More on the Toxic Food Environment

Harvard University

Harvard University’s School of Public Health has definite ideas about what it calls the toxic food environment in the United States, and it sees food marketing as one of the major problem areas. A huge amount of money is spent each year by corporate interests to convince children and teenagers to buy, or nag their parents to buy, junk. This includes fast food, breakfast cereal made of sugar and air with very little nutritional value, and, of course, the old standby, sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs).

They use cartoon characters, interactive websites, contests and promotions, toy giveaways, and whatever other ideas their mercenary minds can concoct, to rope kids into their universe of empty calories and harmful additives. This Harvard-generated report says:

Food marketers are increasingly using sophisticated digital marketing techniques to target youth across a host of platforms, including cell phones, video games, social media, and immersive ‘virtual worlds,’ prompting public health advocates to call for stronger government regulation and industry self-regulation.

The minute they are suppressed, either by rules or shame, in one area of self-promotion, the relentless quest for dollars pops up in another guise. The pledge to self-regulate is so seldom observed as to be a joke. Along with the millions spent on seductive advertising, more millions go to lobbyists who fill the ears of legislators with nonsense and meaningless promises. The corporations manipulate prices for the sake of their own agenda. For instance:

In the past 30 years, the price of fruit and vegetables rose much faster than the prices of all other consumer goods in the U.S. At the same time, the price of sugar, sweets, and carbonated drinks declined relative to other products, and people began consuming more sugar and other sweeteners, reaching 151 pounds of caloric sweeteners every year per person by 1999. In recent years, per capita sweetener consumption has declined to 142 pounds per year, still significantly higher than the 123 pounds consumed in 1966.

Just to make sure that is very clear, the average American accounts for more than 140 pounds of sweetener per year. That is a huge amount, and the dropping of prices for junk food definitely leads young people to buy and consume more of it. This is not a guess, or what is called anecdotal evidence, but has been scientifically proven. The Harvard researchers are hesitant to blame government price supports and other ways of manipulating the market, saying:

Some researchers have argued that subsidies to corn growers have led to an oversupply of cheap high-fructose corn syrup, which drives higher sweetener consumption. Economic evaluations of this argument have found that direct subsidies currently play a limited role in lowering sweetener prices, although their historical impact on development of the sweetener market may be more important.

In places where extra taxes are added to soft drink purchases, that action has been found to slightly lower the BMI statistics of kids in the area. The current thinking is that if a penny-per-ounce tax on SSBs were to be implemented nationwide, consumption would be reduced by 24%.

Of course, social networks come in for their share of blame. Apparently, having an overweight friend can increase the likelihood of a child or teenager developing a weight problem. On top of that, fewer people are able to recognize their own overweight condition, but have more of a tendency to think of themselves as “about right” than in the past. In other words, chubby is becoming the new normal.

The toxic food environment, say the Harvard experts, is a “complex problem that needs a multifaceted fix.” The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has delineated some facets of this fix, including:

[…] taxing unhealthful foods and drinks, curbing junk food marketing to all groups (not just children), and realigning agricultural subsidies with health.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Toxic Food Environment,” Harvard.edu
Image by Moe Homayounieh.

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