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Ever wondered why chocolate is so… moreish? Addicted to Food is a humourous, passionate exploration of the catch-22 driving our ever-expanding waistlines.

Addicted to Food ebook

Addicted to Food: Understanding the obesity epidemic
James Erlichman

£1.99/$2.99

Obesity has hit epidemic levels. In the developed, and much of the developing world, it is now ‘normal’ to be overweight with a BMI of 25 or more. And the global population is getting fatter all the time as a powerful mix of cheap foods, social behaviours and commercial pressures drives us to the biscuit tin again and again and again.

But this is not the worst of it.

The sugars, salts and fats that are slowly killing us are at the same time essential for our survival. Our brains reward us when we eat them, filling us with feelings of pleasure. But modern abundance has pushed this too far – in this Guardian Short, James Erlichman lays out a frank argument in which we have become addicted to food. Full of diverse research and exploring the science of obesity and the social history of what we eat for our meals (and snacks), ‘Addicted to Food’ is a powerful call for us to understand the terrible catch-22 that is driving our ever-expanding waistlines. Written with humour and passion, it will not just make you look at that custard cream in a different fashion, but enable you to understand why it tastes so delicious in the first place.

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About the Author

James Erlichman

James Erlichman is a visiting fellow at the University of Sussex, where he recently completed a PhD in public health science policy. Previously he has worked as a journalist and author, broadcaster, and for two years as a senior scientific researcher at the International Obesity TaskForce, a London-based charity.

Extract

This is an edited extract from Chapter 4 of Addicted to Food

 

In 2008 Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health, and her co-author David Ludwig published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association directly questioning whether the western food industry could play a constructive role in solving the obesity epidemic. Long-time foes of the junk food merchants, Nestle and Ludwig accepted that the food producers’ priority was “to make financial returns to stockholders”.

However, they calculated that the US food market was then supplying a staggering 3,900 calories per head/per day to the American public – nearly twice their energy needs. To keep (and increase) their own market share, fast food outlets soon hit on the obvious: they launched a “supersizing” war – outbidding each other to offer customers ever bigger portions first for their dollar, and not much later, for their pound sterling.

This was apparently the perfect way to get those excess calories down people’s throats because, for fast food companies (and their franchisees), the big costs are in monthly leases and wages – not cheap chips and fizzy drinks. And guess what? Their customers loved the bonanza. In September 2012, the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, took a first step to halt the torrent by imposing a ban on sweet fizzy drinks larger than 16 ounces, but his first fightback against “supersizing” is being challenged in court by the American Beverage Association.

Of course, the supermarkets and big packaged food manufacturers employ similar “supersizing” tactics – by increasing pack size (“50% extra free!”) or by tempting us with BOGOFs – buy-one-get-one-free offers (although both ploys often involve a discreet rise in the pack price before the “free” enticement is promoted, reducing the real bargain but not the extra calories).

But by contrast, supermarkets and their food manufacturer suppliers also employ a reverse psychology to get their customers to buy and eat more: they “undersize” portions.

To explain, almost all packaged food in the UK must note on the label the amount of calories, protein, carbohydrates, fats and salt (sodium) per 100 grams. Fortunately for the supermarkets and manufacturers, most of us have only a fuzzy grasp of what 100 grams looks like. So to “help” us, many producers choose to repeat the same nutrition information alongside in a so-called typical “portion size”. The trouble is that the portion size is chosen by them, is arbitrary and often bears little relation to what many people might eat at a sitting. It is consequently all too easy to believe that a product is less fattening than it is.

Two of the biggest exponents of this practice are makers of sugary breakfast cereals and frozen pizzas. Take, for example, Kellogg’s latest chocolate cereal launched in 2010 in Britain, clearly aimed at children, which was aptly called Krave. Krave’s chocolate and hazelnut version weighs in at a whopping 440 calories per 100g and contains, by weight, more sugar and fat combined than it does “healthy” carbohydrate cereals (oats, rice and wheat). But on the pack, Kellogg’s has decided that a portion size is a mere 30g, which only contains 132 calories (and a bit more if skimmed milk is added). Yet 30g is just four tablespoons. Can you imagine a five-year-old child, and much less an overweight teenager, being satisfied with so little? And, would anyone take the time and trouble to weigh their portion before the rush to school? Surely not. They would just pour their cereal into a bowl, gobble and go.

Much the same tactic is employed with frozen pizzas, those cheap and popular sellers in supermarkets. The Chicago Town pepperoni pizza – a full-sized, but not enormous pizza on sale recently at Asda for just £1.50 – boasts, among other apparently delectable ingredients, a “sauce-stuffed crust”. The portion size information says that tucking in will give you a not insignificant 446 calories – hardly surprising since the box shows a pizza loaded with cheese and pepperoni. However, in small type, you will discover that the portion consists of just one quarter of the pizza. So, if you are in front of the TV, and feeling peckish, you might end up eating the whole lot, and consume a gutbusting 1,784 calories – that’s nearly all the calories needed in 24 hours by an average woman, and nearly three-quarters of those needed by a man.

It’s not just the manufacturers who are playing this portion size game, and not even with products such as chocolate breakfast cereals and fat-filled pizzas. Take Sainsbury’s own brands of low-fat yoghurt. Their cheap-and-cheerful Basics label low-fat yoghurt is straightforward enough. It costs 65p for a 500g pot and contains just 1.9g of fat per 100g – a healthy, no-frills bargain which, perhaps, Sainsbury’s would rather you didn’t always buy. That’s because next to it on the shelf is Sainsbury’s much more expensive (£1 per 500g) banner-brand low-fat yoghurt that goes under the store’s Be Good to Yourself label of so-called healthier-lifestyle foods. In big letters it labels itself Greek-style, and in much smaller letters it reveals a fat content of “less than 3%”. That’s nearly half as much fat again as the Basic brand – a fact discreetly revealed by the “amber warning” on its “traffic light” nutrients profile. So how can Sainsbury’s entice you into buying its own fattier, more expensive yoghurt – far more subtly than by evoking the Greek islands? One answer: turn both pots around and look at their recommended portion. For the Basics brand, it’s given as “per ¼ of a pot 76 calories”. For the Greek-style, it’s 79 calories, an insignificant three more calories … until you realise the portion has unaccountably shrunk to “per 1/5 of a pot” – a reduction of 20%.

Another trick of the “low-fat” claim game is to replace the unhealthy fat with unhealthy sugar. For example, Vitality cereal bars, sold as an own-brand healthy option by Asda, the supermarket chain owned by American retail giant Walmart. Their “chewy banoffee” bar boasts on the pack “less than 3% fat” and “high in fibre”. What it does not shout about is that bars are still high in calories (358 per 100g). That’s because sugars make up 24.3g of that weight, although they are somewhat disguised by their names. The bars contain these sugary sweeteners: barley malt extract, glucose syrup, oligofructose syrup and dried banana.

Of course, many products don’t even try to appear healthy. Among the most feared by public health nutritionists are fizzy sugary drinks, particularly cola, and especially cheap brands sold in mega-bottles by supermarkets. According to Professor Robert Lustig, a childhood obesity specialist from the University of California at San Francisco, the consumption of sugar worldwide has tripled in the last 50 years, spurred on, in part, by the huge output of high fructose corn syrup sugar. Not only is sugar considered the most “addictive” foodstuff, it is, he says, also the most toxic. “Importantly, sugar induces all the diseases associated with ‘metabolic syndrome’” – a mix of morbid maladies including high blood pressure, raised “bad” cholesterol levels and insulin resistance leading to type 2 diabetes.

The sale of toxic products such as cigarettes is highly regulated, and the British government plans to set a minimum unit price for alcohol. But anyone can buy huge volumes of sugary drinks. Asda sells two litres of its own cola for 57p. For that, you get a staggering 864 calories, all of them coming from 212g of sugar. That’s more than twice the daily recommended guideline amount for an adult woman, and nearly twice for a man.

But for girth-busting temptation, even cheap cola can’t compete on price with the traditional custard cream biscuit, a highly seductive blend of sugar, fat and salt. One 400g packet of Asda’s Smart Price custard creams, costing 31p, would load you up with an astonishing 2,000 calories. So for less than £1 you can stock the larder (and your stomach) with 6,000 calories.

That’s a big reason why admonitions from nutritionists and other public health professionals to eat healthy fruit and vegetables go unheard by the poorest. If your prime goal is to feed your family as cheaply as possible, you are unlikely to choose green veg, except as a rare treat your kids might well spurn anyway. There are just nine calories in an ounce of broccoli, which costs about a £1 per pound in weight. That means £1 will buy you, by comparison, just 144 calories of broccoli against the 6,000-plus from the biscuits. No wonder there is such a strong correlation between low incomes and obesity, not only in the west but in urban parts of developing countries like Kenya, South Africa, Mexico and Brazil, where cheap fats (in fried street food) and sugar (sugary doughnut-type food and sweet drinks) are often bought at the roadside by people with no access to a kitchen, or perhaps money for fuel to cook.

Can you remember an advert for broccoli, or any drink or foodstuff that was actually good for you? Virtually every pitch that comes over the airwaves or pops up online is for energy dense, nutrient-poor products such as big-brand fast foods, breakfast cereals, sweets, crisps, sugary drinks and sweet biscuits. The reason: the biggest profits come from selling highly processed, energy-dense food and drink, not from broccoli, lentils and apples.

 

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