s adults will be diabetic.


Diabetes kills six million people every year, and at least 90 percent of these deaths stem from being overweight. Obesity and diet-associated illness have ceased to be a Western problem and are now considered to be the world’s biggest killers. They are correlated with heart disease and certain cancers. In his book, The End of Poverty (Penguin Group, 2005) Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs notes that China and India’s populations represent millions of potential consumers for the big-food business and a westernized diet. Prepackaged foods, for example, which symbolize wealth in some newly enriching classes, contain excessive amounts of salt, fat, and sugar.


The ever-increasing percentage of non-communicable diseases presents lucrative commercial opportunities for pharmaceutical companies. While some opine that people can willfully change their diet, such a change is chemically inhibited by the body’s habituation to an unceasing consumption of cholesterol, fat and sugar. Furthermore, the saltier, fattier, and sweeter foodstuffs, which are aggressively advertised and marketed more cheaply than fresh foods worldwide, seem to be tastier.


At the One Young World summit in Zurich, Switzerland, the famous British chef and television star, Jamie Oliver, had the following a message for the attaches of many developing countries: “For the first time in history, being overweight is killing more people than being under weight…. What is crazy is that even countries that struggle with hunger or famine are beginning to see the exact opposite situation—families in cities eating themselves to death on processed food.”

Editor’s Notes: Photograph one by Filimonas Triantafyllou; three and nine by Malingering; four and sixteen by Dean Hochman; two by Julia Manzerova; five by Cheshire Cat; six by Bhautik Joshi; seven from the archive of Jay Bergesen; eight by Cran Rob; ten from Light Brigading; eleven by Hector Lecuanda; thirteen by Nick Sherman; fourteen by Sandra Cohen-Rose; and fifteen by Lynn Friedman.


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