Changing junk food policies may slow obesity epidemic

By Samara Abramson

Flickr/Chrissy Marie

Picture this: 11 of the most powerful CEOs of America’s largest food companies, including Nestlé, Kraft, General Mills and Mars, sitting in the auditorium of Pillsbury’s headquarters discussing the prevalence of obesity in the United States and what they can do about it.

An article in Wednesday’s The New York Times, entitled, “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” discusses the connection between the addictive aspects of junk food and high obesity rates in the United States.

From personal experience, I have always believed that junk food is addictive. The article contains an excellent graphic that demonstrates the dependence. With the image of a Doritos chip in the background, the text represents a fictitious scientific equation, which includes salt, fat, the satisfying crunch and a pleasing mouth feel. All of these features are supposed to create “A Food Designed to Addict.”

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recognized that salt has addictive qualities, which proves the possibility that junk food can be addicting. In May 2010, the FDA talked about limiting the amount of sodium allowed in processed foods in an effort to prevent heart disease and hypertension, according to an article in The Washington Post.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2009 to 2010, 35.7 percent of U.S. adults were obese. The CDC also presents trends in obesity in the United States. For instance, its one CDC report says, “Among black and Mexican-American men, those with higher incomes are more likely to be obese than those with lower incomes.” Women with higher incomes are  less likely to be obese than those with lower incomes.

I can speculate that this is the case because of the high prices of healthy, organic food. Step inside your local Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s and the prices skyrocket compared to those at Stop & Shop, especially when comparing organic or non-GMO granola bars to the chemically processed ones.

The FDA, World Health Organization and The Non-GMO Project have researched genetically engineered foods, or GMO’s, which constitute key ingredients in junk food. Although many of these studies have proven theories about the detrimental effects of consuming GMO’s, there is enough research to suggest that it is safer to eat naturally and organically. Unfortunately, more nutritious food is more expensive and therefore reserved for those of higher economic status.

Another trend coinciding with economic status is the fact that women with college degrees are less likely to be obese than those without college degrees. This relates to  economic status, again, because one reason why some people do not attend college is because they cannot afford the cost of tuition. This may suggest that universities are helping to create good eating habits and teaching students about the importance of nutrition.

On the other hand, it also suggests that everyday marketing publicizes and encourages unhealthy eating habits. Turn on any television channel and wait for the commercial break. What you will see are bouts of subliminal messaging convincing American society, and especially American youth, of the charms of processed snacks.

At the meeting in the Pillsbury auditorium, a slideshow portrayed the current dismal facts linking obesity to junk food. According to The New York Times article, more than half of all American adults are now considered overweight. Nearly 25 percent of the adult population (40 million people) is clinically defined as obese. Food manufacturers, such as the ones at this meeting, are being blamed for what the secretary of agriculture calls a “national epidemic.”

Michael Mudd, the vice president of Kraft, presented a comparison the inconceivable to any food manufacturer: He drew a parallel to the tobacco industry. If these CEO’s didn’t see it before, or maybe if they didn’t want to see it before, how could they not grasp the correlation now? The tobacco industry was criticized for years for essentially murdering the population of the U.S. until 1970, when Congress passed the Public Health Smoking Act, which banned cigarette advertisements on television and radio. Additionally, as tobacco prices go up, tobacco consumption decreases nationally. According to CDC, from 1965 to 2009, cigarette smoking has decreased.

What can we learn from this? Raise the prices of junk food, ban advertisements for junk food on television and radio and watch the numbers decline.

Samara Abramson is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]