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Private (food industry) profits v Public health

June 22, 2010

The profits of private firms ought not to take precedence when compared with the health of the more than four million people at risk in this country.

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, President of the Royal College of Physicians

The high cost of supermarket food

Finally – after 30 years of its largely unchallenged assault on public health – the food industry is being taken to task. NICE has said that trans-fats (classified as toxic by WHO) should be banned from food in England and salt levels reduced further. New, comprehensive research indicates that this will save 40,000 lives a year and £1bn NHS costs. This move is backed by doctors, health professionals, the Royal College of Physicians.

It’s no wonder that the food industry has reacted badly (and rather unconvincingly) to this: the whole industry is built on processed foods – of which trans-fats are just one component. They make far higher profits on processed foods than real foods such as fruit and vegetables and so, could be seen as having a vested interest in not helping the public make healthy choices. The government show little inclination to support NICE’s evidence based recommendations – and why should they, the food industry is a powerful lobbying force. NICE also called for “full disclosure of interests by all parties” for government and food and drinks industry discussions. Meanwhile, many people are limited by what’s on offer at their local supermarket, many of which do  not offer healthy alternatives – or do, but at a higher price. A ban worked for smoking; why not for other unnecessary and unhealthy products?

Factory-food Britain

The public needs to make better and informed decisions, and understand the impact of its choices.

Jon Poole , CEO, Institute of Food Science & Technology

Over-processed, over-priced, foods and drinks are to blame for our obesity epidemic. Obesity on this scale did not exist 30 years ago. Food companies swell their increasingly vast profits with products made from cheap bulking agents, colouring, flavouring, artificial sweeteners, trans-fats, salt and sugar: low unit costs and relatively high price + blissfully uninformed consumers: the shareholder’s dream.

The majority of food sold in supermarkets is factory-made using a variety of highly processed components (they’re not really ingredients in the way we think of normal cooking ingredients). So-called ‘natural’ flavours involve taking a natural ingredient and processing it to within millimetres of its life to create something which can be legally called ‘natural’ and yet also work within the mass-production environment of our food factories. Sugar often appears in a number of guises on the food labels of a single product: glucose syrup, corn syrup, HFCS, fructose, the list goes on. Artificial sweeteners are not the answer: they merely increase our appetite for sweetness in food and drink, which in a young child predisposes them to a lifetime desire for processed food over real food.

‘Children’s Food’ sets the pattern for a lifetime’s bad diet

If we want to get a sense of what’s wrong with our national diet, we need look no further than the food we feed our children.

Children are reliant on their parents for the food and drinks they are given. Recent research showed that 90% of schoolchildren’s packed lunches contained dangerously high levels of sugar, salt and fats – and that’s before we start on breakfast cereals (astonishingly high proportions of salt and sugar). Anecdotal evidence suggests that most primary pupil lunches contain a variety of the folllowing: crisps, chocolate confections, additive-laden dairy desserts (fromage frais is NOT yoghurt), biscuits, soft drinks, and fatty fake cheese novelty products.

Soft drinks

These chemicals have never been tested on children…Why take a chance?

Professor Marion Nestle, Nutritionist, New York University

Why do we sell/ buy flavoured water targeted at primary-age children? The character branded drinks contain not one, but two artificial sweeteners as well as a mix of flavouring, preservatives and colouring.

Fruit Shoots (despite the name and packaging) have little to do with fruit, containing a tiny percentage of fruit but a large amount of water and high number of artificial additives. It is much more expensive than plain fruit juice. ‘No Added Sugar’ screams the label in the hope that busy parents won’t check the ingredients label. A long thread on mumsnet.com considers it to be a “misleadingly-packaged, additive-laden product”. Any parent who puts these in their child’s packed lunch should try drinking one: they are astonishingly sweet (that’ll be the artificial sweeteners) – no wonder children refuse water and milk nowadays; no wonder British children struggle to eat just two portions of fruit or vegetables a day. After a diet of highly sweetened and salty foods, real food just doesn’t taste right.

Europe food culture

I was in a café the other day surrounded by middle-class mothers and fathers handing their 4-8 year olds ‘flumps’ (beef gelatine and a whole host of additives) and fruit shoots. One child stood out: he was tucking into a piece of homemade flapjack and a fresh fruit juice. His mother was Italian. Of course Italian children, like other Europeans, do not have special ‘children’s food’.

It’s time for British people to walk away from supermarkets (who take 85p of every pound spent on groceries), get back to basics and start cooking again. It’s time for schools to include proper cooking, as opposed to the ridiculous food ‘tech’ which props up the factory food industry, as part of the curriculum. We’ll be healthier and better off financially too.

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