Blog 07.02.19

Big Food Faces its Big Tobacco Moment in the Face of Syndemic

#SugarHate threatens Tony the Tiger with extinction

Big Food is confronting its Big Tobacco moment as we face the emerging global syndemic of obesity, undernutrition and climate change. 

A syndemic – a synergy of epidemics – creates major problems for us when the combined negativity is multiplied. Experts expect the effects of climate change to compound the impacts of obesity and undernutrition.

And when we see such horror before us with no obvious escape route, human nature dictates we must find someone to blame. Drag in the global food industry. It’s long overdue for a beating for feeding us a little too much over the past decades – all those delicious dehydrated mac ‘n cheese, fatty biscuits, zingy pesto sauces and microwave meals.  

If you have ever had the misfortune of eating a holier-than-thou breakfast cereal from the health food store you’ll have an acute understanding of the predicament now facing the processed food industry.

When the salt, sugar and fat is removed from packaged foodstuffs, the result is a tasteless offering that most dogs would avoid. What can the industry do to change things before the politicians legislate a bland, umami-free world?  The laws are most definitely coming. The UK’s Labour Party’s anti-obesity proposals include the banning of cartoon characters, such as Coco the Monkey and Tony the Tiger, to prevent kids being tempted by sugary cereals. The Lancet commission – which has warned of the impending global syndemic – wants a global treaty which would commit countries to combat malnutrition and obesity. The treaty is modelled on the UN convention on, you guessed it, tobacco.

Learning from Big Tobacco

Maybe the food industry can learn from Big Tobacco and its long-term survival plan. Its strategy is called “reduced harm” and the logic behind it is sound. It goes something like this. We know we lied to you for decades about the dangers of our products but now we admit that smoking is terribly bad for you. Forgive us for our past sins, for we are only human.

Humans desire stimulants and we know that people just love nicotine. What’s more, we feel it would be better for all those nicotine cravings to be met by a legitimate, regulated, taxable business such as ours. After all, no one wants it to go underground, like the untaxable dope and cocaine industry with its children on corners, knives and spilled blood on the streets.

Big Tobacco’s big plan is to deliver nicotine with dramatically less risk of harm. Vaping is one option but die-hard smokers find it unsatisfying. It lacks that wonderful feeling of hot smoke hitting the back of the throat. That’s why “heat-not-burn” cigarettes have been invented where the tobacco is warmed sufficiently to give you that hit but without the hundreds of toxins produced when the leaf combusts.

The tobacco industry is spending big on getting the medical profession and health ministers behind this argument. You can see it working in Europe with vaping getting official blessing. Japan and other countries are happy for “heat-not-burn” cigarettes to be marketed. And it looks like Big Tobacco is finally coming in from the cold with the boisterous presence of André Calantzopoulos, chief executive of Philip Morris International, networking furiously at Davos this year.

Reduced harm food

Is “reduced harm” a way forward for processed food?  It sounds ridiculous to be talking about food in terms of harm but maybe this is what the processed food industry needs to admit.  Once it has accepted that many of its products are bad for us if consumed as staples, it can reposition itself in the market before the politicians issue the death warrant. Let’s face it, much of the over-processed food hawked by the industry would sit comfortably with confectionary in the “treats” aisle.   

With the help of Big Food maybe we can return to the days when sweet cereals were consumed at weekends – as a treat – and the over-salted ready meals are eaten when time is genuinely short, not because we are simply so hopeless at cooking fresh food.

This scenario depends on consumers reconnecting with their food and treating it as a celebration rather than a zingy fuel. A major re-positioning of Big Food would certainly threaten profits in the short term.  But those could be reconstituted quickly if it used science, the brilliance of its food technologists and creativity of its marketers to help us eat well without lumbering our societies with ruinous healthcare costs. In other words, by positioning itself as promoters of reduced harm eating.

This change could certainly help us see off the impending syndemic.  And we could save Tony the Tiger for the (weekend) breakfast table.



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