Over the weekend I watched a documentary series called “The Men Who Made Us Fat”, playing on the BBC Knowledge channel (but also available on Youtube). It is a fascinating look at how the food industry has used marketing to alter our eating habits, fought against attempts to regulate unhealthy foods and engaged in dubious practices to make unhealthy foods look healthy. It also explores the science which has been used and abused over the past century to promote industry aims, and the sheer idiocy of allowing the food industry to have a major role in determining government policy (my favourite quote from the documentary is given below).
“Putting the food industry at the policy table is like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank.” Professor Simon Capewell, University of Liverpool
Episode 1 looks at how consumption of sugary drinks and treats was introduced (and encouraged) into modern society and how the misguided focus on fat as “the” cause of obesity concealed the role that sugar and related substances such as high fructose corn syrup have played in weight gain. It also describes the way influential food organisations twisted science to their own ends.
Episode 2 explores the history of “supersizing” portion sizes, a technique that began in cinemas and then spread through the food industry, encouraging restaurant goers to eat more and shoppers to get better “value” by buying larger quantities of processed foods.
Episode 3 examines how the food industry have manipulated the interest in healthy food to portray many foods as being healthier than they are and how they have resisted regulation and attempts to provide consumers with ways to better assess the nutritional value of foods they consume.
Throughout the three episodes there are interviews with those on both “sides” of the argument – those concerned about the growing obesity epidemic and representatives of the food industry who apparently believe they have played no part in the increasing number of overweight people in society. Many companies argue that it is up to the individual to regulate their own consumption of foods, however, I find this argument to be somewhat disingenuous when over time the food industry has applied a wide range of psychological techniques to persuade consumers to buy more – that seems like a very unfair advantage. The views put forward by some industry representatives are often defensive and seem quite distant from reality. Check out the short interview in the video below from 18 minutes and 30 seconds.