Obesity: the causes behind the causes

There is much talk about the causes of obesity and about responsibility for health. But what gets discussed little – far too little, in fact – are the causes behind the causes: agricultural policy and economic interest.

Read the New York Times‘ fascinating article that explores the US government’s role in the marketing of high-calorie junk food. The brief story is this: reductions in countrywide milk consumption as well as an increased demand for low- and non-fat milk (people watching their diets maybe?) have resulted in excesses of milk-fat. These excesses need to be sold – in other words, eaten. The easiest and fastest way to eat milk-fat is in the form of cheese, therefore the US department of agriculture has created a marketing group called ‘Dairy Management’. Dairy Management works with junk food sellers and producers to encourage them to add more cheese to their products.

Yes, that’s where those appealingly melting cheesy pizza crusts come from!!!

In other words, the US government simultaneously promotes healthy diet through fat-reduction, whilst subsidising the invention, marketing and sale of high calorie, cheesy food varieties. As a result the very same person that is diligently attempting to cut calories and fat-intake by changing to low fat milk may be unknowingly reingesting all that extra milk-fat, or even more, by buying a subsidized pizza slice containing 40% more fat and calories that it did before.

I hardly need to point out that the people shopping at Wholefoods (the US’s upmarket organic supermarket) are unlikely to find their favourite foods insidiously enhanced with cheese. The people that will end up disproportionally ingesting the excess milkfat will be a familiar sounding lot: the ones that have little education or awareness, little time for cooking and shopping – if a supermarket is even accessible to them – and little health insurance. These very same people will often be feeding a family.

We can talk about ‘health promotion’, ‘life-style change’ and ‘responsibility for health’ till the cows come home. But as long as countries continue to produce more food then they need, and as long as they continue to insist on forcing that food down the throats of their own population, with the full force of government subsidy and industrial marketing behind it, individuals and health promotors are doomed to fight a loosing battle. I do not deny that, ultimately, individuals have freedom of choice. But at the moment the powers that are very much conspire to stack the deck in favour of certain choices only. And, as ever, the further down the socio-economic ladder you go, the worse the deck becomes.

For more, do read the article, it is absolutely fascinating. Note also the conflict of research interests described.

For a similar story about corn, Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma gives a very accessible, if popularized, analysis, explaining at once why processed food (in the USA) is so cheap, and why the consumption of soft drinks has spiralled up; soft drinks are the easiest vehicle for getting a population to consume more corn. The corn industry keeps increasing it output at decreasing profit margins, and continues to be heavily subsidized by the US department for agriculture.



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