There’s still time for governments to take action against ‘Big Food’ companies

We need to get mighty and moral when it comes to processed foods

February 2013 will, in time, be remembered as one of those big, big, important months for food and for our health.

So, just in case you were back-packing in Patagonia, or have been buried deep in the unfolding horse meat scandal, let's summarise what was revealed as the month went on. It is April 8th, 1999, and 11 chief executives from America 's food manufacturers meet in Minneapolis, an event reported in Michael Moss 's new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us . Some of them are concerned about rising levels of obesity, hypertension, heart disease and diabetes, and are worried that there are problems for their companies down the line. Already the comparison between processed food and cigarette smoking has been made.

Some of the company heads want action: cutting down on the sugar, salt and fats they use, and creating a code for marketing food, especially to children. The meeting ends, however, when the chief executive of General Mills – sales of GM's super-sweetened Yoplait yogurts at that time were $500 million per annum – says his company isn't having any of it. The companies are all fighting for "stomach share" and General Mills isn't giving up its share.

By 2013, one in three American adults is obese, and one in five American kids is obese.


The New England Journal of Medicine reports that the Mediterranean diet – centred on vegetables, fish, nuts, wine, olive oil, pulses and legumes – reduces the incidence of heart attacks, strokes and death from heart disease by 30 among high-risk patients.

The survey was conducted among 7,447 randomly assigned people in Spain who had risk factors for heart disease.

The Med diet is nothing new: it is almost 20 years since Nancy Harmon Jenkins published the Mediterranean Diet Cookbook , which appeared originally in 1994.

Higher diabetes rates
A study published in the journal PloS One , which examined sugar availability and the rate of diabetes in 175 countries over a 10-year period, found that increased sugar in the food supply is linked to higher diabetes rates. Dr Rob Lustig, one of the authors of the study, claimed that "this study is proof enough that sugar is toxic".

Blimey. Isn’t February meant to be one of those quiet months when little of significance happens? But these three tales, allied to the horse meat scandal, show that cynicism appears able to gain the upper hand over virtue when it comes to food, and the consequences for our health. Just consider what the situation could, and should, have been over the past 20 years.

We know that the Mediterranean diet keeps us healthy. Food manufacturers know that their foods cause problems because of super-saturation of fats, sugars and salt in processed foods. We can see from the incidence of obesity, diabetes and heart disease that we have problems which need to be tackled.

But no one shouted stop. Specifically, no one in government shouted stop. Apart from the small band of doctors, food writers and health experts who have been wringing their hands for two decades, governments have taken the laissez faire approach. They will regulate booze, tobacco and drugs, but they will not regulate food production; and they will not – with some notable exceptions – regulate the marketing of processed foods to children.

But let’s take Lustig’s description of sugar – “sugar is toxic” – to heart. What else is toxic? Tobacco. Heroin. Adulterated foods and drinks. Do our governments regulate them? Of course they do; in fact they take a moral point of view when it comes to these things.

So, we need to get all mighty and moral when it comes to processed foods. The processed food guys know exactly what they are doing, just as the tobacco guys knew what they were doing way back when. Governments acted against Big Tobacco because of health concerns over smoking. Governments need to act against Big Food because of health concerns about what we are being fed, and what it contains. In Michael Moss’s words, “Salt, Sugar, Fat”.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has shown himself capable of surprising the citizenry with his speeches on the Vatican and the Magdalene laundries. One more surprise, in the year of horse meat, might be 20 years late but it would still be timely.

John McKenna is author of the Irish Food Guide –