The men who made us fat – Episode 3
The final episode (aired 12th July 2012) looked at so called ‘healthy food’ and how this is marketed to people to convince them that it is OK to eat.
Jacques Peretti starts the programme with a visit to a company called Kantar – they track the buying behaviour of 30,000 households nationwide. They sell this intelligence to all the major supermarkets and food manufacturers in Britain. Giles Quick, a director of Kantar is interviewed. Apparently the profile of the typical healthy food buyer is middle class, female, living in the South of England, more highly skilled and more knowledgeable about food stuff but, as Quick says, “they’re getting fatter.”
We spend about £54 billion on food and drink from grocery supermarkets and, of that, about £12 billion is spent on products that we believe are healthy. “That’s grown by about 20% in the last 6 or 7 years”, according to Quick. Quick explains that the more health promises that a product can make, in principle, the higher the price. Quick holds up a Dorset Honey Granola cereal box and reads out the ingredients on the front of the box: “oats, sunflower seeds, flaked almonds, rye flakes, pecans, pumpkin seeds, honey…”
Peretti asks “How fattening is that cereal?” Quick replies “If we take saturated fat…” and then compares the granola cereal with Weetabix and informs us that the granola has more saturated fat. Peretti doesn’t correct Quick to say – I asked how fattening the cereal is not how much marvelous saturated and unsaturated fat it may contain!
Peretti tries again “Do you think consumers get confused between what’s healthy and what is less fattening?” Quick again is off talking about saturated fats. He has clearly picked up the widespread nonsense about what is considered to be healthy and unhealthy and is working in the perfect industry to perpetuate this nonsense.
Peretti is heading a bit off message early on in this third programme – he holds up a bottle of innocent smoothie and says that this has more calories than a can of coca-cola. Then he holds up a Pret “no bread sandwich with rocket and lentils” and says that it has more calories than a Big Mac. Then the granola yoghurt from “Eat” has more calories than this crispy creme doughnut. Who cares? They’re all processed to a greater (doughnut) or lesser (no bread sandwich) extent.
Peretti jumps to a document called “The Health of the Nation”, published in 1992 under John Major’s government. The report tried to set targets for obesity levels; “To reduce the percentage of men and women aged 16-64 who are obese by at least 25% for men and at least 33% for women by 2005 (from 8% for men and 12% for women in 1986/87 to no more than 6% and 8% respectively.)” Oh what a goal! If only we could have just kept obesity at these levels, instead of virtually tripling them for men and more than doubling them for women by 1999.
CJD was the big food story of the time, followed shortly behind by junior health Minister Edwina Currie declaring “most of the egg production in this country sadly is now infected with salmonella” (1988). Currie had to resign over this falsehood, but not before much damage had been done.
Food manufacturers capitalised on this new gift to demonise real food and Procter & Gamble launched “Sunny Delight” with a £10 million ad campaign and added vitamins. Peretti heads off to meet Sue Dibb, co-Director of The Food Commission, who challenged the value of Sunny Delight at the time. She noted that P&G didn’t even try to call Sunny Delight “juice”, or make any health claims – they called the product “an enriched citrus beverage”. The media ran stories about the product being little more than sugared water, but this did little to dent sales. Not even a girl turning orange, after drinking too much of the orange stuff, impacted the enormous profits being made.
I found this episode far more disjointed than the first two. Peretti moves on from Sunny-D to organic produce and how consumers would pay more for this. By 1999 the organic business was worth over £600 million – more than doubling in two years. Sainsbury’s was the first to embrace organic big time launching 300 new products in 1998. Simon Wright was the organic advisor to Sainsbury’s (this episode also missed the name labels for each interviewee, which was unhelpful). Organic was positioned as a response to the CJD/salmonella fears still in the minds of consumers. As Wright says “If you live on organic chocolate, organic ice cream and organic oven chips, you will get fat”. Wright is right when he says that supermarkets are there for profit, not the health of the nation and we should not expect retailers to be trying to help with the obesity epidemic. They exist to make profit and that’s what they’re good at.
“By 2001 obesity had doubled in women and trebled in men and it was rising.” In 2003 the World Health Organisation (WHO) published a report called “Diet, Nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases.” It tried to hold the food industry to account. JP Morgan published a report in response, as investors in the food industry and cautioned that, if obesity were now being viewed as an epidemic, this may lead to regulation and regulation would impact profits. The report even ranked companies most exposed to “financial risk”: Hershey number 1; Cadbury number 2; Cocoa-Cola number 3; PepsiCo number 4 and Kraft number 5.
Professor Philip James (also great in the previous two episodes) was head of the International Obesity Taskforce at the time and contributed to the WHO report. In September 2003, he was invited to speak at JP Morgan’s HQ. James describes the JP Morgan report as a “bombshell” because it was a business report, out of the health world and into the bottom line. James notes that the food industry is paranoid about regulation and that JP Morgan was speaking on behalf of the biggest global industry in the world. This was simultaneously seen as a business opportunity – the ‘food’ industry just needed to come up with apparently healthy alternatives to their products seen as unhealthy and then carry on making money. (Professor James tells a great story – I’d love to see a programme with just him talking about his experiences with the ‘food’ industry over the years).
Kath Dalmeny, from the Food Commission was up next (I’ve checked the names on line in the absence of the speaker labels). She was asked about the ‘food’ industry response to the JP Morgan report and suggested that companies could either reformulate products and make them healthier or change the product perception so that they appeared healthier. Claims on packaging appeared such as “contains fruit”, even when it may have only contained 0.1% fruit flavour. “Calcium” labels on children’s products were big attractions to parents. Dalmeny gives a good example of how Cadbury, a company that would struggle to present its products as healthy, partnered with the government on provision of sports kit for schools and then it could present itself as part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. This “get active/healthy lifestyle” message has been reiterated by the junk food companies ever since, as highlighted in this great blog by Yoni Freedhoff.
Dalmeny gives the example that this sports kit promotion meant that you’d have to spend £38 on chocolate to get a netball that would cost £5 in the shops. A cricket set would require £1,100 to be spent on chocolate (and half a million calories) or £150 in the shops. The calculations done by the Food Commission hit media headlines and even made the Have I got news for you TV programme. Dalmeny and her boss were summoned to Cadbury head office in London and ‘given a row’, as we say in Wales! The scheme did, at least, quietly disappear. Go Dalmeny! However, the whole connection of activity with junk food was seeded and has only been enhanced since – note McDonalds, Coca-Cola and Cadbury as sponsors of the London 2012 Olympics.
In 2006 the food industry “faced a real challenge”. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) wanted to review food labeling. The FSA looked at Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs) and decided to recommend a traffic light system – red for high; amber for medium and green for low. Sainsbury’s, Co-Op and Waitrose went for the new system. Tesco, Morrison and Kellogg stuck with the GDAs.
Richard Ayre was on the FSA when they scrutinised food labeling. Ayre was interviewed and said that the FSA asked consumers and tested options with them to see which system would enable them to make the healthiest choices. Consumers preferred traffic lights. Ayre said that the ‘food’ industry reaction was that the FSA wanted to “slap a red traffic light” on every bar of chocolate or every tub of butter or spread. Ayre was disappointed, rather than surprised, by the ‘food’ industry response “because they wouldn’t show us the evidence upon which they rejected what was clear to us was the right, preferred system for consumers”. Ayre went on to say “Almost 300,000 people in Britain work for Tesco. If Tesco are unhappy with a policy, governments listen. Tesco was fantastically powerful in this debate.”
Peretti asks a great question at this point: “We’re in a time when obesity’s an epidemic and yet health food is the fastest growing sector in the food industry. I wonder how those two things square?” Ayre: “So called health food”. (Quite!) Ayre says that “In the absence of a single, clear, simple labeling system, consumers really are at the mercy of the marketing department.” Ayre gives the example – we know people can be fooled that a pizza is healthy because it has a bit of pineapple on top of it. (A perfect food according to dieticians surely?! A meal based on starchy food with one of your ‘five-a-day’! ;-))
Peretti notes that “within six months of the coalition government coming to power, the FSA was stripped of responsibility for food labeling.” The battle shifted to Brussels. Members of the European Parliament had the power to introduce food traffic lights across Europe but “David was fighting Goliath”. David being the small food charities and Goliath being the ‘food’ giants.
MEP, Glenis Willmott, was interviewed next – she fought hard for traffic lights. It was estimated that the food companies spent over a billion Euros to stop traffic lights. The ‘food’ company defence was that there was no evidence that people preferred traffic lights. “This isn’t what the research said” said Willmott. Willmott said that the resources at the hands of the charities were miniscule in comparison.
This part of the programme is only interesting to show the power of the ‘food’ industry. I don’t support the traffic light labeling system and Peretti should have questioned its value for two reasons, if not more:
1) Because current dietary advice thinks that carbs are good and fat is bad (and Peretti should have made this connection from his opening episode), anything with real, vital, nutritious fat (including seeds, nuts, meat, fish, eggs and dairy) would get slapped with a red label for fat content, while flour would get the green light for being low in fat and sugar. It’s also low in anything nutritious, hence my opposition to this system. The most nutritious foods should be given the green light and processed foods given the red light. The traffic light system would not achieve this.
2) My second reason for not liking the traffic light system (or the GDA for that matter) is that I have a very simple labeling policy: “If something needs a label, don’t eat it”!
Back to Peretti who is back in America – meeting Pierre Chandon, visiting professor at Harvard Business School. Chandon has done “ground breaking research” into how companies market fattening foods as healthy. Chandon opens with “I call this the paradox of low fat food and high fat people.” (I like him already.) “Maybe all this ‘healthy’ food is the reason why we’re not losing weight.” (I like him more.) Chandon compared two fast food chains – Subway, which is marketed in the US as a place where you can get healthy food and lower calorie sandwiches and McDonalds. Chandon has a subway sandwich in front of him with 900 calories – 50% more than in a Big Mac. When consumers were asked – they thought that the Big Mac had more calories. Chandon’s second finding was – having thought the sandwich was healthier, people were more likely to ‘treat’ themselves to a dessert or a “full calorie drink”. (Oh dear – why did he have to be a calorie counter? Why couldn’t he just stick with low fat food is fake and bad?) Chandon explained that people associate “fresh” with “healthy” and the sandwich chain therefore gets “the health halo”.
Chandon summed up the problem as – if people think something is healthy, they think it has fewer calories and eat more of it. He mocked up some “low fat M&M’s” and two test groups were given regular M&M’s and what they thought were “low fat M&M’s” and they consumed up to 50% more of the perceived low fat sweets. Great end quote “Today it’s almost impossible to buy food that’s not saying it’s healthy. The paradox of low fat food and high fat people is not going to go away. I think it’s going to get worse.”
Back to England and Peretti is shown surfing in an internet cafe. Peretti voice over:” Before the Conservative party entered office, Andrew Lansley, then shadow health minister, declared he was also a paid non executive director of Profero – a marketing agency whose clients included Pizza Hut, Pepsi and Mars.” While ostensibly trying to tackle obesity, Lansley invited the inputs of food giants. Meetings took place at the HQ of Unilever. The Chair of Unilever UK actually chaired the meetings and major food and grocery organisations were around the table (Tesco, ASDA, Advertising agencies and more).
Professor Simon Capewell, a leading expert in public health at the University of Liverpool, was invited to join the group. He was invited by the PR head from Unilever – incredibly! Capewell wanted to lay out the evidence for interventions around the world that had worked. Capewell mentioned Scandinavia – Finland in particular as having achieved great success. Capewell argued that this success had been based on regulation of the ‘food’ industry and serious regulation of advertising. Capewell explained that all members were invited to present papers and actual presentations. He recalled that they listened with politeness and then nothing happened.
Peretti does ask some great questions – he asked Capewell what was actually discussed at the meeting? What were the objectives of the meeting? Capewell said that instead of discussing interventions and regulation, the ‘food’ industry wanted to talk about “pretty packages to say that it’s the responsibility of individuals if they get fat and, in particular, that the government has no duty of care.”
Peretti asked where Andrew Lansley lay – Capewell said that it was very clear that Lansley’s interests and the ‘food’ industry’s interests were completely in agreement. Another great closing quote – this one from Capewell – “Putting the food industry at the policy table is like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank.”
(While I loved this interview, unfortunately Capewell’s Heart of Mersey work shows him to be part of the anti-fat, cholesterol-phobic group. The Heart of Mersey paper is being relied upon by NICE to try to lower UK fat intake recommendations further, which will only lead the UK to consume more carbohydrates and drive obesity ever upwards. I have presented a comprehensive response to NICE highlighting the many flaws in this paper.)
In May 2010, the coalition was formed and Lansley became Secretary of State for Health. Within a year the new government had set out its strategy to fight obesity: “The Public Health Responsibility Deal”. It invited industry to make voluntary pledges to reduce salt, fat and sugar in their products and to remove artificial trans fats. The ‘food’ companies happily signed up to trying to help the UK reduce calorie intake by 5 billion calories a day by 2020. (So Mars can cut the calories in a Mars Bar, keep the price the same and increase profits. I reviewed this England obesity strategy here.)
MP Valerie Vaz sits on the commons health select committee and doesn’t think much of the responsibility deal. “We need something much more specific. It won’t be effective. There’ll be absolutely no result at the end of this. We’ll be sitting here in five years time saying there is a problem with obesity and nothing will have changed.” (Vaz for health minister!)
Public health minister, Anne Milton, is in charge of the government’s policy on obesity. Milton doesn’t even like the words “obesity crisis” or “obesity epidemic”. (No denial there then.) Milton’s view is: “When you think of obesity, everyone would like to think that it’s somebody else’s problem.”
Peretti argues that 5 billion calories by 2020 is too vague. Peretti then does a bit of finger wagging and claims that the problem is the “sheer amount of calories”. Oh dear. a) It’s the number of calories and b) it’s not about calories. Milton thinks 5 billion calories is realistic – not vague. Milton reiterates the coalition line “We need to work with the food industry. If they can make a profit selling apples rather than chocolate bars then that’s great by me.” (Apologies – I think I heard myself saying “you stupid cow” at this point, which is quite unfair to cows).
Peretti asks another great question – “Under what circumstances would you legislate?”
Milton: “You can’t legislate your way out of this.”
Peretti: “”Why can’t you legislate your way out of this?”
Milton: “Because you can’t.”
Peretti: “Why are you so scared of the food industry?”
Milton: “Can we do a minute of myth busting here? First of all the food industry does not dictate government policy. Secondly the government is not scared of the food industry. Thirdly we will do what works… We will legislate should it be necessary. We’ve got voluntary agreements at the moment.” Milton ended with “Scared of the industry I am not.” Glad we cleared that one up!
Peretti nails it at the end: “In my opinion there will be a tipping point and that will be when the cost to the NHS of the obesity crisis is greater than the revenue they receive from the food industry.”A great way to end a great series.
It was a shame that the promise of the first episode couldn’t be maintained and that there was far too much focus on calories and that saturated fat was allowed to be demonised even once. However, Peretti’s questions were superb, his exposure of ‘food’ industry bosses and government ministers was clinical and his message was a vital one. We can’t get enough programmes like this on Prime Time TV so thank you BBC and Jacques Peretti for being bold, brave trailblazers.