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