Food companies exist solely to make money, so they will sell whatever people will buy. Healthy food provides smaller margins, so they fill their food with cheap processed ingredients that lack nutrition. And then they market these foods to appeal especially to the most vulnerable (eg, children). This has caused the ‘toxic’ food environment and high rates of obesity and diabetes.
When you view the world through this lens, it’s certainly easy to find examples to illustrate it. For example:
- It’s hard to find a reasonably priced wholemeal salad sandwich amongst the shelves of confectionery and chips at a convenience store or a petrol station.
- A sausage roll and fries is much cheaper than a chicken salad at most cafes.
- How many times have you been trapped behind a ‘back of the bus’ promotion for the latest lolly and cream-filled frappé offering? (It always happens to me when I’m driving a carload of hungry children, so I know the effect these ads have on kids.)
It’s true: healthy choices are often difficult choices – especially for those most stretched for time and money. They often go against the yummiest or the cheapest option – and we all know that taste and price are the major drivers to purchase.
Regulation, marketing restrictions and taxes on foods and beverages are being proposed by some as the means to change this. I propose they won’t change this because they won’t achieve the fundamental societal shift that’s needed to encourage people to willingly adopt the harder option.
There are many aspects of life in which the right choice is not the easiest choice, but regulations are not the best answer:
- Most people find it easier to spend money than to save it. Does that mean we should all be denied access to retail outlets on certain days of the week?
- It is easier for parents to let children watch TV for entertainment rather creating more sociable entertainment, or ensuring the homework is done instead. Does that mean parents should not be allowed to have television sets?
Why is food and health any different?
As a dietitian working with a range of food companies, I also see things through a different lens. It is easy to paint food companies as faceless, profit-hungry global entities who don’t give a damn about the health of the planet or their consumers, and to blame the current food environment on them (and the government for letting them do it). But the burden of proof placed on those companies to demonstrate how fictitious this is, is often too high to scale, especially considering the lack of reason and objectivity that exists in the debate around “Big Food”.
Food companies – and especially the global ones in my experience – take their obligations to their communities, employees, consumers, environment, suppliers, stakeholders and shareholders equally seriously. That is how they succeed. A company who purposefully harms the health of their consumers is not sustainably commercially successful. So no: commercial success does not equal public health failure because true commercial success requires public health gain.
Unlike the tobacco industry, the food industry is able to produce and promote healthier food and portion options – something many companies have been actively working on for decades. Increasing the momentum of this change depends on consumer demand, and this is influenced by a huge range of societal influences, in which we all have a significant part to play. What do you think you could do?