In what must count as a spectacularly ill-judged public relations exercise by the potato chip industry, the European Snack Association suggested that a 30g bag of chips was as nutritious as an apple (if you ignore all that pesky fat).
“Chips… are also a rich source of dietary fibre, provide some important vitamins and minerals….Many people believe that chips are unhealthy because they are processed and contain high fat and sodium (salt). Despite their salty taste, chips contain less salt per gram than bread and many popular breakfast cereals. Frequently an apple is perceived as being healthier alternative because it is natural, unprocessed and rich in vitamins and minerals. In the table below a comparison is made between the nutrient content of a 30g bag of chips and an apple. As you can see the bag of chips provides from twice to thirty times as much of all the vitamins and minerals, three times as much energy, more fibre and complex carbohydrate. So how do you define a healthier food – one that is nutritionally inferior?”
The problem is that this message was apparently aimed at children in Britain, through nutritional teaching packs sent to schools. It was caught by The Children’s Food Campaign, which released a report – “Through the Backdoor” – on how the food industry in Britain was engaged in a dodgy educational campaign that looked a lot more like a blatant marketing blitz (soft drinks contained “gooditives” rather than additives, and one company encouraged kids to write poems in praise of its sugary, purple drink “Vimto” for National Poetry Day – “schlurple the purple” being more exhortation than lyric). The group complained that the messages in these advertorials would not past regulatory muster on television or in print. As the Children’s Food Campaign press release notes:
“We were flabbergasted by some of the claims in these packs,” said Campaign Coordinator Richard Watts. “We found nutrition lesson plans about the benefits of eating crisps, claiming that colourings in fizzy drinks were to restore the fruit’s natural colour, and telling children to only eat fruit and vegetables in moderation. Promoting junk food in the classroom under the guise of education is unacceptable.”
The idea that children should eat vegetables in moderation and replace them with snacks enhanced with “gooditives” was manna from heaven to the British press – “Firms ‘peddling junk food propaganda’ in our schools, report finds,” proclaimed the Daily Mail; but it also fed the fury of government, which warned that it might ban high fat processed foods as part of a new health campaign promoting a “lifestyle revolution for every family.”
According to the most recent British government statistics, 14.3 percent of school children were overweight and 18.3 percent were obese.
Health Minister Ben Bradshaw told BBC Radio 4’s leading news radio program Today that action was needed because “if we don’t do anything, on current projections, nine out of 10 of today’s children will be obese when they are adults.” So staggering was the statistic that the Today show anchor asked the minister to repeat it, which he did, thereby driving home the scale of the problem with measurement. After all, if you can’t measure a problem, how can you fix it?
The statistic also shows up in a major advertising campaign created by M&C Saatchi and the Oscar-winning creators of Wallace and Gromit, Aardman Animations. (Note that the ad doesn’t mention the word obese or obesity.)
But the projection is as spurious as the claims about “gooditives.” It’s based on an assumption that the increases seen in obesity in the past will continue at a constant rate in the future, independent of any other factors, such as genetics or diet or lifestyle habits. And that, frankly, is a bit hard to swallow.
The British government appears to be following research published in the U.S. in the July 2008 issue of the journal Obesity: namely, that almost nine out of every ten Americans will be overweight or obese by 2030. But in order for this projection to be realized one would have to accept that some people are not genetically disposed to be thin, that most people will not engage in sport or exercise or manual labor of any kind and that at the same time most people will eat significantly more than their calorific requirements on a regular basis.
The absurdity of this projection is that eventually, if current rates of increase continue, everyone will be obese.