Obesity is the new smoking - soon governments will be forced to tackle it in the same way

Part of the problem is that we are time-poor and convenience-rich, writes Clodagh Finn. It has never been easier to get ready-to-eat food.

A Mars a week helps you work, rest, and play. It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?

News that the global food company will advise consumers to eat certain products only “occasionally” plays havoc with the jingle that has earned its spot in the advertising slogan Hall of Fame. (Hands up all of you who can still hum the “Mars a day helps you work, rest, and play” tune that brought TV ads to life from 1959 to 1995?) Though – and here’s the unsettling bit — Mars Food isn’t telling us to eat Mars bars or indeed its Snickers bars, M&Ms, or Maltesers occasionally. It is, in fact, admitting that its pasta products and sauces — food we are likely to put on our daily dinner tables — should carry what amounts to a health warning. There’s been a rush to laud the food giant for the move, but I must be missing the point. Doesn’t anybody find it astounding that a food manufacturer is actually warning us about eating its food? You might expect to hear that its confectionery is high in sugar, salt and fat but the fact that Mars is admitting that Dolmio — “When’s your Dolmio day”, indeed? — and other sauces should be eaten, at most, once a week is hair-raising.

How did we end up here, in a world where our daily bread, so to speak, has to come with a label telling us not to eat it too often?

To be fair to Mars, the new labelling does deserve praise, and let’s hope it puts down a marker in the multibillion food and drinks industry.

The bold step also shows how far we have come. And what a difference a few decades have made. It’s fascinating to take a sugar-fuelled skip down memory lane to find that the “Mars a day” slogan was designed to echo an earlier catchphrase that went: “Mars feeds you goodness in three good ways.” Those three good ways explained why Mars was “marvellous for you”. The first one, “milk to build you up”, might still hold sway today. Though definitely not the others. In 1959, “glucose, sugar, and thick, thick chocolate” were heralded as the ideal ingredients “to give you energy”. Today, you’re more likely to be told that they’ll give you Type 2 diabetes.

Incidentally, the 1959 ad also showed what a woman would do with all that extra energy: There’s a picture of her in the kitchen powering her way through a giant stack of dishes.

There’s a little food for thought for anyone yearning for the good old days. And yet they were the good old days when it came to food. Back in the meat and two veg days, processed food was the occasional treat, if that’s the word for it.

For the most part, food was fresh, seasonal, and unprocessed. That combination is now seen as the Holy Grail in the fight against obesity. Food writer Michael Pollen’s advice to “eat [real, unprocessed] food, not too much, mostly plants” more or less sums up what health experts around the world are advising us to do.

We are not obese because we don’t know this. Or because we are greedy. Part of the problem is that we are time-poor and convenience-rich. It has never been easier to get ready-to-eat food. We are bombarded with it. Hounded by it, even.

And little wonder. It’s a huge money-making business. Big food and drinks corporations can afford to invest millions, nay billions, to market their products. Now, they are even targeting young children through online game-playing and video sites.

The next few years will tell a lot because now, as the step taken by Mars shows, food giants have started to recognise that it makes commercial sense to make their products healthier.

In fact, it looks as if we’re going to have a gigantic food fight on our hands: on one side, the health experts lobbying for clearer labelling, lower sugar, salt and fat content and, on the other, the food and drinks industry arguing that a sugar tax is ineffective and that it will mean job losses.

In the decade ahead, the makers of food will face a battle akin to the one faced by the tobacco industry. Obesity is the new smoking and soon governments will be forced to tackle it in the same way they tackled smoking.

That might sound alarmist but there is ample scientific evidence to link too many soft drinks and sugary snacks to the same ailments that afflict smokers — clogged arteries, cancer, heart disease. A sugar tax may or may not be part of the answer. But beware of any arguments raised by those in the food and drinks industry — they have too much to lose to be entirely neutral.

It looks as if calorie counts on menus don’t have much effect on customer behaviour either, according to the most recent studies, but it makes sense to look at any and all possibilities.

Nobody wants a nanny state or a world where you can’t have a little bit of what you fancy, but the time has come to radically overhaul our attitude to processed food and what manufacturers are obliged to put on their labels.

The other day, I went in search of a relatively healthy soft drink a petrol-station shop. I spotted something with kale in it and thought, now there’s a clean, mean, green (yes, someone’s been buying into the miracle-food fad!) What harm if it tasted like compost-bin juice, not that I’ve ever sampled that. At least, I thought I was being healthy.

Then I checked the sugar content: 35g, or nine teaspoons. That’s almost the same as a can of Coke. To be fair, that sugar was from fruit and veg rather than the more dangerous ‘free’ or added sugar, but all the same.

Yes, let the great food fight begin.

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