Industry must move to avoid public opprobrium

by Morton Sosland
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It is highly unlikely that anyone engaged in the global grain business has even dreamed in the worst nightmares that the industry would be vilified as responsible for a global obesity epidemic. Yet, as far-fetched as that thought may be in a world where concerns are often heard about food output keeping pace with population, the industry is increasingly attacked for its allegedly villainous role in a health problem that affects a billion people. Thus arises the need to sound a warning that grain is not far from facing attacks similar to those levied against the tobacco and oil industries. In the case of food, allegations would center on responsibility for global obesity.

Several developments make reality of this possibility. These range from the all too frequent attacks being levied against grain-based food manufacturers for turning out products with excessive amounts of salt, sugar and calories to the use of terms like “wheat-laden” as a pejorative in criticizing specific food products. Much relates to the morality issue encircling food, where several observers have noted that debating practices having to do with food eating, processing and growing suddenly involve ethical questions not unlike those once limited to religion and personal relationships. Grain and food are being considered in a context totally different from past history. They need not only to respond, but to be aware of how this fundamental change will bear on supply-demand and even market prices.

No one is saying that the food industry has neglected the issues having to do with the role it may play in obesity. Many of the largest food companies have launched numerous studies to examine how concerns for wellness may be shifted to give more attention to reducing calories. Institutions have been established by industry leaders to examine nutritional approaches that serve both corporate goals and public expectations about food quality. Yes, the dream is to develop a food that consumers would not only enjoy but could eat while maintaining control over health and weight. Such a discovery is apparently far-off, a conclusion reinforced by the failure of massive research by pharmaceutical companies to find a similar product or drug. That these huge companies have repeatedly fallen short in discovering a way of ending obesity as a disease is comparable to the searches for cures of diseases that have been under study for much longer. Side effects, as well as inconsistency, have been the problems. Gastrointestinal procedures, which seem to work, do not offer a practical solution.

For too long, the food industry has wanted to blame obesity on parallel decreases in human exercise. Studies done at Aberdeen University in the United Kingdom by Professor John Speakman indicate that physical activity has not changed during the past 25 years that witnessed gains in human weight. He contends that while calories burned daily has held steady near an average of 1,380, average calorie intake has increased by at least a third to an average of 3,500 per day.

“The idea that small changes in lifestyle are enough to offset obesity is wrong,” he says. “In fact, enormous changes in energy balance are needed and that can only realistically be achieved through changes in diet.”

Grain-based foods is aware of how ominous “changes in diet” can be, as witness the dramatic consumption drop at the turn of the century with the popularity of the anti-carbohydrate dieting pressed by the late Dr. Robert Atkins. That episode should convince all of grain-based foods that it must ward off in every possible way a similar affront, from whatever quarter. Especially worrying in the current situation is the eagerness of governments to intervene in order to improve public health. It would be a genuine horror for the industry and its products to become the centerpiece of public opprobrium that could have been prevented by foresight and clear-headed thinking about what needs doing.