The men who made us thin. Part 4.
- Peretti, Jacques.
About this work
Jacques Peretti investigates the rise of the diet industry. In the fourth of four programmes, Peretti asks why the world's population continues to get fatter, despite the fact that billions are spent on weight loss every year. He begins by investigating one of the more extreme weight loss methods – the K.E. Diet – invented in 2006 by Italian doctor Gianfranco Cappello. The ten-day diet replaces solid food with liquid protein, delivered via a nasal feeding tube. Peretti signs up for a demonstration of the £350 treatment. It is performed by Ray Shidrawi, a Harley Street clinician who considers it a safe, relatively non-invasive means of dieting for those who have failed using other methods. Flabbergasted at the lengths some people will go to lose weight, Peretti removes the tube as soon as he leaves the clinic. With so many weight loss ‘solutions’ having poor long term success rates, people are prepared to listen to anyone claiming to have the answer. Peretti travels to Zurich to meet Kevin Trudeau, author of bestselling diet book ‘The weight loss cure ‘they’ don’t want you to know about’. Trudeau, a marketeer with no medical background, presents himself as an outsider battling against the system. Based on a discredited 1960s diet, the book has made an estimated $5 million. Trudeau defends his product, blaming the medical establishment’s disapproval on their desire to profit from bariatric surgery and pharmaceuticals. New markets for the weight loss industry are emerging in the developing world. Peretti visits São Paulo, Brazil, where he observes a stomach reducing procedure performed by Dr. Almino Ramos. Brazil is second only to America in the number of bariatric surgeries it performs annually. The increase in demand is due to an influx of fast food. Western food is reaching even the most rural areas, aided by Nestlé which delivers its products by boat to remote communities. Carlos Monteiro, Professor of Global Health at São Paulo University, condemns the strategy as irresponsible. Professor Boyd Swinburn believes the blame for the global obesity crisis lies with the food environment rather than the individual. Aware of this critique, the food industry has responded with diet products. In 2006 Coca-Cola and Nestlé launched Enviga, a ‘miracle calorie burning drink’ containing caffeine. But scientists, including Margo Wootan of The Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, disputed the product’s claims. The CSPI threatened to sue over lack of evidence; 27 US states then successfully pursued joint action against the drink. Carlotta Mast, food industry analyst, PepsiCo’s takeover of traditionally healthy brands including Quaker Oats. Mike Lean, Professor of Nutrition at Glasgow University, points out that products launched since the takeover are somewhat less healthy. Oat So Simple, for example, is 25% sugar. Peretti returns to America to investigate the parallels between food companies and the tobacco industry. A confidential memo from cigarette giant Philip Morris warned that food companies may ultimately be held accountable for obesity, just as tobacco companies were blamed for lung cancer. Professor Kelly Brownell cites examples of food industry behaviour which mirrors that of the tobacco industry. Food companies are beginning to attract attention from the same grassroots lobbyists that campaigned against smoking. Gavin Partington of the British Soft Drinks Association doesn’t accept the analogy. Unlike tobacco, he claims, food and drink is not inherently dangerous. Jean Paul Gaillard, former CEO of Nestle, agrees that the issues facing the food industry today are comparable to those faced by the tobacco industry 30 years ago. Pressure for change is building in America. In Richmond, California, Jeff Ritterman campaigned for a tax equivalent to 8p per can of soft drinks sold in the city. The soda industry fought back, cunningly transforming the issue into a political one. On the back of huge industry funded PR campaigns, soda taxes have now been defeated in more than 20 states. New York’s Mayor Bloomberg took a different strategy, attempting to ban soda servings larger than 16 ounces. Although the case was thrown out of court before coming into effect, Wootan remains optimistic that change is imminent. Echoing the views of the food industry, Partington criticises taxation as ‘regressive’, claiming that wider societal changes are necessary for tackling obesity. Acknowledging the difficulties of long-term weight loss, Swinburn wants to focus on the next generation. Peretti travels to Birmingham, when 29% of adults are obese. He visits a primary school which rewards children to eat healthily. The results are incontrovertible; vegetable consumption has risen by 163%, although the jury is still out on long term outcomes. The scheme is called Food Dudes, the brainchild of psychologist Fergus Lowe. Lowe uses the food industry’s tactics, branding and rewards, to encourage healthy eating. But the wider challenge will be tackling the external food environment. A report put together by the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges recommended a series of governmental interventions, including a tax on soft drinks. Cardiologist Aseem Malhotra tells Peretti that as of yet, none of the suggestions have been taken up. Malhotra believes there are corporate interests at stake, implying that the present government cares more about profits than the health of the population.