Large food companies and the obesity crisis

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By Dr Jane Glover, Research Fellow
Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business, University of Birmingham

Recently, there have been calls to curb the influence of ‘big food’ companies to help tackle obesity, and for political leaders to step up to make the food industry more responsible. Given the nature of the industry, are these measures likely to succeed?

The business case for processed foods

The food industry is a multi-million-pound profit-seeking entity driven by a massive consumer desire for cheap, convenient food. The primary goal of a business is to create profit, especially for multi-national corporations that have to report to shareholders. However, in this pursuit of profit, there is a risk that certain responsibilities are not viewed as an important goal.

Multi-national corporations have taken advantage of the plummeting popularity of cooking from scratch; pre-prepared meals now have unhealthy additives and preservatives in order to last from production to supermarket shelf to a consumer’s fridge.

The ingredients in processed food

The responsibility for deciding on ingredients has switched from the individual to the food manufacturer. To keep costs down and retain ‘taste’, manufactured food contains high levels of sugar and salt. This has led to growing criticism from dieticians, nutritionists, consumer organisations and even regulatory agencies.

This food is not only very unhealthy but also addictive. Unfortunately, this addictive quality is the main reason that high levels of sugar and salt are included – we become addicted to the product taste and hence fulfil the business’s goal of a repeat customer. So, if we are addicted to the taste of salt and sugar, how do we reverse the trend? Without that addictive taste, would the manufacturers still sell as much food?

Targeted marketing

Eating habits are built from an early age, and big food marketers know how to attract the next generation of eaters, as highlighted by Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall in the BBC’s Britain’s Fat Fight. One of the most common and easily identifiable foods marketed at young children is cereals. They are often presented in brightly coloured boxes, covered with cartoon characters which are also used in adverts on children’s TV channels, to implant the image of the cereal into the child’s impressionable mind. These cereals often contain high levels of sugar and salt, the perfect mix of ingredients to make sure we want more.

Role of the Government

There are also questions about the Government’s role in the current health crisis. Politicians certainly benefit from keeping food prices low, incentivised by their commitments to keeping inflation low. The Government favours quick convenience foods as they allow individuals more time to work longer days and spend their money on other items/experiences. Ironically, the Government may have created this social and financial ticking time bomb by putting pressure on the NHS.

Other factors

Many other factors have an impact on increasing obesity. Many jobs involve people sitting at desks and commuting to work via car or public transport. Spare time is devoted to technology, such as the internet, iPads and smart televisions, and we even have gadgets to switch the lights on for us because we don’t want to move. What we eat is only part of the package for a healthy individual – exercise and being active is also crucial.

The responsibility for the implications that come from the nation’s obsession with convenience and processed food lies with three main groups: multi-national food companies, Government, and the consumer. Any change will require a seismic shift in how we measure success in businesses, and how we conduct business itself.

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