Most people blame gluttony and sloth for the obesity epidemic. While individual choice plays a part, genes and upbringing are far more potent deciders of our fate. Yet this cannot explain the recent spike in obesity. Neither our self-control, nor our genes have changed in the last fifty years. Our genes only determine how fat we are compared to everyone else. As a population we have all got fatter, and this has come from changes in our food environment. In short, we now face constant temptation from a flood of fake food.
What do we mean by fake food? Modern food contains more calories and fewer nutrients. The nutritional quality of some food has fallen to the extent that some question whether it should still be able to be called food at all. In the United States traditional foods once had to bear the moniker ‘imitation’ if their recipe was so much as changed. This regulation was loosened in the 1970s, which allowed the whole food processing industry to bloom. We reckon that calling these foods ‘imitation’ was more honest, which is why we refer to food processed beyond recognition by the more straightforward term: ‘fake food’.
Without modern food we couldn’t feed the planet’s burgeoning population, but the avalanche of fake food has come at a price – one that doesn’t appear on the label. This increase in calories and fall in nutrients thanks to fake food is directly responsible for a large chunk of our modern health woes, including heart disease, diabetes, strokes and many cancers.
How has this happened? It is simple economics. By stripping the food of the nutrients it contains in its natural form, then stuffing it full of sugar, salt and fat, manufacturers found they could create foods that don’t go bad but still have flavour. This has allowed for food to be mass produced, warehoused and distributed to a shelf where it sits for months, patiently waiting for you to purchase it.
We can’t blame manufacturers for making fake food, after all they are simply supplying our demand. It is no secret people crave fatty, salty and sweet foods – anyone hosting a kid’s birthday party knows that well. The difference nowadays is that they can engineer the food so we will eat as much as possible, constantly crave it, and the food industry has it cheaply and conveniently available 24/7. Our fast paced lifestyle leaves little time for cooking, and we have come to expect food to be cheap, tasty and convenient. Unfortunately this often guarantees that the food won’t be healthy. Stress and little sleep also leave us more vulnerable to temptation from the occasional ‘treat food’ – which for many has gone from a monthly to weekly or daily event.
What we can blame manufacturers for is suckering us into believing this fake food is healthy. Around half of Kiwis don’t know how to eat healthily. Despite their rhetoric food manufacturers have resisted any attempt to make it easier, like having nutrition labels that people understand. Take breakfast cereal. Many people have bought into the lie that breakfast cereals are healthy, and so they and their children start the day with what amounts to a dessert. The fact that Kellogg’s has the gall to call a cereal Nutrigrain when it is 32% sugar beggars belief.
Why do we expect scientists and factories to make better food than Mother Nature? The fact is that nutrition science is a fledgling beast, and simply hasn’t been able to keep up with the innovation in the food industry. The whole paradigm of taking foods, processing them into their constituent parts, then recombining them in weird and wonderful ways to ‘add value’ is the stuff of mad scientists. Just as Frankenstein’s dabbling created a monster, so too has the dabbling of food scientists created Frankenfoods. There are a many examples where this scientific approach to food has gone horribly wrong; including milk formula and trans fat. There are also emerging examples where isolating food components from their natural state turns them from benign to harmful, including fructose, carotene and fibre.
We are still counting the nutritional cost of the wide spread shift to milk formula in the 1970s. Who know how much of our current obesity crisis started with the idea that scientists knew baby nutrition better than mother? While formula no doubt has a place, we are still trying to correct this folly and cajole people back to the old ways. Trans fats are an even more terrifying story – in the push to get us eating less saturated fat, food companies made vegetable oils look and behave more like butter. In the process they created mutant fats that turned out to be even worse for heart disease. Manufacturers are reducing these nasty beasties, but they are far from eliminated from our food.
The idea that we can understand our food better by breaking it down into smaller chunks is also deeply flawed. In the quest to find the fountain of youth buried in our humble fruit and veg, people have been sent down a million blind alleyways of superfluous supplements and pointless pills. Even worse, previously beneficial nutrients have been proven to be harmful when isolated and given in excessive doses. Beta carotene is found in many fruits and veges and normally helps protect against cancer, but when taken alone as a supplement can increase lung cancer risk. Fructose is a sugar that gives many fruits their sweetness, and is harmless enough when eaten packaged up with fibre and nutrients. But separate it out and use it as a sweetener and it is more damaging to our bodies than normal sugar. Even fibre seems to lose its beneficial impact when isolated and shoved into foods artificially.
The upshot is that just about any food that claims it is healthy on the box is probably wrong. It really is the food without labels and packaging – particularly fruit & veges – that you are better off with. The usual retort is that eating healthy is more expensive. It is true that healthier versions of processed food are more expensive, but anyone can shortcut that by preparing their own meals. It isn’t money that stops us eating healthily, but time and know-how. We face a massive challenge to turn this juggernaut before our health system is overrun with diabetes.