Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
The Men who made us Fat is a 3-hour BBC documentary presented by Jacques Peretti, investigating obesity and the food industry in the United States of America and Britain. It examines the rise of corn syrup as a sugar substitute, the inflation of portion sizes and the healthy perception of calorific foods. Mr Peretti blames powerful men for the current levels of obesity in America and Britain.
The documentary opens in America 1971, with protesting against high food prices by Women United for Action, a consumer group. US President Richard Nixon then appointed Earl Butz as his Secretary of Agriculture, who ended the supply restrictions on farms, telling farmers to “get big or get out” and urging them to plant corn and other commodity crops “fencerow to fencerow”. Butz’s reforms led to a surplus in corn, which rather than being left to rot, was transferred into the production High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). Since HFCS was cheaper than sugar in the United States, it was used as a sweetener, substituting for sucrose, and became prevalent in American food, from cakes to soft drinks to bread. The cheapness of HFCS in the US is derived from a blend of corn subsidies, sugar tariffs and quotas on production. Rising HFCS use is concordant with an obesity surge, and for Mr Peretti, the causation is clear as HFCS may interfere with the body’s ability to feel full. Whilst the documentary is about the obesity in both American and British societies, Mr Peretti glides between them, but there is a vital difference: the production of HFCS is controlled by quotas handed down by the European Union (EU), which Britain obeys. This means the replacement of sugar by HFCS, glucose-fructose syrup as it is known in Britain, simply has not happened in EU member states, and cannot be blamed for the obesity rates in Britain. Mr Peretti attempts to circumvent this distinction, stating only: “Here, products like Coca-Cola was sweetened mainly by sugar rather corn syrup but the impact was just as critical.” In an accompanying article, Mr Peretti does not elucidate this important difference between American and British sugar consumption. Also, the American Medical Association says “it appears unlikely that HFCS contributes more to obesity or other conditions than sucrose”, but welcomes further research.
Later in the first episode, Mr Peretti claims that snacking is the invention of the food industry: “Manufacturers wanted us to buy more. They’ve found a new way to make it happen. It was called snacking and it was all about inventing new times of the day to eat and eating one kind of snack in particular, sugary treats.” Mr Peretti asserts that, in the search of profits, a term he uses pejoratively throughout the documentary, the food industry created an entirely new form of eating. However, snacking wasn’t a fringe activity in either America or Britain in the 1930s. The introduction of fixed meal times, and the social discontent directed against snacking, is most likely derived from food rationing in the Second World War, which lingered on in Britain until 1954. Snacking is also an activity amongst individuals with disposable income, and so is likely to increase in permissive societies with growing wealth.
The popular wisdom is that low activity and high consumption is the primary driver of obesity; Mr Peretti is keen to attack this position in the second episode. He states that it is generally accepted “we are a nation of couch potatoes”, but then presents the Early-Bird Diabetes study from Plymouth Hospital, by Dr Philip James, which showed the physical activity of children today is similar to that of 50 years ago. The study only looked at children, and found that obesity was followed by inactivity, rather than the opposite. However, the level of activity must be measured relative to the child’s consumption, rather than in absolute terms, which only confirms that children are overeating. The study also found that calorie reduction appeared to be crucial in weight reduction.
In the last episode, Mr Peretti considers the perceptions of ‘healthy food’, stating that a fruit smoothie may have more calories than a can of Coca-Cola, and a salad can have more calories than a doughnut. This is a complete bait-and-switch from his earlier concern over artificial sweeteners pervading food products, given that natural sugars are also calorific.
Labelling systems became the final battleground for Mr Peretti, as he argued that the food industry scuppered the mandatory introduction of ‘traffic light’ labelling in Britain. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) began looking at the labelling of food products in 2006, and the FSA considered several different systems. The two main competing forms of labelling were Guideline Daily Allowances (GDAs), with a standard portion being expressed as a percentage of expected daily intakes, and ‘traffic light’ labelling, where different percentages of intakes were expressed by a colour chart. The FSA surveyed customers; the majority said they preferred traffic light labelling, and the FSA recommended that system be made mandatory. However, companies such as Tesco, Morrison’s and Kellogg’s opposed it, and pursued GDA labelling instead, whilst traffic light labelling was voluntarily accepted by Sainsbury’s, Co-Op and Waitrose. Mr Peretti parades these events as proof of the food industry’s triumph against regulation, but it undermines his strongest argument. The food industry is not a homogeneous institution; different companies want different policies. The current arrangement, with both GDA and traffic light labelling, allows customers to reveal their preferences, encoded in where they shop.
Whilst current obesity levels are historically high, they are slowly declining in Britain. The Health and Social Care Information Centre states obesity rates have fallen to 22% amongst men and 24% amongst women. The documentary spends too much time parading common knowledge as if Mr Peretti had found them etched on tablets: people prefer sweeter foods, food companies seek sales, and unhealthy food is cheaper than healthy food. Mr Peretti also seeks to abolish personal responsibility, presenting the British and American public as mere pawns of marketing, and fattened by malevolent actions of an omnipotent food industry. Once equipped with the basic facts on obesity, The Men who made us Fat collapses like a soufflé.
The Men who made us Fat: Are you TOFI? by Jacques Peretti (BBC)
Attempting to tackle the ‘super-sized’ fried breakfast by Jacques Peretti (BBC)
‘Health Halo’ Effect: how healthy foods can make us fatter by Jacques Peretti (BBC)
Why food ‘traffic light’ labels did not happen by Jacques Peretti (BBC)
Why our food is making us fat by Jacques Peretti (The Guardian)