Obesity Gone Global



From the Boston Globe

Obesity crisis goes global

By Ellen Ruppel Shell, 2/17/2003

ECENTLY UBS Warburg, a leading international banking and investment firm, issued an ominous warning: The obesity crisis is hitting the world food market where it lives. With ''overweight'' linked to a multitude of ills, not to mention soaring insurance premiums and health care costs, there is mounting pressure on fast food chains and convenience food manufacturers to change not only their marketing practices, but their products.

''The worldwide obesity epidemic has expanded onto the political agenda,'' wrote report authors Jason Street and Caroline Levy. ''There is a clear long-term risk to producers of fast foods, soft drinks, confectionery, and snacks that antiobesity measures will curb their abilities to grow revenues in the future.''

Lawsuits are the proximate source of investors concern. A growing number of consumers charge that Big Food's marketing tactics -- especially to children -- obscure the true danger of its wares, and are willing to go to court to prove it. While some argue these suits are frivolous, investors are increasingly taking them seriously. As the Globe reported this week, Warren Buffet backed off his bid for Burger King when millionaire and health evangelist Phil Sokolof warned publicly that ownership of the restaurant chain would compromise his integrity. Sokolof is not alone: As obesity rates soar, aggressive marketing of junk food, particularly to children, is coming under increasing scrutiny.

Among the more harrowing of recent statistics is that 61 percent of Americans are overweight and more than 30 percent obese. Some have suggested that this is due to a particularly American style of hedonism and a culture of permissiveness that has turned us into a nation of gluttons. But this ignores the fact that the problem -- and the concern -- is global. The European Union struggles mightily with its weight, as does Asia, Latin America, and Australia. In India more than 100 million people are obese or overweight, and in China obesity has quadrupled in just the past decade.

Indeed, obesity has taken hold everywhere Western-style affluence has gained purchase: The World Health Organization reported last year that overnutrition is quickly overtaking under-nutrition as an international health disaster.

In France, where restaurant fast food has been under attack almost since its introduction more than three decades ago, McDonald's has tried to ward off further protests by publicly warning children to eat fast food no more than once a week. Back in the United States, the McDonald's Corp. issued a statement that it ''strongly disagreed,'' with this position, but if seven months of declining earnings are any indication of what's in stock for McDonald's future, company CEO Jack Greenberg might want to reconsider his position.

For starters, fast food and other quick food purveyors might label their products, to give consumers a better idea of what sort of deal they're getting when they order a ''value'' meal. Rather than offering products stuffed with more cheap fat and sweetener -- ever bigger sandwiches laden with bacon, cheese product, and greasy special sauces, ''salads'' smothered in croutons and fried soy product, fried noodles and cheap dressings, shakes made with more than a quarter pound of sugar -- they could offer some realistic healthy choices. As anyone who has been to a decent deli knows, carefully prepared fresh foods need no fat-laden sauces or fake cheese to enhance their appeal.

Seemingly small measures can have a profound impact. In New Zealand, where obesity is a serious public health concern, scientists have found that low-fat French fries are to customers undistinguishable from high fat fries. In Finland, another country that struggles with its weight, government subsidized salads served in restaurants have drastically reduced the incidence of heart disease. In Sweden and Norway, where advertising to young children is prohibited by law, childhood obesity rates are among the lowest in the Western world.

Science has made clear that obesity is to some degree genetically linked, and that some of us are more vulnerable than others. Still, none of us is immune: While at one time obesity was linked to ethnic and economic class, in the past 20 years most ethnic and economic groups in this country have grown fat at roughly the same rate. What is clear is that a growing number of us are having difficulty regulating our intake, due in part to a food supply that our bodies were never designed to encounter.

Big Food claims no culpability in this, but if market share is any indication, they are rapidly losing ground. Perhaps its time for Big Food to move into the 21st century with a new -- and healthier -- marketing plan, for its sake as much as for ours.

Ellen Ruppel Shell, co-director of the Knight Center for Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University, is author of ''The Hungry Gene: The Science of Fat and the Future of Thin.''