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"The Shape We're In": Is the Sun Setting on 'Big Food's' Glory Days?

11/04/2014 12:17 EST | Updated 01/04/2015 05:59 EST
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The sun may be setting on Big Food's glory days. Sales of sugary cereals are declining, purchases of soft drinks have been sagging for some time, efforts to persuade consumers that companies like PepsiCo are committed to public health issues have faltered, and "virtuous fast foods" are making tentative but promising inroads. Of course, much more needs to change but these and other shifts are causing grumbling in the boardrooms of Junk Food Inc.

The industry's basic position for a long time has been that it responds to demand; it doesn't create it. Millions of individuals, making myriad choices everyday, send innumerable signals regarding the food, drink, and products that they prefer. Industries react to such signals sent by consumers' preferences by endeavouring to make and promote items leading to a successful market among a competitive array of choices. This position is abetted by the notion of "consumer sovereignty": rational, informed persons who weigh the costs and the benefits of their actions should be free to eat, drink, gamble, smoke, and to do goodness knows what else as they so choose, bearing the various costs that may ensue.

In sharp contrast critics insist that the industry not only reacts to demand but also creates it. Through a variety of techniques, those peddling consumables persuade individuals that they have needs that a particular product can satisfy. There are particular concerns about how various foods, drinks, and products that can be consumed to excess are marketed in ways designed to promote the development of appetites that lead to dependence for a significant percentage of individuals.

By the turn of this century food companies were laying out some $33 billion annually on such promotional activities. Most of these dollars are used to advertise highly processed, elaborately packaged, and fast foods; in contrast only 2.2 per cent is spent by those distributing fruits, vegetables, grains, or beans. Children are a main target of such advertising and promotion. There are many forms of such marketing; over the last decades television and internet ads have been prominent. Foods have been engineered to be high in fat, salt and sugar so as to promote cravings for them. Consumption, for many, has become a pastime: "eatertainment."

Enter Sarah Boseley with her new book The Shape We're In: How Junk Food and Diets Are Shortening Our Lives. Boseley is the health editor of the Guardian and hers is a no hold barred book. She's sympathetic to obese people and their condition. Still there's lots of hyperbole here about just some obese individuals that, in the end, reinforces negative stereotypes, e.g., Ch.4 "The Fattest Towns in Britain."

She takes aim at diets, demonstrating with stories and statistics how most of them fail in having people achieve sustainable weight loss. ("By now it's clear. We don't need another fad diet -- ever.") Along the way she also chronicles the misadventures of the pharmaceutical industry and its vain attempts to produce a weight loss pill that is effective and doesn't produce nasty side effects.

But her greatest ire is saved for Big Food. Story after story, statistic on statistic, she's out to show us how that industry is up to no good: from what's in the goodies, to the intense marketing, especially to children, to lobbying efforts against restrictions of its activities. There's not much new here but she uses what's known to produce a rapid fire indictment. She even chronicles in sobering detail the failed efforts of PepsiCo to become a "better for you" company.

Her solutions are sketchy and undeveloped. And she's too focussed on weight as the problem and weight loss as the answer. The road to health (regardless of weight) is long, hard, and has a lot of potholes. Still, Boseley has a story to tell and she tells it with verve and determination. Big Food will take no comfort from The Shape We're In.

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