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In the Public Interest

The Fast Food Legacy
By Ralph Nader
June 6, 2002

Dr. Roberto J. Gonzalez, an anthropologist who teaches at San Jose State University, recently completed a study entitled "Latino Overweight and Obesity: Marketing Disease to Minorities." Among his findings are that "Immigrants once came to the U.S. and watched their children grow taller and stronger. Today many come and watch their children grow fatter and weaker." One of his explanations is that immigrants' children adopt diets laden with fats and sugars and a more sedentary life.

U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, in announcing, before he left office, a national action plan for reducing the prevalence of overweight and obesity, noted the acceleration of this major indicator of health.

"The prevalence of overweight and obesity has nearly doubled among children and adolescents since 1980," he declared. "It is also increasing in both genders and among all population groups of adults," he added. About 60% of adults are either overweight or obese a trend toward the ballooning of America that the relentlessly advertising fast fat and sugar food industry can take some credit for. Children learn fast food logos before they reach 24 months or so.

McDonald's motto, "It's a child's world," (to get youngsters to nag their parents) denotes a world where overweight and obesity, in Dr. Satcher's longer-term diagnosis "substantially raise the risk of illness from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke, gallbladder disease, arthritis, sleep disturbances and problems breathing, and certain types of cancers. On average, higher body weights are associated with higher death rates.

In over thirty five years of advancing consumer interests toward food safety and nutrition, I can sense as high an interest level by eaters in matters of food and what corporate processors are doing to it as ever before. A book on the subject FAST FOOD NATION has been a bestseller for months. There are calls for greater vigilance by the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and their state counterparts. There are mobilizations against filthy food processing conditions, against irradiation as an incomplete and risky (to workers and consumers) cop-out from traditional sanitation practices, and against the unknown of unlabeled genetically modified crops. Organic fresh food consumption is contrasting with the avalanche of supersize fat and fatty meals whose ads and cartoon characters seduce youngsters into a lethal diet immersion. These meals, Gonzales says, "begin to resemble addictive substances."

Corporate fast, fatty foods are replacing traditional diets all over the world and giant fast food franchises are spreading their web of low-grade sensuality into one country after another. The results are remarkably similar, no matter what the culture, because consumers' sensory points of contacts are the same almost everywhere.

A new World Health Organization (WHO) study reports that there is an emerging global epidemic of obesity among children and junk-foods are its roots. Dr. Gro Brundtland, director general of the WHO, stated that "the real drama is that they are becoming more prevalent in developing communities, where they create a double burden on top of the infectious diseases that always have afflicted poorer countries."

WHO experts want to continue with more education, more exercise, but also are eager to connect with the food companies and persuade them to switch to foods with less fat, sugar or salt. One regular can of Coca-Cola contains over 9 teaspoons of sugar, for example. (Check www.who.int for public comment on proposed WHO healthy-eating guidelines).

Clearly, first and foremost, we need a continual and robust public discussion, debate between the eaters, nutritionists, and the food industry which does not like debate. It is fine to hear Secretary of Education Rod Paige exhort youngsters to turn "off the TV" and go "swimming instead" or eat "nutritious vegetables instead of fatty french fries" or "do whatever, just move your body." But this does not get heavy media coverage repeatedly.

In the Seventies and early Eighties, there were many TV daily talk shows which invited discussion on fast food more than once and helped several millions of people to change their diets. Now with Jerry Springer, Sally Jesse Raphael, Rikki Lake and others, there is not enough room for such programs and guests. Thousands of junk food ads go unrebutted.

Consider the barriers against sane and healthy rebuttals. Talk shows are either not open to such subjects or have long been ended, such as Phil Donahue, Mike Douglas and Merv Griffen shows. The government is not aggressively moving toward a steady public information campaign that shows both the hazards of and the alternatives to fatty, sugary, salty foods. Many schools are too busy showing Channel One, in return for free TV equipment, to millions of youngsters which contain junk food and junk drink ads that make the seductions more likely.

Politicians in elections, saturated with food industry contributions, avoid the subject. And Congress, which used to lead with the likes of Senator George McGovern's famous public hearings on nutrition, is not even bringing up the labeling of genetically engineered foods, desired by 95% of the American people, for fear the food industry lobbyists, which includes Monsanto, Philip Morris and others.

So it is time for intensive conversations between people directly, over the picket fences and the websites, in the schools and on the playing fields. Good exercise does not go well with bad food.