Mopping Up the Junk Food Mess

A Form of Nutritional Pollution

In many cities, it is the fast food joints that are working the current, hauling in throngs of passing students and locals who are eating on the hoof. As compelling as the lure of the city is, moving here exposes us to an environment where pollution seeps into every crevice of our existence: fumes; smells; litter; occasional effluent; excessive light; brain-jarring noise; heat build-up. 

©Roger de la Harpe
Along Victoria Road in Camps Bay. Cape Town

All of these fit into the dictionary definition of ‘pollution’, the act of dumping harmful substances into the soil, air or water in a way that damages living creatures or the healthy functioning of the environment. Our cities make us fat and sick, and junk food is so much a part of the problem.

But what if we started seeing it as a form of nutritional pollution, and applied the environmental principle of ‘the polluter pays’ to deal with the mop-up operation as our urban population slumps under the burden of obesity and its conjoined conditions of diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers associated with being too heavy?

City Life Changing the Way We Eat

The industrial food system and the predatory nature of the fast food industry are contributing to our deteriorating relationship with food and subsequent health problems. City life changes the way we eat and move, and not always for the better. Generally, we ditch the frumpy old provincial foods we grew up on, and fall for the seductive taste of highly processed, less diverse, low-fibre foods.

This nutritional transition is occurring across the developing world’s cities as people abandon traditional diets for food that is quick to get hold of (no more hours of slaving over the stove), tasty (packed with sugars, fats and salts that tickle the pleasure centre in the brain) and cheap (factory production lines bring down the cost).

Combined with the fact that urban sprawl pushes us off our feet and into cars, buses and trains, we are seeing obesity rates skyrocketing in urban African populations.

Obesity is Increasing Exponentially

©Marinda Louw

Around the world, populations have been getting heavier since the 1970s. And while the estimated 1.7 billion overweight or obese people are still concentrated in rich countries, ‘overweight and obesity have been increasing exponentially in several regions of the developing world, particularly Latin America and the Caribbean and North Africa’, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

In South Africa, for instance, just over half of all people who are fifteen years or older are overweight or obese. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that deaths associated with rising lifestyle-related diseases will ‘almost equal’ the combined deaths caused by communicable, maternal, perinatal and nutritional diseases in Africa by 2020. Until now, obesity was seen as the problem of the individual. If you are fat, it is because you are weak-willed.

But, as The Lancet points out in its 2011 special report on obesity, our ballooning weight is the result of a ‘normal response by normal people to an abnormal environment’. Modern city life makes it too easy to make bad food-lifestyle choices, and too hard to make good ones, to paraphrase the recent report of the United Kingdom’s House of Lords on the issue.

Government Left to Clean Up

The global food industry has tailored its recipes to target the reward centres in our brains and is raking in the profits of our resulting addiction to junk food. And government healthcare systems are left mopping up the damage as they fork out to treat rising numbers of diabetics and heart disease patients.

In terms of how we deal with the burgeoning obesity rates, The Lancet claims that it is too much to leave it to individuals to fix themselves, and that food companies have been left to self-regulate for too long, without much effect. What if we started looking at the continent’s growing obesity problem in the way we view pollution, and apply the environmental principle of the polluter pays? You spill it, you pay to clean it up.

Sin Tax on Fast Foods

The problem, though, is that with food, you cannot necessarily show direct cause and effect: this burger chain contributed to Person X running up a bill of Y amount on insulin shots or hypertensive drugs. Maybe the answer is a sin tax on fast foods that gets ring-fenced by the Receiver of Revenue to prop up a country’s healthcare budget.

Sure, a sin tax would still come out of the public’s pocket, but there would be some choice involved. A tax like this would also push up the price of fast foods, which might make healthier foods a bit cheaper by comparison. Food companies should be required to put healthier food options on their menus, decrease the use of fats and sugars, and write up the nutritional contents of their products on the packaging.

They should also be made to ease off on pushing their products to children and adolescents. Either way, the food industry’s joyride on the back of neoliberalism needs to have the brakes applied.

By Leonie Joubert