Overweight and obesity are the most worrying health issues of 21st century and no one knows for sure the real reason(s) behind such startling changes in human anatomy during the last two decades. Though this phenomenon was first noticed among populations in wealthy countries with high per capita income, it is no more true to say that this is a rich man's problem only because in almost all countries the ratio of over weight people to healthy ones is consistently increasing. To imagine that 25-50% of the population in a country can have abnormal body weight and shape is itself scary but this is the bitter truth the world has to face. The adverse economic, health and social consequences of high body mass index (BMI) values are very real which can sap the energy and resources of a country to a great extent.
Over weight and obese population invariably are characterized by lower productivity in works place, higher disease rates and higher medical expenses to treat or prevent fatal consequences. In a country like the US billions of dollars are spent every year for treating obese people which is considered a drain on the public exchequer. The incidence of heart diseases, diabetes, high blood pressure and other life threatening disorders is comparatively high among them reducing the life span and quality of life significantly. Another way of looking at this issue is that such undesirable human health problems have spawned a lot of economic activity with pharma companies and medical communities engaged in treating them! Thus it is hard to decide whether such transformation is part of the modern economic dispensation and one has to live with it! What a paradox indeed!
As for food scientists, some blame has to be born by them because many products innovated by them ignore their health impact on the consumers while the industry, which mass produce them indiscriminately and promote them through high pressure advertisements, commercialism and often false claims, will have to take a major portion of the blame squarely on their shoulders. The so called junk foods loaded with empty calories are the staple among low income consumers because they are priced low to make them attractive. It is also a paradox that healthy foods like fresh foods, vegetables and similar ones are priced sky high making them beyond their reach.
In the evolution of food industry, new technologies and high capacity equipment to manufacture newer products continuously have progressively enabled them to reduce the cost of processing and increase its capacity and capability to cater precisely to the palates of the consumers. High fat foods and those containing high sugar levels are invariably tasty and often addictive enough to capture more and more consumers almost on a permanent basis. This has made the industry less and less careful in marketing healthy foods. The profitability of the industry is also very high when it comes to making junk foods. Consumers have witnessed the endless charade among health experts regarding the real culprit for the damage to human health and among the health food makers making tall claims regarding their offerings like low calorie foods, low fat foods, low sodium foods etc. Health supplements containing many ingredients with doubtful and unproven benefits are flooding the market with no one certain about their credentials and credibility.
There are hundreds of treatise regarding the addictive attributes of sugar whether it is sucrose, glucose or HFCS. This has spawned an entire industry offering low calorie foods and low sugar products playing upon the fears of the consumer. If people are developing tendency to over eat, sugar has been implicated while some believed it is a disease. Now comes the report that it is not sugar to which people are addicted as being propagated during the last three decades. The addiction is attributed to eating itself rather than to any particular ingredient. It is believed with some scientific certainty that only the psychological compulsion to eat due to the pleasure and satisfaction it generates when eating food is responsible for this phenomenon. Over-eating is more a behavioral disorder and is similar to the compulsion with gamblers to back to the slotting machines and the card tables again and again in spite of losing heavily.
If the above findings are true, where lies the solution for tackling the obesity epidemic? Can industry be really blamed for making products with high palatability and acceptability since it is their mission to give consumers the very best and win the fierce competition in the market. If they are forced to compromise on the sensory aspects, can they survive in the market?:No matter how bland a food is, compulsive eaters with food addiction will invariably reach for the food when the urge to eat develops. Alcohol products and tobacco items are examples where no amount of policing, control, price escalation and government intervention has worked in the past in any part of the world. What is needed is education, persuasion, treatment of food addicts and industry initiative to improve the nutritional quality of their products with least compromise on sensory aspects.