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Are Coke and McDonald’s More Likely to Help Reduce Obesity Than Farmers’ Markets and Whole Foods?

Atlantic Cover Fast foodOK – I realise that I am leaning out the window here and may well receive hate mail and letter bombs in response to this – but here we go…

This week, The Atlantic features a most provocative cover story by the science writer David H. Freeman, who, in just under 11,000 words (!), plainly and persuasively argues that less unhealthy “junk food” may be the only realistic and feasible solution to the obesity epidemic.

In his article he not only most eloquently fires a broadside the “Pollanites” and orthorexic whole food enthusiasts, deploring what he terms their elitist food ideologies, but in fact calls them out as being a major part of the problem – now that IS new!

As Freedman notes, while companies like Coca-Cola and McDonalds have (for the most part) quietly sneaked in lower calorie and otherwise healthier (read – “less unhealthy”) fare into the daily menus of millions of consumers, those opposed to any other than wholesome fresh-from-the-farm foods continue to scream and shout about the evil doings of BIG FOOD.

As Freedman points out,

“McDonald’s has quietly been making healthy changes for years, shrinking portion sizes, reducing some fats, trimming average salt content by more than 10 percent in the past couple of years alone, and adding fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and oatmeal to its menu. In May, the chain dropped its Angus third-pounders and announced a new line of quarter-pound burgers, to be served on buns containing whole grains.”

In his article he quotes Jamy Ard, an epidemiology and preventive-medicine researcher at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina:

“Processed food is a key part of our environment, and it needs to be part of the equation. If you can reduce fat and calories by only a small amount in a Big Mac, it still won’t be a health food, but it wouldn’t be as bad, and that could have a huge impact on us. Fast food became popular because it’s tasty and convenient and cheap. It makes a lot more sense to look for small, beneficial changes in that food than it does to hold out for big changes in what people eat that have no realistic chance of happening.”

Freedman also nicely explains why we are not hearing much about these changes at McDonald’s – it has painfully learnt its lesson from the McLean debacle. Now, he says, they prefer to just sneak in the healthier stuff – their sales pitch is that their “new” foods taste great and are as enjoyable as the old stuff – taste sells – health does not!

As for the use of food processing technology,

“If the food industry is to quietly sell healthier products to its mainstream, mostly non-health-conscious customers, it must find ways to deliver the eating experience that fat and problem carbs provide in foods that have fewer of those ingredients. There is no way to do that with farm-fresh produce and wholesome meat, other than reducing portion size. But processing technology gives the food industry a potent tool for trimming unwanted ingredients while preserving the sensations they deliver.”

He goes on to describe some of the fascinating science and technologies  being used to reduce fat, sugar and salt in processed foods without compromising on taste and mouth feel. There is simply no realistic way to get millions of people to eat less unhealthy without such advances.

Freedman is not against regulation or even taxation to help move things along – he also recognises that BIG FOOD needs to make profits and is ultimately only accountable to its shareholders – however, his conclusions are clear: it is simply naive to believe that anyone other than BIG FOOD can change how the vast majority of people eat – to sell less-unhealthy foods (even if that is not always what consumers want) is in their own best interest – farmers’ markets will not solve the obesity problem nor will raising chicken in your backyard.

But why not grab a (processed) coffee and a Tim Horton’s Alberta Rose donut (to support Alberta’s flood victims – you don’t have to actually eat it!) and read for yourself.

Edmonton, AB


  1. A rebuttal from Tom Philpott was published yesterday in Mother Jones.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Freedman – the food industry can indeed make products that will help – but they will only do so if profits and health collide and while I’m all for applauding when these circumstances arise, I hope people don’t forget that at the end of the day profits matter more than health. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just the way it is.

    I also agree with Philpott, health isn’t just about calories and while food industry reductions in calories are certainly welcome by me, nutrition is far broader than simple calorie counts and I remain quite dubious (but happy to be proven wrong) that hypocaloric hyperprocessed foods are any more than simply lesser evils.

    I think we deserve better than lesser evils.

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  2. Like it or not, convenient processed food and inexpensive fast food will continue to be a staple part of the human food supply for an ever increasing segment of the population. Most of my patients live frenetic lives from paycheck to paycheck (or welfare check to welfare check) and have neither the time or money for 3 square home cooked meals per day. The luxury of having a wife who is pregnant, barefoot and in the kitchen or a personal chef is simply not an option for most of the obese population. The elitist ideas of eating only fresh, organic, locally grown food and exclusively preparing sumptuous meals from scratch are somewhat delusional for an increasingly poor and stressed out Canadian public. The food industry is largely supplying a perceived demand and the quality (and caloric quantity) of their offerings will only improve when there is an undercurrent of consumer desire for healthier fare. Yes, we teach our patients to cook real food but we know that low cost conveniences like McDonald’s and meal replacements can also be healthy if you make the right choices.

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  3. Let’s not forget the need for convenience is rooted in deeper societal issues. The fact that the working poor class in Canada is growing is an issue that we need to address. Ultimately, obesity is also rooted in social determinants of health and continuing the debate about calories in and out does not advance our collective action to addressing the barriers that Canadians have to managing their weight, health and lives. How do you tell a newcomer that although she/he is highly educated (both in terms of professionals skills and in terms of healthy lifestyles) to stop working three jobs and make time to go shopping a whole food centres and prepare fresh meals, engage in leisure time physical activity, make sure they sleep enough, make sure they spend time with their families, etc. The same could be said about Aboriginal populations, single moms, etc. We need to consider population level interventions that address the social determinants of health and do not continue to marginalize or stigmatize people. As health promotion practitioners we need to consider the context in which people live. Let’s stop preaching about healthy living to our patients who struggle to make ends meet. We sound like missionaries.

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  4. @ Yoni: Yeah you’re right – some of Freedman’s stuff on fats and calories may be oversimplification and while some chains do offer healthier (or rather less unhealthy) foods, the same companies continue to offer or even launch ridiculous calorie-fests.

    That said, the pragmatist side of me thinks that “less unhealhty” is already a big step – even a slightly healthier Big Mac is likely to have a far greater impact on population health than a few 100,000 people growing veggies in their backyards. So will a 1% increase in sales of Coke Zero if it takes away 1% from Coke Classic.

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  5. I dunno Arya – reams of research would suggest that the marketing of foods as good for you, or better for you, or healthier may lead to their health halo-fied overconsumption.

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    • So I guess its not a bad thing that McD is promoting their stuff as being more tasty and satisfying than suggesting it’s actually healthier.

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  6. It might well be. Or not. Not aware of any study suggesting it would or wouldn’t be but I’m certainly in the camp of less, not more, when it comes to reliance on convenience (eating out and boxes). My gut says that health won’t be found in restaurants or processed shortcuts. Would love for my gut to be wrong though given that I don’t see society shying away from either.

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  7. Not unless they take out all the GMOS!

    I just don’t see it happening.

    And who decided to make healthier food automatically MORE EXPENSIVE?

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  8. Personally I agree with the author that a lot of the food debate is elitist and self-serving. Telling harried and stressed people to shop at farmers’ markets and learn to cook isn’t a realitic option either. So on that score, offering lower calorie foods is the lesser of two evils.

    The problem I had with the article is that the writer sees obesity as purely a function of calories. Therefore less calories, less obesity. But we are beginning to be aware that obesity isn’t just about calories, it’s also the type of calories. But these companies have a vested interest in getting customers to eat more of foods made from the cheapest possible ingredients. They can’t not. The cheapest possible ingredients come from heavily subsidised crops like corn.

    Any real approach to changing the food system wouldn’t rely on food companies to make moderate reformulations of ingredients which are, in and of themselves, problematic – it would call for a radical overhaul of the food system. The fact that fruits and vegetables are more expensive than processed foods isn’t a given – it’s an economic choice that’s been made, which could be unmade.

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