The alarming rise in levels of obesity around the world motivated reporter Jacques Peretti to go in search of the people responsible for revolutionising our eating habits. He produced a documentary for the BBC about it called The Men Who Made Us Fat. We’ve summarised the main points here but it is well worth a watch, go to www.bbc.co.uk
Today, there are 1.4 billion overweight adults in the world and 500 million obese ones. British people are on average three stone (19 kg) heavier than they were in the 1960s.
In the BBC documentary, The Men Who Made Us Fat, Jacques Peretti investigates the men responsible for the transformation in our eating habits; how business changed the shape of a nation, as well as how the food industry choreographs temptation.
Obesity rates have doubled since the 1980s and according to Peretti, we’re in a war between our bodies and modern accessibility to fast and processed food.
In 1971, US President Richard Nixon appointed Earl Butz as Secretary of Agriculture. Butz had a vision to merge the country’s army of small farmlets into enormous, industrial farms of unprecedented output. “Get big or get out” was Butz’s motto and his plan was to grow more corn than ever before, in order to keep food prices cheap and housewives happy who would then vote his party back into government. Soon, these new, larger harvests of corn became feed for the cheaper beef flooding the supermarkets and huge surpluses of corn were being created – this was soon turned into a brand new food thanks to some Japanese scientists, it was a cheap industrial sweetener called High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). This cheap corn sweetener has ended up in just about every processed food imaginable – take for example the typical American fast food meal of a burger, fries with tomato sauce and a Coke; the beef is from cows fed on corn; the Coke and tomato sauce are sweetened with corn syrup; the bread for the bun is made with corn syrup, and the fries are cooked in corn oil.
SUCROSE VS FRUCTOSE
The biggest health impact though was when HFCS replaced sugar in fizzy drinks like Coke and Pepsi in 1984. The reason was a no brainer – HFCS was a third cheaper than sugar. In two decades, fizzy drink consumption in the US has gone from 350 cans per person per year to 600 cans per year.
The damaging difference between regular processed sugar and HFCS is how it affects the body. There’s something very specific about fructose that accelerates obesity, namely, the effect of fructose on the liver.
According to endocrinologist, Dr Robert Lustig, fructose is easily converted to fat in the body, and scientists have found that it also suppresses the action of a vital hormone called leptin.
“Leptin goes from your fat cells to your brain and tells your brain you’ve had enough, you don’t need to eat that second piece of cheesecake,” said Lustig in an interview with Peretti.
When the liver is overloaded with sugars, leptin simply stops working, and as a result the body doesn’t know when it’s full.
“It makes your brain think you’re starving and now what you have is a vicious cycle of consumption, disease and addiction. Which explains what has happened the world over,” Lustig said.
Americans eat about 90lbs of added sugar per year. This is like a tsunami of sugar hitting the liver, which impacts fat in the blood leading to heart disease as well as fat in the liver, leading to diabetes and chronic diseases.
Why is it that we just can’t seem to get enough sugar? Because it is literally addictive. Sugar takes the brain prisoner by activating the same circuitry that is activated in addictions.
The havoc that processed sugars have wreaked on global health and obesity is now being more widely studied and accepted but this is a recent change. For the last 40 years, accepted wisdom was that we were all getting fatter, quicker because of fat. It was American scientist Ancel Keys who convinced the developed world that dietary fat, particularly animal fat, was the cause of heart disease (interestingly, the more subtle finding in his work that did not get so widely promoted was that animal protein and fat increased heart disease while plant fat decreased it).
One scientist who disagreed with Keys’ anti-fat stance was UK Professor John Yudkin. In 1972, Yudkin wrote a book called Pure, White and Deadly, which outlined how the rise in heart disease correlated to the rise in the consumption of sugar. This was not a popular argument with the influential sugar lobby however and Yudkin was basically black-listed and discredited by powerful sugar-funded opponents. As a result, the case against sugar was forgotten and the low-fat obsession took hold. The result? Obesity rates in the UK are now 10 times what they were in the 1970s and the amount of sugar eaten has increased by
31 per cent since 1990 because of the ‘invisible’ sugar added to products like tomato sauce, soft- drinks, yogurt, baked beans, etc.
When dietary fat became public health enemy number one, the food industry spied an opportunity and before long our supermarket shelves were swamped with low fat products – everything from yogurts to mayonnaise, biscuits and desserts. The low-fat industry boomed. Fat was taken out and sugar was put in. As a result, profits for the food industry have soared and so have obesity rates.
For more information on The Men Who Made Us Fat by BBC Two, go to www.bbc.co.uk