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The food industry...
High Fat, High Sugar And High Profit
After the Christmas and New Year celebrations, many people resolve to eat more healthily and get more exercise. But as Jackie Grunsell explains, having a healthy lifestyle means tackling big business as well as big helpings.
LAST MONTH health visitors across the country raised concerns that more and more babies and toddlers were being fed mashed up or blended burgers, fried chicken, Chinese take-outs and other fast foods.
They felt parents were being misled by confusing labeling and aggressive marketing of 'junk foods' aimed at children. Even foods labeled as 'healthy' options often disguise high levels of salt and sugar and have very little nutritional value.
It is not just young children but the population in general which is buying more processed foods and without knowing it, storing up major health problems for the future. Increased consumption of junk food, along with decreased activity, is leading to obesity, diabetes and premature death.
Obesity now affects 21% of men and 23% of women in the UK. Another 46% of men and 33% of women are overweight. 1 in 25 children is now classified as obese.
Obesity is linked with high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, reduced fertility, increased risk of certain cancers, arthritis and breathing problems, especially during sleep.
Even if you're not obese a diet high in sugar causes the body to become resistant to insulin. In the United States children as young as six, who are not obese, have been found to be insulin-resistant. Type Two diabetes, previously a disease of the elderly, is starting to appear in teenagers.
Part of the problem is we simply aren't told what is in our food. Salt is referred to as sodium on many labels. The average chicken in chicken tikka masala is injected with water, often containing sugar and other additives.
There are 4,500 different flavourings available to manufacturers, which do not have to be tested for safety and are only banned if shown to be harmful.
In the developed world the average person eats 13-15lb of food additives a year - most of these are used simply to make the food look better.
Despite all the evidence that the way we eat is harming our health, the food industry refuses to take responsibility for this. They say obesity is due to a lack of exercise or 'unbalanced' diets, not junk food. Yet there is growing evidence that eating high fat, high sugar, high salt foods is actually addictive.
Studies indicate that fast food meals contain doses of fat and carbohydrate large enough to cause changes in the brain structure usually associated with drug addiction.
In particular eating sugary foods causes the release of the body's natural feel-good hormones. The more we eat, the larger and larger are the amounts we need next time to get the same high, encouraging us to overeat.
The food industry heavily markets high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods, targeting children. Junk foods are shown to be fun and linked to play (eg McDonalds give away toys). When did you last see an advert for apples or broccoli?
The food industry tells us we should simply exercise more to burn off these unwanted calories. However, a McDonalds cheeseburger and fries with a shake requires a nine mile walk to be burnt off. It takes 11Ú2 hours running to burn off the calories in a supersized Mars Bar (and why are they supersized?).
In a Guardian report Professor Graham McGregor, head of cardiovascular medicine at St George's medical school said an immediate cut of 10% in salt in the average diet would save 5,800 lives over the next year.
"The industry tells us they can't cut salt levels immediately because the customers won't like the taste, but lots of studies show that such a reduction wouldn't be detectable. I find it astonishing that a train operator can be held accountable if he causes deaths in a rail crash but we don't hold the manufacturers responsible for many thousands of preventable deaths because so much salt is hidden in processed foods".
Modern diets are partly due to the way we shop. Supermarkets make most profit from the sale of pre-cooked meals and processed foods to which sugar is invariably added as a preservative and lure.
The sugar industry has enormous power. In 1979 Professor Philip James chaired a committee to draw up the first national dietary guidelines. Sugar, diabetes, tooth decay and obesity were linked.
The British Nutrition Foundation funded by the sugar industry, was represented on his committee and objected to its initial findings. "The sugar industry has learned from the likes of the tobacco industry" said James. "Confuse the public. Produce experts who disagree. Try to dilute the message. Indicate there are extremists like me in the field of public health".
In 1978 the International Life Sciences Institute, set up by none other than Coca-Cola, managed to send delegates to the preparatory stages of the first international conference on nutrition in 1992. The first 'plan of action' that came from the World Health Organisation in 1990 failed to even mention sugar.
The smallest changes in our diet can make a difference. One primary school in Hampshire banned children from bringing sweets, crisps, chocolate, fruit bars, fruit juices and fizzy drinks for their lunch. The only drink allowed was water.
Teachers noticed a marked improvement in the children's behaviour. In particular they were much calmer in the afternoons.
Research has shown increased intake of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids (found in oily fish especially) lowers levels of cholesterol and improves concentration. Eating more fruit and vegetables protects against heart disease and cancer. Easier said than done!
As the gap between rich and poor widens, access to and affordability of food for the poorest has changed little over the decades.
For the better off, food shopping is cheaper and more variety is available than ever. But decline in local shops (by 40% since 1986) makes buying good quality, cheap food difficult for those who can't get to a big supermarket (often outside town, needing a car to get there).
10% - 15% of people in Britain regularly go short of food as a result of low income and poor access.
We have a crazy situation globally where the populations of the advanced capitalist world are being over fed to death. But many more people still die of starvation or malnutrition-related illness world wide.
Apart from trying to change the way we eat, we have to change the system that causes this type of inequality. Bringing the food industry into public ownership, democratically controlled by workers would make it possible to feed the world's population, not overfeed a small section of it.
Farming and production techniques need to protect not destroy the environment - as long as profit is the main incentive, this will never happen. Our health and our children's future health depends on being given the ability to eat healthy, good quality foods. To do this we need socialism.
The Bloody Truth About Our Meat
[Editor's Note: Since this article was written, BSE has been detected in cows in the USA.]
According to Eric Schlosser's recent best-seller, Fast Food Nation, the working conditions, production methods, and sanitation in slaughterhouses of the 21st century have changed little since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle.
Erika Blechinger and Ben Arenburg
Each year, 8 billion chickens and turkeys, 97 million hogs, 35 million cattle, 3 million sheep and lambs, and 1 million calves are slaughtered in the US. Most of these animals are raised by factory farming, in which they are often caged or penned in extremely tight areas. In order to maximise their growth and output of eggs, milk, and meat, animals are hooked up to food and hormone pumps for most of the day.
The hormones fed to animals show up in the meat and dairy products people consume, sometimes inducing puberty in very young children. In addition, meatpacking factories, animal waste, and unregulated drug use has led to severe water and air pollution. Contaminated water runoffs have affected ground water reserves and the irrigation of fruit and vegetable farms. So even a vegetarian diet cannot avoid the perils of the meat industry.
Slaughtering, stripping, cleaning, and packing meat is incredibly dangerous for workers, whose industrial injury rate is three times the national average. Meatpacking has continuously topped the charts as the most dangerous job in the US for the past century, with 540 deaths a year - one ninth of all US worker deaths - and countless serious injuries.
Mega-meat corporations such as Con-Agra, IBP, and Excel exert enormous political influence through powerful lobbying groups that fight safety regulations and their enforcement. Consequently, it is common for workplace injuries not to be compensated and for injured employees to lose their jobs due to their reduced abilities.
In most slaughterhouse towns, the main employer is the meat packing industry, offering only low-paying, dead-end jobs.
And what do we get?
Factory farming has had devastating consequences for surrounding communities. For example, the massive quantities of cow manure from cattle ranges are not processed in treatment plants like human waste. Instead, it is dumped into huge pools of excrement that the industry fondly calls "lagoons." These lagoons permeate slaughterhouse towns with an unavoidable, nauseating odour.
The unprecedented centralisation of the meat industry in recent years has accelerated the spread of dangerous pathogens according to a 1996 USDA national study.
Yet little has been done to combat the presence of pathogens in our meat. A mass campaign is needed to force the government to increase regulation on the industry. Meat workers, unions, animal rights activists, environmentalists, and consumer groups should form coalitions to fight this common enemy. A unionisation drive by the workers would also ensure improvements in conditions for workers, consumers, animals, and the environment.
The barbaric nature of the meat industry is not unique to the way the capitalist system operates. Neither vegetarianism, nor even regulation, will stop the meat bosses from endangering workers, torturing animals and poisoning our food and the environment.
As long as large corporations are privately owned, they will remain locked into a system of competition that forces them to cut corners and resort to destructive practices to out-compete their rivals.
The only viable solution is building the socialist movement to take these corporations into public ownership under workers' democratic control and management.
This article is reproduced from Justice, the socialist's sister paper in the USA. www.socialistalternative.org
In The Socialist 17 January 2004:
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