Food giants making fat profits

The food giants accused of making us fat are the very ones profiting from the slimming industry

New York housewife Jean Nidetch founded Weight Watchers in the early 1960s.

WHEN you walk into a supermarket, what do you see? Walls of highly calorific, intensely processed food, tweaked by chemicals for maximum "mouth feel" and "repeat appeal" (addictiveness). This is what most people actually eat. Pure science on a plate. The food, in short, that is making the planet fat.

And next to this? Row upon row of low-fat, light, lean, diet, zero, low-carb, low-cal, sugar-free, "healthy" options, marketed to the very people made fat by the previous aisle and now desperate to lose weight. We think of obesity and dieting as polar opposites, but in fact, there is a deep, symbiotic relationship between the two.

Most of us, according to various research, are overweight, yet we "fat" are not lazy and complacent about our condition, but ashamed and desperate to do something about it. Many of those classed as "overweight" are on a near-perpetual diet.

When obesity as a global health issue first came on the radar, the food industry sat up and took notice. But not exactly in the way you might imagine. Some of the world's food giants opted to do something both extraordinary and stunningly obvious: they decided to make money from obesity by buying into the diet industry.

Weight Watchers, created by New York housewife Jean Nidetch in the early 1960s, was bought by Heinz in 1978, who in turn sold the company in 1999 to investment firm Artal for $735m. The next in line was Slimfast, a liquid meal replacement invented by chemist and entrepreneur Danny Abraham, which was bought in 2000 by Unilever, which also owns the Ben & Jerry brand and Wall's sausages. The US diet phenomenon Jenny Craig was bought by Swiss multinational Nestlé, which also sells chocolate and ice-cream.

These multinationals were easing into a multibillion euro market encompassing gyms, home fitness, fad and crash diets and the kind of magazines that feature celebs pushing yo-yo diets or fitness DVDs promising an "all-new you" in just three weeks.

You would think there might be a problem here: the food industry has one ostensible objective – and that's to sell food. But by creating the ultimate oxymoron of diet food – something you eat to lose weight – it squared a seemingly impossible circle.

And we bought it. Highly processed diet meals emerged, often with more sugar in them than the originals, but marketed for weight loss – and here is the key get-out clause – "as part of a calorie-controlled diet".

So what you see when you walk into a supermarket in 2013 is the entire 360 degrees of obesity in a single glance. The whole panorama of fattening you up and slimming you down, owned by conglomerates which have analysed every angle and money-making opportunity. The very food companies charged with making us fat in the first place are now also making money from the obesity epidemic.

How did this happen? Let me sketch two alternative scenarios. This is the first: in the late 1970s, food companies made tasty new food. People started to get fat. By the 1990s, health costs related to obesity were ballooning. Government, health experts and, surprisingly, the food industry were brought in to consult on what was to be done. They agreed that the blame lay with the consumer – fat people needed to go on diets and exercise. The plan didn't work. In the 21st Century, people are fatter than ever.

Here's scenario two. Food companies made tasty new food. People started to get fat. By the 1990s, food companies and, more to the point, the pharmaceutical industry looked at the escalating crisis, and realised there was a huge amount of money to be made.

But, seen purely in terms of profit, the biggest market wasn't just the clinically obese, whose condition creates genuine health concerns, but the billions of people worldwide who are just a little overweight, and do not consider their weight to be a significant health problem.

That was all about to change. A key turning point was June 3, 1997. On this date the World Health Organisation (WHO) convened an expert consultation in Geneva that formed the basis for a report that defined obesity not merely as a social catastrophe, but as an "epidemic".

The word "epidemic" is crucial when it comes to making money out of obesity, because once it is an epidemic, it is a medical catastrophe. And if it is medical, someone can supply a "cure".

The author of the report was one of the world's leading obesity experts, Professor Philip James, who, having started out as a doctor, had been one of the first to spot obesity rising in his patients in the mid-1970s. In 1995 he set up the International Obesity Task Force (IOTF), which reported on rising obesity levels across the globe and on health policy proposals for how the problem could be addressed.

It is widely accepted that James put fat on the map, and thus it was appropriate that the IOTF should draft the WHO report of the late 90s that would define global obesity. The report painted an apocalyptic picture of obesity across the globe.

The devil was in the detail – and the detail lay in where you drew the line between "normal" and "overweight". Several colleagues questioned the group's decision to lower the cut-off point for being "overweight" – from a BMI of 27 to 25. Overnight, millions of people around the globe would shift from "normal" to "overweight".

Professor Judith Stern, vice president of the American Obesity Association, was critical. "There are risks associated with being obese, but in the 25-to-27 area it's low-risk. Why would you make a whole category related to risk when it isn't?"

Why, indeed. Why were millions of people previously considered "normal" now overweight? Why were they being tarred with the same brush of mortality as those who are genuinely obese?

I asked James where the science for moving the cut-off to BMI 25 had come from. He said: "The death rates went up in America at 25 and in Britain, and it all fits the idea that BMI 25 is the reasonable pragmatic cut-off point."

James says he based this hugely significant decision partly on pre-war data provided by US insurance company Met Life. But this data remains questionable, according to Joel Guerin, a US author who has examined the work produced by Met Life's chief statistician Louis Dublin.

"It wasn't based on any kind of scientific evidence at all," according to Guerin. "Dublin essentially looked at his data and just arbitrarily decided that he would take the desirable weight for people who were aged 25 and apply it to everyone."

I was interested in who stood to gain from his report and asked James where the funding for the IOTF report came from. "The people who funded the IOTF were drugs companies." And how much was he paid? "They used to give me cheques for about 200,000 at a time. I think I had a million or more." And did they ever ask him to push a specific agenda? "Not at all."

James says he was not influenced by the drug companies that funded his work but there's no doubt that his report massively expanded the customer base for the weight-loss industry.

James rightly points out that he needed the muscle of drugs companies to press home the urgency of the unfolding obesity problem as a global public health issue, but didn't he see the money-making potential for the drug companies in defining obesity as an "epidemic"?

"If you have a drug that drops your weight and doesn't do you any other harm in terms of side-effects, that is a multibillion megabuck drug."

Paul Campos, a legal expert with a special interest in the politics of obesity, saw the decision to shift the BMI downward as crucial not just in making a giant new customer base for diet drugs but in stigmatising the overweight. "What had been a relatively minor concern from a public health perspective suddenly was turned into this kind of global panic," he told me. "When you look at this issue what you see is a combination of economic interests with cultural prejudice which led to a toxic brew of social panic in our culture."

But guess what? The drugs wheeled out to clean up the "epidemic" didn't turn into the blockbusters the industry had hoped for. Still, there was a winner: the food industry. By creating diet lines for the larger market of the slightly overweight, not just the clinically obese, it had hit on an apparently limitless pot of gold.

There now exist two clear and separate markets. One is the overweight, many of whom go on endless diets, providing a constant revenue stream for both the food and diet industry. The other market is the genuinely obese, who are being cut adrift from society, having been failed by health initiative after health initiative from government.

As Dr Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Centre for food policy and obesity at Yale University, explained, the analogy must now be with smoking and lung cancer: "There's a very clear tobacco industry playbook, and if you put it next to what the food companies are doing now, it looks pretty similar. Distort the science, say that your products aren't causing harm when you know they are."

But the solution to obesity could also follow the cigarette trajectory, too, according to Brownell. It was only after a combination of heavy taxation (price), heavy legislation (banning smoking in public places), and heavy propaganda (warnings on packets; a sustained anti-smoking advertising campaign; and education in schools) was brought to bear on the tobacco industry that real, lasting change took place. Similar measures, Brownell says, could provide an answer to obesity.

And deep in the archives at San Francisco University is a confidential memo written by an executive at the tobacco giant Philip Morris in the late 1990s advising the food giant Kraft on strategies to employ when it started being criticised for creating obesity.

Titled "Lessons Learnt From the Tobacco Wars", the memo explains that just as consumers now blame cigarette companies for lung cancer, so they will end up blaming food companies for obesity, unless defensive strategies are put into action. You might conclude that there was a good reason why the food industry bought into dieting – it was nothing personal, it was just business.

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