Thursday, May 30, 2013

Health or junk?

In developed countries, the obesity pandemic is spreading. The US, UK and Australia are vying for top spot in a race where the Americans had a big head start.

It’s no coincidence that English-language countries have this the worst. They have a common approach to food marketing, even if the details differ. As illustrated in the movie Food, Inc., the US has turned food production into a factory from start to finish, with a very small number of core ingredients. Cows are fed an unhealthy diet of grains (for which they are not adapted) in feedlots to fatten them up, with a cocktail of drugs to stop them getting ill. Large-scale production-line slaughterhouses are an incipient disaster that occasionally turns real.

The logic of factory food is hard to shake: it’s inexpensive, so the poor can’t do without it. Yet if you look at the consequences of the obesity pandemic, can the poor live with it? We are seeing young children developing diabetes, and the US, the epicentre of the problem, has the world’s highest per capita health expenditure with some of the worst results in the developed world.

Obesity is an addiction. You can only deal with it effectively if you treat it as such. Junk foods are designed to prime the addiction by desensitising your taste to extreme levels of sugar and salt. That makes healthy food unsatisfying. Then you are on the junk slippery slide. Sugar and other easily absorbed carbs throw your metabolism out of kilter because a rapidly absorbed carb results in an insulin spike that over-corrects, pulling your blood sugar down. And that makes you feel hungry again. Artificial sweeteners are even worse because they can totally confuse various metabolic signals (with differing effects for differing sweeteners).

Junk food companies are the new drug lords. We should recognise them as such, though we should not repeat the mistakes of the war on drugs in the way we take them on. Prohibition and criminalising an existing popular but unhealthy practice generally leads to massive profits for a mafia that takes over the trade.

The solution? A wider range of health warnings on food. Anything with sugar above a reasonable level e.g. 5% should be labelled as high sugar, and similar warnings can apply to salt. Many products sold as “health” foods would be exposed by this sort of labelling. Public service advertising warning of the dangers of junk food would be good too. These could be funded out of a tax on sugar. A few cents per kilogram would raise a lot of advertising revenue.

There may be better ideas than mine. But to ignore the problem is to inflict massive health costs onto society, premature loss off loved ones and – for those for whom logic excluding a dollar sign does not signify – needless loss of productivity.

And for those who understand the problem: the solution can start with you. Minimise your intake of obvious junk. This doesn’t mean you have to refuse a chip at a party. It does mean you don’t eat them every day. Try to cook from scratch and from fresh as much as possible. The time cost is not as high as you may think: I do this all the time and still have time for many other things (this blog, lecturing to students, writing papers and grant proposals, going to movies, etc.). And I very seldom get sick, a big time saver in itself. Another good rule: read product labels. If you don’t know what the ingredients are, give it a miss. If your head can’t process it, there’s some chance your gut can’t as well.

Finally, what makes this a green issue? Green is not only about the natural environment but about the human habitat. Quality of life is an important part of that concern, and avoiding unnecessary health problems follows from that.