‘Globesity’: US junk food industry tips global scales

Published time: September 07, 2013 15:15

Reuters / Finbarr O’Reilly

From Mexico to Qatar, obesity rates are soaring to unprecedented levels. The alarming trend is damaging economic performance, as well as the health of millions of consumers worldwide.

Take our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, mix in a generous
portion of American fast-food and dubious agricultural practices,
add a dash of corporate duplicity and you have a recipe for high
obesity rates across the planet.

The newly released United Nations report on global nutrition does not make for very
appetizing reading: Amid an already floundering global economy,
the reality of a fattening planet is dragging down world
productivity rates while increasing health insurance costs to the
tune of $3.5 trillion dollars per year – or 5 percent of global
gross domestic product (GDP). 

31.8 percent of US adults are now considered clinically obese.
This is a remarkable figure, especially considering that it is
approximately double the US obesity rate registered in 1995,
according to data from the Center for Disease Control and
Prevention . 

An individual is considered obese when their body mass index
(BMI), a measurement obtained by dividing a person’s weight in
kilograms by the square of the person’s height in meters, exceeds
30 kg/m2, according to the World Health Organization.

Meanwhile, much of the international community is quickly
catching up with the global consumption superpower. Mexico, for
example, just surpassed US obesity rates with a whopping 32.8
percent of Mexican adults now considered to be clinically obese.

The unprecedented weight gains in Mexico, however, as well as
many other countries, appear to be no accident.

Following the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement
(NAFTA), Mexico became the dumping ground for a slew of cheap
fast food and carbonated drinks, according to a Foreign Policy

Thanks to NAFTA, there was a more than 1,200 percent increase in
high-fructose corn syrup exports from the US to Mexico between
1996 and 2012, according to the US Agriculture Department. In an
effort to place a cap on the high-calorie drinks, Mexican
officials introduced a tax on beverages containing high-fructose
corn syrup. American corn refiners, however, cried foul and the
tax was voted down by the World Trade Organization. 

Mexicans now consume 43 gallons of soda per capita annually,
giving the country the world’s highest rate of soda consumption,
according to estimates by Mexico’s national statistics agency.

Yet another disturbing casualty on the obesity trail is tiny
Qatar, an oil-rich Arab nation of 250,000 people that is also
rich in fast food diets.

“Like most people in the Arab Gulf, (Qataris) were
traditionally desert-dwelling and therefore much more physically
according to a 2012 report by Policymic.com.
“Now, cars have replaced camels and fast food and home
deliveries take the place of home cooking. Even housework and
child rearing is left to maids and nannies.”

Today, some 45 percent of Qatari adults are obese and up to 40
percent of school children are obese as well.

Last month, nutrition experts from around the world shared their
views at an obesity and nutrition conference in Sydney. For many
of the attendees, the primary culprit in the global obesity
scourge is out-of-control corporate power, where the free market
decides everything.

The rise of global fast food outlets has been a key change in our
environment leading to fattier foods and fatter people, Bruce
Neal, professor at the George Institute for Global Health in
Sydney, told the Indo-Asian News Service.

“As fast as we get rid of all our traditional vectors of
disease – infections, little microbes, bugs – we are replacing
them with the new vectors of disease, which are massive
transnational, national, multinational corporations selling vast
amounts of salt, fat and sugar,”
Neal said.

John Norris, writing in Foreign Policy, explained some of the
global dynamics that contributed to the so-called
“globesity” epidemic, including the soft drink industry’s
move to use cheaper high-fructose corn syrup instead of sugar in
many of their products. 

“Suddenly, it was cheaper to put high-fructose corn syrup in
everything from spaghetti sauce to soda. Coke and Pepsi swapped
out sugar for high-fructose corn syrup in 1984, and most other US
soda and snack companies followed suit,”
Norris wrote. “US
per capita consumption of high-fructose corn syrup spiked from
less than half a pound a year in 1970 to a peak of almost 38
pounds a year in 1999.”

While some might be tempted to downplay the negative effects of
such a harmless sounding additive, researchers from Canada’s
University of Guelph, as pointed out by Norris, discovered that a
high-fructose corn syrup diet in rats produced “addictive
behavior similar to that from cocaine use.”

As obesity explodes, US fast food companies look abroad.

Americans, thanks in part to First Lady Michele Obama’s ‘Let’s
Move’ program, have recently woken up to the unsustainability of
their soda guzzling, fast food ways. Other politicians and
activists have also weighed in on the debate, making the
environment for the fast food industry not as comfortable as in
the past. 

In March, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg attracted the ire
of the soft drink industry when he placed a ban on the sale of
sodas in sizes larger than 16 ounces. Violators will be fined

In his 2004 a documentary film, “Super Size Me,” Morgan
Spurlock stunned audiences by tracking the physical effects on
his body — none of them positive – after consuming nothing but
McDonald’s food for 30 days. As a result of the experiment,
Spurlock gained 24½ lbs. (11.1 kg), a 13 percent body mass
increase, and a cholesterol level of 230, among other negative

Perhaps the biggest wake-up call for the fast food industry came
in 2002 when two teenagers accused McDonald’s of deceptively
marketing its menu from 1985 to 2002, causing them, they alleged,
to become obese. The judge dismissed the case in 2010, but the
message to the industry was crystal clear.

As a result of these and other public awareness campaigns, the
American fast food industry — although slower than some may like
– has been gradually rewriting their menus and marketing
campaigns, many of which are aimed at kids.

At the same time, the junk food industry – sensing the sea change
of attitudes in the United States as the physical effects of junk
food manifests itself – are investing increasingly in foreign
markets where public awareness of the subject is not so

Similar to the crackdown on the tobacco industry in the late
1990s, US fast food companies are busy setting up shop abroad for
easy, unregulated markets to hawk their wares.

Already the size of their presence is breathtaking: “Coca-Cola
and PepsiCo together control almost 40 percent of the world’s
$532 billion soft drink market, according to the Economist. Soda
sales, meanwhile, have more than doubled in the last 10 years,
with much of that growth driven by developing markets. McDonald’s
investors were disappointed that the company only turned $1.4
billion in profit during the second quarter of 2013, having
become used to years of double-digit gains every three
according to the Foreign Policy report.

So while the United States is steadily finding ways to regulate
its fast food, soft drink industry, and thus nip the obesity
epidemic in the bud, it is, at the same time, legislating on
behalf of unhealthy exports abroad.

Now the question is, will the rest of the world bite the hand
that feeds?

Republished from: RT