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Updated 05 November 2015

The obesity blame game

Laying the blame for a fat world at the feet of the food industry has become a convenient mistake, and until this is recognised there is little chance of controlling the epidemic.

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Because obesity will not be ‘cured’ if fat, inactive people, who eat a lot, suddenly become fat, inactive people, who eat a lot of slightly healthier products.

The solution needs to be found at every touch point of communication, including industry, family, community, schools and government.

And food and drink companies, for their part, have made such sweeping changes in the past few years in response to the crisis, that the entire direction of the industry has seen a fundamental shift.

In the US, trans fats have been slashed from products, sugar and salt content has been reduced, companies are starting to control portion sizes and even marketing campaigns increasingly have a nutritional focus.

Most easily identifiable target

Indeed, a whole new industry for functional foods - or foods with added health benefits - has sprung up almost out of nowhere over the past five years, to become the mainstream movement that it is today.

Yet, food and beverage firms continue to have the finger of blame pointed at them. Because, after all, obesity has become a major issue, so something must have caused it.

And the food industry is the most easily identifiable target.

But many of the foods that have started being seen as a cause for obesity have been around for a good score of years. This doesn’t make them any healthier or more nutritious, but it does suggest that there is more to obesity than the types of foods consumed.

A simple balance

Being overweight comes down to a simple balance: energy intake versus energy burned.

And a fundamental change in lifestyle has resulted in the last part of that equation being increasingly ignored.

But over the past years, the food industry has taken the problem on board and is responding admirably.

Indeed, the industry was caught off guard when it was suddenly blamed for causing obesity, even though its practices had not changed dramatically from what they were years ago. But most leading food and beverage companies have taken major action to make their products healthier.

General Mills reformulated its cereals to be made with whole grains; PepsiCo reformulated its snacks without trans fats; Kellogg slashed sugar from its products; Kraft introduced the concept of 100-calorie packs.

Other initiatives have also been taken to make healthy food choices easier for consumers. PepsiCo uses a SmartSpot to distinguish ‘better for you’ products; Kraft uses a Sensible Solution logo that meets specific nutrient criteria set out by the FDA; General Mills promotes different Goodness Corner icons that meet FDA criteria.

Industry shifts now mainstream

It is true that these industry shifts were jump-started by mounting pressure, but the bottom line is that they have now become mainstream.

The changes witnessed within the past three years have been more far-sweeping than ever before, and it hasn’t been easy in an environment where every move has been subject to criticism.

The industry does deserve some credit for that. It should be encouraged for its achievements; unending criticism is just not helpful. - (Decision News Media, August 2006)

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