Despite Obesity Crisis, Govt Slow to Rein in Fast Food Industry

Published: December 23, 2020

NEW YORK, Dec 23, 2020 (IPS) - When the fast food chain McDonald’s decided to add oatmeal to
its menu in January 2011, it literally sugar-coated the
offering as a “portable, affordable and balanced breakfast
solution… to help make it easier and more inviting for our
guests to eat more whole grains and fruits”.

Although a single serving of plain oatmeal has one gramme of sugar,
one serving (253 grammes) of McDonald’s fruit and maple oatmeal with
brown sugar contains 32 grammes of sugar. One serving of the same
oatmeal, without brown sugar, contains 18 grammes of sugar, according
to the company’s nutrition facts.

“Why would McDonald’s… take a venerable ingredient like oatmeal and
turn it into expensive junk food?” lamented New
York Times columnist
Mark Bittman in February 2011.

McDonald’s oatmeal, he pointed out, “contains more sugar than a
Snickers bar and (is) only 10 fewer calories than a McDonald’s
cheeseburger or Egg McMuffin”.

But critics say McDonald’s uncanny ability to turn an inherently
healthy food into an unnaturally processed product (the oatmeal
itself contains seven ingredients, including “natural flavour”,
according to Bittman) is not even the most egregious of the stunts
that large food corporations manage to pull.

A Nestle supermarket that set sail in the form of a barge
on the
Amazon River in Brazil in June 2011 could be one of the more
outlandish efforts by the food industry to offer an expanding range
of customers a plethora of processed and packaged foods.

Even though processed food is inexpensive, noted Bittman, “the costs
aren’t seen at the cash register but in the form of high health care
bills and environmental degradation”.

In the United States, food activists who are highly critical of
corporations that market aggressively to attract and keep a steady
consumer base are also critical of the government, which seems unable
or unwilling to regulate these corporations, whether through limiting
their marketing or requiring them to adhere to specific nutrition

System overload

As a result, not only are individuals and communities feeling the
effects of a consistent intake of unhealthy processed foods laden
with sugar and fat, but societies around the world and the earth
itself are also forced to bear the heavy burden of the unsustainable
agricultural system upon which the food industry relies.

Some 33.8 percent of adults in the United States are obese, according
to the Centres for Disease Control (CDC). Obese means having a body
mass index (link) of more than 30. The World Health Organisation
(WHO) estimates that by 2015, 2.3 billion adults will be obese.

Lifestyles that incorporate little to no exercise and a processed
diet high in fat and sugar are linked to obesity and being
overweight, which are connected to a multitude of health issues,
including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.

Marketing tactics

On Dec. 1, a law took effect in San Francisco, California, known as
the Health Meals Incentive Ordinance, establishing basic nutritional
standards for kids’ meals that come with free toys, a marketing
strategy used to attract kids.

Before the law was passed, according to Corporate Accountability
International, McDonald’s threatened to sue San Francisco on the
grounds of the First Amendment.

Once the law went into effect, instead of giving away free toys with
its Happy Meals, McDonald’s decided to charge 10 cents per toy.

Still, “this law really had a tremendous public health impact even
before it took effect,” despite McDonald’s approach, said Sara Deon,
Value [the] Meal campaign director.

Southern Los Angeles passed a moratorium limiting the development of
new fast food restaurants, for example, and Jack-in-the-Box
eliminated toys from meals altogether.

Although prohibiting toys from accompanying meals may change nothing
about the actual content and nutritional value of the food, the
changes do have an impact on who buys fast food meals, and how often.

“It’s really about marketing,” Deon told IPS. “Big food companies
create big demand for their products through aggressive marketing,”
with some companies, especially McDonald’s, marketing especially
aggressively towards children, so eliminating toys does help reduce

In 2007, McDonald’s spent an estimated 1.74 billion dollars globally
on advertising, according to a report by Consumers
International. Yum
Brands, the parent company for Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, spent
1.23 billion dollars.

Additionally, “federal agencies wield tremendous influence over what
types of foods we eat and the information we receive about them,”
wrote Michele Simon, a public health lawyer, on her blog, pointing
out that the government sets food safety standards, gives nutrition
advice and subsidises agriculture.

However, powerful food industry lobbies are able to pressure
representatives and senators who hail from districts where people
rely on food industry corporations for jobs.

Conflict of interest

Many food activists seriously doubt lawmakers’ commitment to ensuring
that people have access to healthy, affordable food, citing conflicts
of interest and a focus on protecting corporations rather than

In April, the Interagency Working Group (IWG), including the Federal
Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the CDC and the
U.S. Department of Agriculture, developed and proposed
recommendations on both the nutritional quality of food marketed to
children and teenagers, and marketing practices.

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce, however, wrote a letter
to the IWG, saying, “the real causes of childhood obesity have more
to do with inadequate physical activity and excess calorie
consumption than with the advertising and packaging of food.”

It ignored evidence of a connection between marketing and the
purchase and eating of fast food, which in turn contributes to excess
calorie consumption.

The letter asked the IWG to “withdraw the current proposal and start

“Corporations simply throw their money around and threaten
politicians if they try to get in their way,” Simon told IPS. “Even
when regulatory agencies try to do the right thing they’re beat back
by congressional members that oversee them.”

Simon is not convinced that regulations and guidelines are the most
viable solutions to a host of related issues including but not
limited to poor nutrition, obesity, and an unsustainable food system
that exploits labour and harms animals.

What Simon considers truly necessary is complete system overhaul. Her
call for an end to corporate and industry control has a familiar

“We need to build a political movement,” she said.

Still, despite “a lot of localised restructuring” and alternatives
such as farmers’ markets, such options are insufficient, she
insisted, because they fail to strike at the core of a flawed and
broken system.


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Published December 23, 2020 by in news
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