Trick or treat
RIGHT. It’s confession time. Hands up those who had a packet of crisps, a bar of chocolate, or a can of Coke last week, And why not? What about that extra blob of butter on your potato, the flabby take-away burger, or that third chocolate biscuit? Couldn’t resist, eh? And hands up those who know of someone who ‘just dropped dead’ in their forties of a heart attack.
Hmm. Looks like rather a lot of hands. Looks like rather a big problem. Looks like there’s some explaining to do.
You probably blame yourself, of course - unless, what is, you’ve been reading the New Internationalist for a few months, in which case you will already be alert to some of the reasons why we might be eating the kind of food that kills us. Because there is no doubt that it does kill us. An estimated 40 to 50 per cent of cancer is thought to be due to our diet.
And heart disease - the major killer of people in industrial society - is also caused largely by the food we eat.
The food industry began when people first began flooding into the cities to add their labour to the big push of the Industrial Revolution. They needed to be fed. And food from the countryside had to be processed, stored and transported in to the smoke-blackened slums to feed them. Immediately the middlemen - forefathers of today’s giant food industry - took advantage of the separation of food from consumer, adulterating flour with inedible dust, sometimes even with poison, to make it stretch further. The resulting deaths and riots among unsuspecting consumers led to the enactment of the first food laws in the 1850s to control the processing of food.
Well, little has changed since those days.
Our food is still killing us - though now on a scale that affects consumers all over the world - and food legislation still lags behind the deaths in most countries. In Britain, for instance, an estimated 25,000 deaths a year could be prevented if legislation like that in force in Australia and the US were introduced. And President of the World Health Assembly, Chong Hon Nyan of Malaysia, declared last year that the diseases of affluence are now besetting the Third World too. In Indonesia, for example, a 1974 study revealed that even the poorest families were spending a fifth of their food budget on processed food.
The food manufacturers are not deliberately trying to kill us, however, any more than the early flour adulterers were. And not all processed food is deadly. But the chief dietary mass-murderers - fat, salt and refined carbohydrates like sugar - are among the main constituents of much processed food. Why is this?
The first thing to realise is that the market for food is what is known as ‘inelastic’ (though, looking at some people’s waistlines, that seems a spectacularly inappropriate term). Unlike our appetite for clothes, say, or long-playing records, or books - where some would argue you can never have enough - we can only fit a finite quantity of food in our stomachs - I ~1 kilograms to be precise.
The challenge to the food industry, then, is to fill those limited-capacity containers as profitably as possible. And it has responded to that challenge with enormous flair and ingenuity - and not a little sleight of hand.
There are four tricks that can be used to increase the profitability of food:
1 Produce food more cheaply
Foodstuffs can be cheap for three main reasons: · because they are produced in huge quantities - often in surplus - and can be stored for long periods, like cereals; · because they cost very little in the first place, like sugar, salt and vegetable fats produced in the Third World; · because they are basically waste materials that would not normally be eaten at all unless they were processed, like meat fat, meat refuse and dried milk powder - all biproducts of the meat and dairy industries.
Already you can begin to see why fat, sugar and salt might predominate in processed food.
Most of these ingredients have the added advantage of being easy to use. Manufacturing any food product in bulk means using a set of technological tricks quite different to the ones you might employ in your kitchen.
Making sponge cakes on a large scale is not just a question of multiplying the ingredients by 100,000 and mixing as usual. No amount of whipping will make 100,000 eggs hold the amount of air necessary to raise 50,000 kilograms of sponge mixture to the requisite light and fluffy consistency. But, with the help of certain chemical additives, ingredients like refined cereal flours, saturated fats and sugar can be made to look - and taste - like almost anything.
And fibre just gets in the way; which is one reason why refined flours are used and why high-protein, high-fibre foods like beans and lentils tend to be spurned by the food industry.
The result is a drastic change in our daily diet. In the UK, for instance, sugar intake per person doubled, fat consumption rose 50 per cent and fibre consumption went down 90 per cent over the 100 years between 1860 and 1960. And coronary heart disease followed, doubling in England and Wales between 1950 and 1974.
Ironically, the diseases of under-consumption can also follow the introduction of cheap food products. Soft drinks are a good example. Made simply of sugar, water and flavouring, they can be marketed at a price even the poor in developing countries can
afford. And they buy them too - instead of proper food. In Brazil, the world’s biggest exporter of oranges, one survey found most city children drinking a bottle of Fanta orange drink or another soft drink every day instead of other foods - and many of the less well-off were malnourished as a result.
2 Sell food at a higher price
The best way of selling a set amount of food at a higher price is to process it - to add ‘value’ and then charge for it. Good, solid, earthy potatoes, for instance, cost around 63 cents a kilo. But cooked, dried, powdered and reconstituted as potato swirls they cost about $7.20 a kilo. And notice how the simple potato now has a new ‘brand’ name: ‘swirls’. This is another important part of selling the same amount of food at a higher price.
Food manufacturers have to prevent their product being treated as a commodity. That’s why, as you read in last month’s New Internationalist, it makes no sense simply to sell margarine’. It has to be Blue Band (because it spreads so easily), or Stork (you can taste the difference), or Flora (high in polyunsaturates). This is what is called ‘branding’: turning a common-or-garden product into something special that people will buy for the name alone.
Without branding, food manufacturers would find themselves competing with one another and vying to sell plain ‘margarine’ - the commodity - as cheaply as possible. With branding they can convince the poor consumer that only their product will do. And people will be prepared to pay more for Kelloggs Corn Flakes or Heinz Tomato Ketchup rather than the unbranded equivalents.
3 Sell to more people
The food industry is not, by and large, very interested in luxury foods eaten on special occasions. They need to make economies of scale, producing in bulk to sell to as many people as possible. To do this it is vital to combat people’s consuming conservatism: to break their inconvenient regional dietary quirks and substitute global eating habits.
Before the First World War only S cots and horses ate oats. Today the average Scot’s consumption of the humble oat has taken a nosedive. But processed oats, along with processed wheat and corn, are now being consumed all over the world: as breakfast cereals - a perfect example of how simple ingredients like cereal flour and sugar can be reconstituted into an almost endless variety of forms. Now breakfast cereals claim the biggest advertising budget of all foods, with ads for them on US daytime television outnumbering ads for other foods by a massive 1,800 to one.
A similar thing has happened with the hamburger. From a modest beginning in a cafe called Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut where the first ever burger was sold in 1900 - the burger has already vanquished the US (people there eat an average of 2.95 burgers a week) and is now beginning to take over the world.
Burgers are basically a nifty way of using the bits of caw that aren’t steak - cheap waste ingredients that no-one really wants. And if you consider the size of the average cow compared with the size of the average steak, you can begin to understand why it has been necessary to market the hamburger so hard and so far.
4 Sell more food to the same people
Food manufacturers do their damnedest to substitute profitable processed food for the unprocessed item people used to consume: Cornflakes for corn, MacDonald’s hamburgers for fresh mince, Coca-Cola for water. But where they really excel is in actually creating new eating habits.
Persuading people to buy your product rather than someone else’s is largely a question of advertising. Creating an entirely new habit calls for a very special effort indeed. Here is where something called market research comes in. It was invented by Unilever, the biggest food manufacturer in the world, which now has over 30 market research offices all over Europe investigating people’s daily habits. The aim is to find a consuming niche in which they can create a ‘demand’ that they can then ‘satisfy’ with an entirely new product.
Perhaps the most notorious of these new food habits was the switch to bottle-feeding of babies. Infant formula was first produced on a large scale in the US in the 1920s as a way of selling surplus dried milk powder. By 1958 a massive advertising campaign had succeeded in persuading 75 per cent of mothers to bottle-feed their babies. Now, following the move back to breast-feeding in the industrialised world, milk powder is being marketed for Third World infants with the tragic consequences we are all now familiar with.
Here the tragedy was due basically to the substitution of one food habit for another. But adding extra food habits - while less dramatic - can be dangerous too.
A recent market research coup was the creation of Cupa-soup - a cross between a bowl of soup and a cup of coffee. Once people simply had a drink at mid-morning - or nothing at all. Now they have what is basically a mini-meal. Notice that Cup-a-soup is not proposed as a meal substitute. It’s something to have in addition to your proper meal. Made from flour, fat, salt and flavourings (notice how these ingredients keep recurring), a product has been invented and has become a completely new food habit.
Other mini-meals created by the food industry include mid-afternoon and bedtime snacks. The mid-afternoon mini-meal is an occasion for consuming sweet things like cakes and biscuits (made from fat, sugar and cereal flour - those cheap ingredients again). The bedtime mini-meal is the ubiquitous bedtime drink’ - a kind of drink consumed at no other time, a powder made from - you guessed it - sugar, cereal flour and flavouring which is added to hot milk.
Eating habits have also been changed by default. No-one bothers to advertise fresh fruit, vegetables or high-fibre pulses like lentils. So they tend either to drop out of our diets completely, or to become categorised as something altogether different: vegetables are things eaten ‘with food’; fruit is eaten after food’; beans and lentils are eaten Instead of food’. None are real food at all!
Meanwhile ‘real’ food is increasingly being composed of a small set of cheap ingredients concealed and disguised by a dizzying variety of colouring, flavouring and texturising chemicals that excite our appetites and spur us on to new heights of over consumption.
Fat people are not greedy. They are just casualties of a manufacturing and advertising effort that has transformed our diets and made whole societies obsessed with food.
It’s an obsession that’s killing us. But it could be our salvation too. Because it means people are becoming aware of the links between diet and health. One magazine survey in the US found that 63 per cent of people questioned were already making ‘important and lasting’ changes in their diet. And deaths from coronary heart disease and cancer have already fallen by 30 per cent. Some manufacturers are bowing to consumer pressure too: the New York Schools Project, which provides the city’s school dinners, has demanded a reduction in the fat, sugar and salt content of the food they buy.
Of course the food industry is unlikely to take all of this lying down. With 50 to 60 million people in India alone being able to afford more than the bare necessities of life. there are many ripe unsuspecting consumers on the horizon. But at least the revolt among consumers in the West will have given them - dare I say it? - food for thought.
This special report appeared in the trick or treat - the sticky world of food issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.