The men who made us fat – Episode 2
Here we go again! Episode 2 with Jacques Peretti. 24 million of us are now overweight “Our appetites supersized by big business.” This one is all about portion size.
Jacques Peretti goes to Jester’s Diner in Great Yarmouth to find Britain’s biggest breakfast. The owner, Martin Smith, offers Peretti a choice of “The Big Boy” “The Fat Boy” or “The kid’s breakfast.” The latter is the weight of a small child. “Round about nine, nine and a half pounds!” explains Smith. It comprises: an 8 egg cheese & potato omelette; 12 slices of bacon; 12 sausages; sautéed potatoes; mushrooms; hash browns; black pudding; 4 fried bread; 4 toast and 4 bread & butter slices. It costs £15, but you get your money back if you can eat the whole lot in an hour. Smith says that they serve a c couple a day and “get 2 epic fails a day”. No one gets their money back therefore! Perreti is another “epic fail”!
The link to just this clip is here. Worth it just to see the whole breakfast on a platter visually and the Diner owner, who’s a bit of a wit!
Peretti asks: “When did we all start overeating?”
And answers “The answer lies in America…”
Peretti claims that the answer lies in a cinema in Chicago where a man called David Wallerstein had an idea that would change the way we eat for ever (1967). He supersized the popcorn. By making cartons bigger he could charge more – far more than the extra cost. Wallerstein was headhunted by McDonalds. Mike Donahue, VP External Relations 1987-2007 is interviewed for the history at this stage. Wallerstein sat in a restaurant in Chicago and observed human behaviour. He observed that consumers would tip the fries packet into their mouth, something he called “the salt slide” and presented this as evidence that people wanted more and yet would not go back for a second helping. (The deadly sin, greed, would prevent us – we did not want to seem greedy, even if we were).
Wallerstein again realised that, if he could increase the portion size, he could sell more and make more profit. In 1972 a larger fries portion size was introduced at McDonalds. “The world was never going to be the same again” said Peretti. Most of McDonalds costs are fixed – so the cost of a bit more food is negligible compared to the return. Other fast food retailers followed suit.
In 1974 psychology Professor Anthony Sclafani was studying appetite and behaviour at the City University of New York. To do his studies, he needed rats to overeat and gain weight to observe behaviour. However, the rats were not overeating rat food. After trying several different high fat diets the professor raided the grocery store and started to feed the rats candy and cookies and things that humans loved to eat. Given these sugary and fatty foods, the rats did at last overeat and rapidly gain weight. (The difference being, of course, the sugar combination added to, invariably, man-made and not real fats).
Sclafani argues (as many have before) that we are hardwired to consume high energy foods, as this has ensured our survival throughout evolution.
Peretti notes “In the 1970’s less than 2% of UK adults were obese”. (This is correct for the start of the 1970’s. By 1972, World Health Organisation statistics confirm that 2.7% of men and 2.7% of women in the UK were obese).
Wimpy was the UK’s first ‘diner’ bringing burgers and fries to the UK population. Peter Smale, Marketing Director at Wimpy 1976-1983 talked about the arrival of McDonalds in the UK. Counter service came with McDonalds and Wimpy followed suit – a company could take five or six times more money by serving from counters, rather than restaurant tables.
The Sweetheart cup company then suggested to the industry that a choice of cup sizes for drinks should be offered. The offering was ‘bigger sizes means bigger value for the customer and bigger profit for the company’. Both were true. Smale recorded no debate at the time about whether or not this was healthy. He recalls no debate about obesity – on the contrary, World War II was not far from minds and getting more ‘nutrition’ was seen as better than not getting enough. (Interesting to see the confusion between food intake and nutrition. One does not mean the other and, when it comes to junk food, one has virtually nothing to do with the other.)
Taco Bell introduced the value meal. This term is known in the industry as “bundling”. It’s all about getting consumers to spend more. By the late 80’s the pressure was on all fast food outlets to follow suit. The value meal also reduces the number of decisions that the consumer makes at the counter and thus increases throughput.
Back to Mike Donahue, VP External Relations McDonalds 1987-2007: “Every 15 seconds that you reduce in time of delivery in that meal to the consumer adds 1% growth to the company.”
Peretti “Those 15 second would equate to an extra 290 million pounds of sales in today’s figures.”
Hank Cardello, interviewed in Episode 1, appears again – Marketing Director Coca-Cola 1982-84. We can see how far back the McDonald’s/Coca-cola relationship goes back as Cardello describes how drinks were a key part of the “bundling.” Because the consumer has paid for it – they will eat it says Cardello.
The value meal was rolled out globally. Within 3 years it accounted for more than half of all meals sold. Peretti shares some of the value meal TV and cinema adverts that many of us likely grew up with. Burger, fries and a drink for a buck or two – whether in American or Australian currencies.
Value meals soon led to supersizing – Darren Tristano, Executive VP, Technomic suggested that Jurassic Park was one of the first supersizing partnerships – dinosaur size! McDonalds introduced the supersize concept. Staff would deliberately ask consumers if they wanted their meal in a supersize version. Adverts where the man says “Supersize me” were shown to remind us of how it works.
Peretti is then seen carrying a two litre “double gulp” and a bag of crisps bigger than my cat and describes this as “the American snack”. Cut to the very slim, Dr Lisa Young, NY University, who talks us through the different cup sizes available to American consumers. In the 50s we had a normal 8floz size bottle as a soda drink option. Now we have 64floz buckets, offering 800 calories and 50 teaspoons of sugar in one hit.
The idea was that people would compensate after a huge ‘eating out’ meal by needing less at other meals during the day. Dr Barbara Rolls, Penn State University, was one of the first to study the impact of changing portion sizes and found the exact opposite to be true. In the late 1990’s, her study increased the portions that people were served by 50% over an 11 day period. “People just kept overeating day after day by about 400 calories”. Rolls then uses the non-evidence based calorie formula (as 99% of other people in the field of diet and nutrition do) and states “Over the 11 days they accumulated almost an extra 5,000 calories. That’s enough to put on over a pound of body weight.” No it’s not – but the concept is valid. Interestingly Rolls noted that most people didn’t even seem to realise that they were getting bigger portions.
Rolls introduces the concept of energy density/calorie density at this point and noted that people are drawn to energy dense foods (that hardwiring again).
Back to Britain for Peretti and he next meets Brian Watson, Creative Director, Foote, Cone & Belding 1986-2006 (advertising agency). This agency created the “Finger of fudge” advert mentioned in Episode 1. Just enough to give your kids a treat – between meals.
The Yorkie advert was heralded as the one that led the confectionery market to supersize bars – and to imply that each bar was for the one person. Cadbury came out with Chunky to take on Yorkie. Mars came out with a 100g Mars Bar (1985). These bars and adverts targeted adults, but children were not far behind. The Cadbury chocolate Fingers advert was a blast from the past (for me!) – the message was absolutely clear – come up with an excuse to eat chocolate fingers any day, any time of day. They soon became a feature of school lunch boxes.
“By the mid 90’s more than 1 in 10 children were obese.” By 1996 the government could no longer ignore the problem and Tessa Jowell, Minister for Public Health asked Professor Philip James (love him!) to produce a report on childhood obesity. He studied the food British children were eating and buying.
Prof James: “Children were in a very new world”. They spent £136 million buying confectionery and drinks on the way to and from school. The report went to Tessa Jowell. “Complete silence and then I was asked to go and see her.” Jowell described the report as “extreme” and said “The Food and Drink Federation is anxious to talk to you.”
The next day Professor James was invited to dinner with 14 Chief Executives of British business and “I was harangued for 4 hours as to why on earth I would even think about limited advertising to children when it was the parents duty to work out what was required and they had a basic right to advertise to children. The report was never published by the Department of Health. It was shelved.”
Somewhat ironically, Jowell was later instrumental in restricting adverts during children’s TV programmes, but probably not before further damage was done.
In 2003 the Chief Medical Officer warned of an obesity time bomb and called on food manufacturers to behave responsibly. The parliamentary health committee called an inquiry. Former Labour MP David Hinchliffe chaired the committee. He was interviewed by Peretti and said that he had not realised the power of the ‘food’ industry until he chaired this review. When food companies were interviewed the messages were as follows:
- “It is parents who have to take responsibility for what their children eat.” McDonalds
- “The problem is… the presumption that we are talking about bad foods”. PepsiCo UK (You must have heard of their usual chestnut – there’s no such thing as a bad food – only bad diets. This is also a favourite quotation of dieticians. If I had a Mars Bar for every time I’ve heard a dietician say this I would be super morbidly obese!)
- “As a company over many years we have promoted a healthy active lifestyle” McDonalds.
Hinchliffe recommended that the industry end supersizing. This was proposed as a voluntary measure and the food industry ignored it. The industry view was that it was inactivity that was responsible for the obesity epidemic (this is continually their defence). I have seen this as the standard defence many times – the industry want us to eat as much as we can and then the blame is ours if we don’t do enough to burn off this junk. There are simply not enough hours in the day to burn off the current junk that we eat.
Peretti has certainly come across many of the best people to interview and studies to review. He turns next to the Plymouth group looking at activity and obesity. The work of Professor Terry Wilkin, from the Early Bird Diabetes study, Peninsula Medical School, suggests: “The assumption is that it is the inactivity that is the cause of the fatness. We have studied this very carefully and we cannot find this. What we can find is the reverse. That the fatness reduces physical activity.”
I presented this study in my book The Obesity Epidemic: What caused it? How can we stop it? – here’s the extract:
The Department of Endocrinology and Metabolism at the Peninsula Medical School in Plymouth, UK, has made some very interesting findings as part of the “EarlyBird Diabetes Study.”[i] The study identified a random sample of the 1995-96 birth cohort from Plymouth. 54 primary schools consented to take part. 307 children (137 girls, 170 boys, mean age 4.9), who started school between January 2000 and January 2001 were chosen for the study. The study was designed to try to understand why some children develop diabetes and others do not. However, it has also provided many invaluable insights into obesity and physical activity along the way.
The Peninsula research team have found consistent evidence for the concept of a ‘set’ activity level. The first study was presented in the British Medical Journal (2003).[ii] The participants were 215 children (120 boys and 95 girls, aged 7-10.5, mean 9 years) from three schools with different sporting facilities and opportunity for physical education (PE) in the curriculum. School 1, a private school with some boarding pupils, had extensive facilities and 9 hours a week of physical education in the curriculum. School 2, a village school, offered 2.2 hours of timetabled physical education a week. School 3, an inner city school with limited sporting provision, offered 1.8 hours of physical education a week. The team said of the results: “Surprisingly, total physical activity between schools was similar because children in Schools 2 and 3 did correspondingly more activity out of school than children at School 1. Among the boys, total activity was higher in School 2 than in School 1 and School 3 with mean (standard deviation) units of activity a week of 39.1 (6.8), 34.7 (7.7), and 33.8 (7.8).”
The conclusion was: “The total amount of physical activity done by primary school children does not depend on how much physical education is timetabled at school because children compensate out of school.”
The study was extended over a longer period of time and the researchers presented updated findings at the May 2009 European Congress on Obesity in Amsterdam. The study group remained of similar size, 206 children, ages 7 to 11, from the same three schools in and around Plymouth. Over the longer study, the private school children had an average of 9.2 hours per week of scheduled activity, children at the two other schools got 2.4 hours and 1.7 hours of PE per week, respectively. Again, the study found that, no matter how much scheduled activity the children were given, they were similarly active overall. The children who had been doing organised PE were doing little outside school. The ones who had less scheduled exercise were more likely to head out on their bike, or play football, after school.
Professor Wilkin’s work was also ignored when he presented his findings to government and his funding was stopped in 2005. (This is the second time I’ve shouted “no way” (slightly stronger words in truth) at the TV tonight. The first was when Professor James was similarly silenced).
By 2005, Britain’s were spending a billion pounds on snacks. Dr Susan Jebb, Nutritional Scientist, Medical Research Centre shared an anecdote about meeting with the Chairman of a food company (we should assume Cadbury from what happens next) and leaving the meeting feeling “elated” that they would end the culture of supersizing. However, as kingsize bars were withdrawn, “Wispa Duo” was launched – two bars in one packet. Ostensibly for sharing, but just as likely to be eaten by one person.
Sharing was the new marketing buzzword – we were supposed to be sharing these larger bars and bags with friends, but we weren’t.
Peretti moves rightly onto the supermarkets at this point and buys a selection of multi buy deals because they are designed to seem great value and we can’t resist them. Buy one, get one free. The deals are always about more. The more we buy, the better the deal. It’s always the processed food on promotion – not the meat, fish, eggs and veg.
Giles Quick is a leading advisor to the food industry. He notes that deals are the battle ground for supermarket supremacy. There is a term used: “expandables” – this means something that we can buy more of without buying less of anything else. (This was a new term to me, but a simple one to understand). If we buy more chicken, we might buy less beef. The industry wants us to buy “expandables” – things that we can eat more of, without eating less of anything else. Crisps, sweets, snacks, junk etc all fall into this category. And the supermarkets claim to be trying to help tackle the obesity, sponsoring change for life and so on.
Andrew Opie, British Retail Consortium, is asked if he considers multi buys “supersizing”. No, he doesn’t. He thinks that multibuys are offering people value. Opie thinks a very healthy diet can included confectionery and crisps “with all the clear labeling” that he thinks are on processed products. Opie is in denial.
Peretti sums up by blaming restaurants, retailers and manufacturers for pushing food on us. He’s back at a doughnut store in the US buying an enormous single doughnut the size of a swimming rubber ring! Peretti makes a comment about the size of the thing in front of him. The guy at the counter says “I’m not a doctor, I’m a doughnut salesman” Quite!
Dr Kelly Brownell, Rudd centre for Food Policy and obesity, Yale University, is next and sadly he looks like he needs to follow The Harcombe Diet. Brownell is calling for a tax on sugar sweetened drinks. Soft drink manufacturers have spent almost $40 million dollars lobbying to try to prevent a soda tax being implemented.
Peretti mentions the Denmark fat tax at this point – quite inappropriately in my view, as real fat is not the enemy.
One in four of us is now obese and we are doing nothing to stop this.
Next week it’s how so called healthy food is making us fat.
[ii] Katie M Mallam, Brad S Metcalf, Joanne Kirkby, Linda D Voss, Terence J Wilkin, “Contribution of timetabled physical education to total physical activity in primary school children: cross sectional study”, British Medical Journal, (2003).