How the Junk Food Industry Preys on the Young in Emerging Markets

Yves here. This article presents a vignette on how Big Corporations, in this case, major beverage and food companies, will use any route possible to advance their profits, irrespective of the consequences to the broader community. We featured a case study of a far more sophisticated version of this strategy in a recent post, in which health care industry providers used planned obsolescence and no-real-value-added-but-nevertheless-hugely-costly “upgrades” to what would otherwise be mature products to fatten their wallets.

Notice than in emerging markets, where foreign multinationals are not powerful incumbents, the tactics come off as heavy-handed caricatures of approaches that have been successful in the US, namely, attempting to muddy the science and using astroturf groups as mouthpiece.

By Sunita Narain, the Director of Centre for Science and Environment. Cross posted from its website

“There is nothing called junk food. The problem with obesity lies with children who do not exercise enough. What is needed is for them to run and jump, and to do this they need to consume high-calorie food. So, food high in salt, sugar and fat is good for them.” This is what was argued vehemently and rudely by representatives of the food industry in the committee, set up under directions from the Delhi High Court to frame guidelines for junk food in the country.

On the face of it there was no one from the junk food industry in the committee. In the early meetings, we only knew that there were members of two associations who were representing the food industry in the committee. But as discussions got under way, it became clear that the big junk food industry was present in the meeting. We learnt that the member representing the National Restaurant Association of India was a top official from Coca-Cola—the world’s most powerful beverage company that is at the centre of the junk food debate globally. The other grouping, All India Food Processors Association, was represented by Swiss food giant Nestle, which has commercial interest in instant noodles and other junk food.

The other members of the committee were eminent paediatricians, nutritionists and public health specialists. The committee had been set up because of a case filed in 2010 by Delhi-based NGO Uday Foundation, which asked for a ban on junk food in schools and in their vicinity. In September 2013, the High Court ordered the government to set up a committee to frame guidelines for food as the “ill effects of eating junk food have been documented by public health experts and also paediatricians”.

The first move by the junk food industry was to block the setting up of the committee itself. But the court rejected this. The industry then changed tactics to argue that the problem was not junk food but lack of physical activity.

For the rest of us in the committee the issues were: what makes food junk; why is it bad for our health; and what is being done to regulate junk food in other parts of the world? A working group was set up to frame the guidelines to present to the expert committee, which in turn would then report to the court.

The Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition has defined junk food as food that contains little or no protein, vitamin or minerals but is rich in salt, fat and energy. There is also robust evidence of the linkage between consumption of this food and non-communicable diseases like diabetes, hypertension and heart diseases. Childhood obesity has become the most serious health concern; even in our part of the world were malnutrition is a big concern. Study after study points to high-calorie intake because of unrestricted access to energy-dense fast food in school canteens and neighbourhoods. While exercise is vital, it is not a substitute for a balanced diet.

World over governments are acting to tax junk food, ban it in schools and restrict its advertisement. All this is adding up to high-profile campaigns, where celebrities shun endorsement of this food and push for healthier options. In the US, first lady Michelle Obama has taken on the mantle to campaign against junk food.

The question before the working group was not whether action was needed, but how to address these concerns. The first step was to build the criteria to define and identify junk food—how much of sugar or fat or salt in food is unhealthy. Based on this, a list was prepared of the most common junk food that would need to be regulated. It included chips and other fried packaged food; carbonated beverages; instant noodles; and confectionery.

The working group was unanimous in its position: children are not the best judge of their food and are aggressively targeted by ads and seduced by celebrities. Moreover, schools are the right place to learn right values about nutrition. We, therefore, recommended a ban on junk food in and around schools, and also a canteen policy that foods categorised as green (healthy) would constitute over 80 per cent of the choices available. We said that non-standardised junk food, like samosa, would be available sparingly in the canteens. There would be efforts to “green” this food through better ingredients and cooking mediums. This food was categorised as orange. Red category food—common junk food—would not be available at all.

But all this would not work unless people are informed about what they are eating. To do this, labeling on food should specify how much fat, sugar or salt it contained in relation to their daily diet. The working group also recommended strongly against celebrity endorsement.

But this was clearly unacceptable to big business. They struck back. By now they could not argue that nothing should be done. The health evidence was overwhelming. Their position was that instead of banning such food, children should be asked to “eat responsibly”. But they could not explain what eating responsibly meant. The final report of the committee has two positions: the industry says the availability of junk food should be restricted or limited in and around schools; the rest say junk food should be banned. Now the report is with the High Court for it to take a decision. Wait and watch this space for more. This is business not to be left to business to decide.

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  1. Jim Haygood

    Sales of Caca-Cola are declining, in the U.S. and worldwide:

    Coca-Cola sold less soda globally through the first three months of 2014 than it did a year earlier. It’s the first time that’s happened since 1999—or, in other words, in roughly 60 quarters. Coke’s soda pop sales dipped by 1% in the US. The company’s soda sales also dipped in Europe, as well as in Mexico, where a newly minted soda tax has made them a good deal more expensive.

    The fall in Mexico is particularly disconcerting to Coca-Cola. Mexico’s new soda levy tacks on an extra peso ($.08) per liter to all soft drink sales in the country. The move is meant to help address the country’s obesity epidemic—over 70% of Mexico’s population is now overweight.


    And the company’s response? According to recent articles, ‘more marketing,’ such as celebrity endorsement by teen-rock idol Taylor Swift.

    Coke’s head-in-the-sand response is reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s strategy in the 1950s, responding to early health concerns by running ads of doctors smoking Winstons.

    Maybe they should just admit that fizzy sugar water ain’t good for ya. Absent that unlikely event, Mexico’s approach of taxing their products is a decent fallback.

  2. washunate

    It’s interesting reading about corporate sales tactics when everything they are doing is not just legal, but encouraged by our government. This is what our political leaders want our society to look like (and ideally, other countries, too). The authoritarians desire a state where the masses are systematically influenced and controlled.

    Putting vending machines, advertisements, and outsourced food preparation in schools has been one of the defining visions of the Democratic Party for public education in the US. This is what programs like NCLB and RTTP are all about – unfunded mandates to squeeze public schools ever tighter financially while distracting them from focusing on what is actually best for student achievement (like plentiful healthy food, rest, and a stable home life).

    Plus subsidies to agribusiness, IP law that’s out of control, overwork that causes stress and reduces time to cook, the drug war that wrecks families in lower-income school districts…

    Coca-Cola isn’t some black sheep. They are advocating the Democratic Party vision of Truth, Justice, and The American Way.

    1. Fair Economist

      Coca-cola actually contributes more to Republicans, although only a little. They’re certainly not affiliated with the Democrats.

      1. hunkerdown

        Your theory is therefore that Coca-Cola can only influence the GOP, or that this is a significantly different vision of popular life than The Other Party has? Hmmmmmmm…

      2. washunate

        That’s the question that is interesting to ponder here in early 21st century America.

        Why don’t the Democrats act notably different from the Republicans?

  3. Fair Economist

    So 7-year-old elementary school children are supposed to make “informed nutritional decisions”? They should be laughed out of court for that one.

  4. Chris S.

    I hope people are aware that many of processed food products contain “obesogens” such as bisphenol A (in some food packaging and can liners). Many obesogens are endocrine disruptors and cause morbid obesity in a dose response relationship.

  5. Lambert Strether

    One thing I’ve noticed in Bangkok: More obese people, including children, especially in the middle class — as, I’d argue, US-style food-like products and fast food chains penetrate the Thai market. Although the obesity hasn’t reached US levels, it is now not out of the ordinary in Bangkok. Even four years ago, on my first visit, it would have been.

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