Terry Maguire chews the fat on the powers behind the obesity epidemic

UK PM Boris Johnson contracted Covid-19 back in March and suffered significant symptoms, was admitted to hospital and ended up on oxygen. He took many weeks to get back into the public eye and has had something of a Pauline Conversion about this pesky virus, which he initially dismissed with his usual bluster. He is now working hard, mostly against his conservative instincts, to ensure that the damage from the virus, both on lives and livelihoods, is mitigated as best as possible. One of the areas he and his government are targeting is obesity. The clear correlation between Covid-19 severity and obesity has been noted since April. Now the UK has launched an obesity strategy which is needed more urgently than ever.

Boris is, I feel, genuine but his obesity strategy will amount to nothing because of vested interest. There will be a lack of political will to resolve this complex social problem and those responsible will just pretend to be doing something with bits of services here and there and a naive hope the public won’t notice that nothing is being achieved.

The solution to the UK obesity pandemic is simple: (1) Eliminate simple sugars from processed foods, and (2) reduce by 80 per cent fast-food outlets. We eat too many calories and we eat too many calories from simple sugars. After Boris has done his bit, the problem will sadly still be with us. The food business lobby is simply far too powerful. They will say things such as ‘exercise is more important’. It’s calories that are the most important issue and calories from sugar, specifically.

Sugar formed the basis of the confectionary industry started in the mid-19th Century by the famous Quaker families: Fry, Rowntree and Cadburys. And it was a combination of cheap flour and sugar that formed the basis of the cake and biscuit industries. Indeed, sugar is a very flexible and important component in making foods palatable and desirable.

The contribution of the soft drinks industry to the obesity crisis is significant, if not central. The sugars in soft drink products were mainly glucose (from cane sugar) but from the mid-1970s in the US, this changed to fructose (from corn syrup and termed high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)). Scientists in Japan found a way to produce a cheaper HFCS sweetener. This was six times sweeter than cane sugar and was made from corn, which was in surplus supply at the time. HFCS meant that the cost of producing soft drinks could be slashed. Using it in frozen food product protected the products against freezer burn. It is very flexible, providing longevity for products in vending machines, and it conferred a more natural look to biscuit products. America’s obesity problem, where half the population are obese, is primarily due to the wider use of HFCS. In Europe, we have more restrictions on its use but these restrictions will disappear post-Brexit. Soft drinks containing sugar can be consumed easily and in large quantities, as there is less impact on the body’s satiety system compared to solid foods, therefore more calories can be consumed at one sitting.

Marketing and merchandising by the soft drinks industry has always been innovative and set international standards. The drinks and vending machines in US and British schools, both junior and higher, were nothing short of a national scandal. Vending machines have been taken out of primary schools but the change in secondary schools has been slower to happen.

In the UK between 1984 and 1993, the number of fast food outlets doubled at the same time as the prevalence of obesity doubled. Obesity is much less prevalent in Spain and Italy, where spending on fast food is relatively low. The fast food industry’s success is based on a commitment to business principles; quality, efficiency, uniformity and marketing. This pursuit has produced successful global brands such as McDonald’s Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Marketing is core to the success of fast food brands and this was the first industry to apply marketing techniques directed at children.

Processed foods, the staple for the fast food industry, are given their proper taste by a ‘flavourist’ who will also consider issues such as ‘mouth-feel’, that unique combination of textures and chemical interactions that affects how the flavour is perceived. Mouth-feel is modified by use of fats, gums, starches, emulsifiers and stabilisers. A French fry’s crispness, for example, is determined by sugar content and in the autumn, sugars are added to the potatoes, whereas in spring, sugar is leached out. In this way, the uniformity of taste is maintained throughout the year.

So there you have it; the problem and its solutions. But there will be no appetite to tackle obesity in this way. Exercise is important for not putting on weight, fat does not make people fat; sugar makes people fat and excess calories from sugars are the single most important reason why we have an obesity crisis.

Terry Maguire
Terry Maguire

Terry Maguire owns two pharmacies in Belfast. He is an honorary senior lecturer at the School of Pharmacy, Queen’s University of Belfast. His research interests include the contribution of community pharmacy to improving public health