Calcutta Notebook


National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government has taken strict action against Multinational food giant Nestle for selling Magi noodles containing harmful amounts of lead and other chemicals. It has recently followed this up by filing a "class action" suit before the National Consumer Redressal Forum on behalf of millions of customers that have been served with harmful food over the years. This step is welcome. However, there is an even greater need to address the much bigger problem looming on the horizon. Globally it has been established that consumption of fast foods is leading to obesity. Fast foods contain large amounts of fat and sugars that create craving for more. But they do not contain fiber and minerals that are necessary for good health. A study done for the World Health Organization (WHO) found that increased consumption of fast foods led to people becoming overweight. The body-mass index (BMI) measures the weight of a person in relation to his or her height. BMI above 25 is considered overweight. The study found that the BMI increased from 25.8 to 26.4 in the United States as the average number of fast food consumption increased from 26 to 32 per year. Another study done for the American Society for Nutritional Sciences found that fats and sugars are cheaper than healthy diets based on whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruit. There is a natural tendency among the poor to consume more of fats and sugars because these are cheaper. It was found that the poor have a greater tendency to become overweight because they consume more fast foods and less vegetables.

These problems notwithstanding, there are benefits of fast foods. Time taken to prepare these is a fraction of cooking a meal in the home kitchen. Many families have both parents working. They do not have the leisure of cooking a meal. They can use the time saved for other activities like sports or watching TV. These activities help in family bonding as much as enjoying a home cooked meal. In fact, bonding can be more with fast foods. The mother can sit with the children and play instead of tending the stove in the kitchen. Moreover, cooking is often drudgery.

Fast foods, therefore, liberate homemakers from the drudgery of the kitchen. Famed economist Adam Smith had developed the concept of division of labour. Fast foods have brought this division of labour into the kitchen. Few persons working in a fast food shops produce the food instead of large numbers of mothers cooking in the kitchen. This writer was travelling in Tunisia a few years ago. Young boys were selling bread on the streets. A division of labour had taken place in cooking bread. Fast foods are taking the same process one step forward to the whole meal instead of only the bread. Fast foods also create employment for the unskilled. Unlike a chef, a worker does not have to know when the Pizza is done. The machine tells when it is done. Job of the worker is only to take the pizza out of the oven and put it in a box and handover to the customer. As a result jobs are being created for the unskilled.

The negative of fast food is health, while the positive is availability of cheaper food and removal of drudgery of the kitchen. It is undesirable to ban fast foods given these benefits. The way forward is to manage the negatives. The WHO has suggested three policies to manage these. First policy is to rework the tax regime to make whole grains and fruits and vegetables cheaper and fast foods more expensive. Subsidies may be provided to grow fruit and vegetables. The Government can make a chain of subsidized cold storages dedicated to fruits and vegetables to bring down their price in the market. On the other hand, fast foods can be taxed at a higher rate. Companies producing food with ingredients that are genetically modified, and use excessive amounts of fertilizers, pesticides, chemicals and antibiotics can be subjected to higher rates of taxes. These measures will raise the cost of fast foods and make it economic for families to use more healthy foods. The time spent in cooking will be compensated by economic savings in buying cheaper vegetables.

Second policy suggested by WHO is of tighter regulation of the advertising of fast foods and soft drinks, especially to children. A study in Taiwan found that TV viewing hours and fast-food consumption are correlated. Large number of hours spent watching TV contributes to children's increased risk of being overweight. A study from the United States concluded that ban on advertisements of fast foods would reduce the number of overweight adolescents by 14 percent. A study in Canada found that exposure to fast food symbols not only influences eating habits but also percolates in general behaviour. Such exposure increases preferences for time-saving products, reduces people's willingness to save and leads them to prefer immediate gain over greater future return, ultimately harming their economic interest. The Government should make a law classifying packaged foods in "healthy" and "not healthy" categories. Advertisements for "not healthy" packaged foods should be banned just as advertisements for tobacco and alcohol have been banned.

Third policy suggested by WHO is of more detailed and informative labeling. Consumers often do not know about the negative health consequences of fast foods. The packaged food manufacturers are already required to indicate the ingredients used in making the packaged foods. But no information is provided as to whether the ingredients used are healthy or not healthy. It must be made mandatory for manufacturers to indicate how the ingredients used in the material compare with healthy ingredients. Also, a warning similar to "Smoking is injurious to your health" may be required to be printed on all such packaged foods.

The task ahead is to educate the public about the negative health impacts and exert pressure upon the fast food companies to provide more healthy fast foods. "Fast vegetables with whole grain bread" would be healthy while "Fast pizza" would be unhealthy. The Government, therefore, can launch an advertisement campaign educating the people about the negative health consequences of fast foods. This will encourage fast food manufacturers to provide more healthy alternatives. The sales of McDonalds fell by 23 percent in the first quarter of 2015 as Americans pursued more healthy options according to the US News & World Report. A fast food chain named Chiptole has been growing steadily in the United States while the mainstream chains are going downhill. This chain serves vegetables aplenty. Fast foods are here to stay because they are cheaper and they liberate housewives from drudgery of the kitchen. The task is to push the manufacturers towards providing more healthy alternatives.

Vol. 48, No. 9, Sep 6 - 12, 2015