Does anyone believe that it does? Because if you do, I probably have a bridge I can sell you…
The food industry is there to make money. And it certainly does that well. According to Statista (one of the largest statistics portals in the world), consumer spending on food in the UK in 2021 was around £118bn. Of course the ‘food industry’ is not one vast amorphous thing: it is lots of separate bits which include farming, manufacturing, retail, hospitality and what is called ‘out-of-home’ (Costa, Prêt, Starbucks, and many more).
The bit I am talking about here is what comes out of manufacturing; the bit that makes convenient pre-prepared foods (although I am unclear exactly how products that destroy your long-term health can be considered “convenient”). In 2021, UK consumer spend on pre-prepared food was just over £12.3bn.
Meanwhile the current cost of obesity to the NHS is around £6bn a year, the cost of diabetes is around £10bn a year and the cost of cancer is around £5bn. Not far off double consumer spending on exactly the kind of ‘food’ with strong links to, among other things, obesity, diabetes and (some) cancers.
Research and development budgets
The food industry has huge research and development budgets, not all of which get spent on developing shiny new products. Quite a lot gets spent on working out how to fractionate (break up into smaller separate components) whole foods into lots of different things. For example, the food industry takes a food like sweetcorn and changes it, from something that would be considered a healthy part of our diet, into a series of ingredients that you just wouldn’t find in a ‘normal’ domestic kitchen and are generally very far from healthy. Things like dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, hydrolysed vegetable protein, maltodextrin, maltitol, mannitol, modified starch, polysorbate, sorbitol, sucralose, and xylitol.
These are the kind of ingredients you find in ultra-processed foods, one of the key factors driving obesity and diabetes around the globe.
When you eat sweetcorn – tinned, frozen, or on the cob, it takes quite a long time to break down in your digestive system, which means it has a low glycaemic index (GI) of between 47 and 55, depending on how it has been cooked (GI shows how fast a food raises your blood sugar, the higher the number the faster the rise). But when you eat a food containing high fructose corn syrup (GI 81), or modified starch (GI 62) those ingredients break down really fast. Which means that they send your blood sugar shooting up, and then, because they get digested and absorbed really fast, it comes crashing down again. Which makes you hungry, so you eat some more.
Advertising and marketing budgets
The food industry also has gargantuan marketing and advertising budgets that are used for two purposes; learning why consumers purchase certain categories of foods and persuading those same consumers that the almost endless variety of low cost, instantly accessible food that they churn out, is desirable. Spoiler alert – some of it often barely qualifies as food and does nobody (apart from the food industry’s bank balance) any favours.
In fact, the food industry’s advertising spend is around 30 times more than what the UK government spends on promoting the idea of healthy eating. And, despite the recent ban on the promotion of high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) foods in stores, and restrictions to TV and online advertising, sales of ultra-processed food are unhealthily high – and climbing.
Does taxation work?
In 2018 the UK government imposed a tax on sugar added to soft drinks. Studies conducted on levels of obesity in children since then have found that the only group which the sugar tax has had any impact on is girls in primary school year 6. The UK government is crowing that they have prevented a whole 5,234 cases of obesity. In a cohort of over nine million school children…
And, although the taxation of sugar in soft drinks may have led to a small reduction in sugar consumption, the sale of soft drinks is actually increasing. Which in itself is worrying, as there is growing evidence of the negative impact of artificial sweeteners on health, particularly in stimulating inflammation, reducing the diversity of the gut microbiome, and increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
It might be more effective to tax any food containing artificial or fractionated ingredients! And ringfence that taxation to use in promoting healthy diets and subsidising fresh fruit and vegetables.
It doesn’t help that there are some elements of food that stimulate what is essentially an addiction reaction. Both fat and sugar trigger the release of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter that gives us a sense of reward. And just like in drug addiction, the response that triggers dopamine release diminishes over time, meaning we need to eat more and more fat and sugar to get that reward.
Salt also carries an addictive edge. We evolved in a hot climate where salt was not a readily available natural resource and we lost a lot, on a daily basis, in sweat and urine. Our biochemistry is designed to actively seek out salt and retain it if at all possible. So salty food is desirable from a biochemical basis. And, like fat and sugar, salt also stimulates the production and release of dopamine.
Which makes ultra processed food, being high in processed fat, sugar, and salt, extremely enticing. It could be why nearly 60% of the calories currently being consumed in the UK come from ultra-processed foods.
…and it makes you sick
Ultra-processed food doesn’t fill you up, it leaves you hungry and so you eat more of it (and therefore more calories). Which is a win for the food industry, but a massive loss to health and wellbeing for everyone else. And ultra-processed food is missing many of the things in food that we need – vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, fibre and phytonutrients. Even when some vitamins and minerals may have been added to a food to fortify it, many can still hardly be considered to be healthy.
Take Kellogg’s corn flakes, “enriched with eight vitamins and minerals”, with a GI of 93. Or Nestlé, which recently admitted that less than half of its portfolio of food and drink would be classified as ‘healthy’.
Although there is legislation in place in the UK to make sure that food is safe for human consumption, there is no law in place to ensure that food is healthy. The food industry doesn’t make money on fruit, vegetables, unprocessed grains, nuts and seeds. It makes money on that ultra-processed stuff in bright shiny packaging. And it spends that money on influencing our purchasing decisions.
Resist the shiny
Buy apples (or oranges, or nuts, or broccoli, or anything other than ultra-processed food) instead.
T C Callis’ articles are very well researched, and always come with a wealth of references. If you are interested in following up anything in the article, don’t hesitate to contact us at Kent Bylines for more information.