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Nutrition

Big Food causes suffering

by Dagmar Wolf

In brief

Big multinational corporations promote unhealthy eating and drinking habits in developing countries: sales stall in New Delhi.

Big multinational corporations promote unhealthy eating and drinking habits in developing countries: sales stall in New Delhi.

A handful of corporate giants like Nestlé, Unilever, Mars and Danone control the global food and drink market. In his latest book, Thomas Kruchem calls this kind of multi­nationals “Big Food” and argues that they are actually making people sick even though they claim to be promoting a healthy lifestyle.

Big Food’s core business and main source of income is junk food, industrially manufactured and processed food. The products include lots of “empty calories” from fat and sugar, excessive amounts of salt as well as artificial flavours and colours. With junk-food sales stagnating in industrialised countries, Kruchem says companies are now aggressively marketing their products in emerging and developing nations.

Kruchem accuses the corporate giants of deceiving consumers. Their beguilingly attractive packaging, misleading TV commercials and nutritional claims appeal to parents’ desire to raise their children well, but actually encourages people to buy food that makes non-communicable diseases more likely. Advertising suggests processed foods are healthier than food prepared from fresh ingredients at home, which is plainly not true. Big Food also promotes processed food as better tasting, essential to a modern lifestyle and a convenient time-saver. It is often cheaper than fresh foods.

The substantial rise in junk food consumption has dramatic impacts on global health, as Kruchem explains in his book “Am Tropf von Big Food” (Addicted to Big Food). Obesity levels have risen alarmingly. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of overweight children has increased more than tenfold in the last 40 years; 124 million 5- to 19-year-olds are obese, and an additional 213 million are overweight. The share of overweight children will continue to rise with the expansion of Big Food.

These children face a range of health risks, the author emphasises. Excess weight has a negative impact on skeletal and muscle development, and dramatically increases a child’s susceptibility to diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease as an adult. Obese and overweight children also wrestle with psychological issues, such as low self-esteem, social exclusion and depression.

Worldwide, the diabetes rate has nearly quadrupled between 1980 and 2016. Today one in eleven adults is diabetic. Eighty percent of those affected live in developing countries, and the incidence is especially high in emerging markets such as India, ­China, Mexico and South Africa. According to Kruchem, this pandemic is completely overwhelming society and health-care providers in the countries concerned. Countless people in developing and newly industrialising countries suffer from diabetes-related complications such as cardiovascular disease, strokes and amputations. Patients tend to lack access to medical treatment. Chronically underfunded governmental health systems scarcely have the resources merely to treat acute illnesses.

Kruchem denounces giant corporations for roping international aid organisations (NGOs) into their schemes. In desperate need of funding, many NGOs have agreed to problematic partnerships with the multinationals and end up facing serious conflicts of interest. Food giants seek to reap the benefits of the “good reputation” of organisations such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP), for example. Big Food is also systematically co-opting board seats at the WHO and the FAO in attempts to broaden its influence on global health and nutrition policy, the author says.

Kruchem identifies the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) as one of Big Food’s most powerful confederates that has opened the door to promising markets in poor countries. Created in 2002 and funded in part by the Gates Foundation, its mission is to fight malnutrition by focusing on nutrient-enriched food products. This approach has given industry the green light to market junk food enriched with dietary supplements as “healthy”.

Kruchem wants all kinds of stakeholders to contribute to a concerted effort to push back against Big food. He sees roles for consumers, civil-society organisations, governments, UN organisations, health-care providers, educational institutions and scientists.

Book
Kruchem, T., 2017: Am Tropf von Big Food – Wie die Lebensmittelkonzerne den Süden erobern und arme Menschen krank machen. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag. (Addicted to Big Food – How food multinationals are conquering the Global South and making the poor sick.)

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