It is becoming widely known that the United States is the most obese country in the world.
Within one generation, the U.S. body mass index (BMI) for the percentage of the population considered clinically overweight or obese has grown from 15% to 55%. Similarly, according to a leading obesity researcher, Dr. Robert Lustig, “over 40% of death certificates now list diabetes as the cause of death, up from 13% twenty years ago.” (Fat Chance, 2013)
This salty, sugary footprint has companies such as PepsiCo, the biggest manufacturer of globally branded processed snack (junk) foods, directly responsible for the treasury of health consequences that has occurred over the last twenty years or so. In fact, it was planned that way.
It is no wonder that PepsiCo stock is up more than 10,000% since 1980. With breathless intensity, the U.S. has embraced processed, branded food products at the expense of real food – often under the mantra of cost savings and convenience – only to realize the true cost is merely expanded upon and shifted onto society sometime in the future after profits are bonused and campaign contributions expended. What’s worse, much of this train wreck of death and disease is due to societal choice and preference – with the current costs rivaling smoking in terms of the devastation caused.
At present, the U.S. is on track to nearly double the severity of these statistics in the next 20 years if nothing changes. It is no wonder that among industrialized countries the U.S. spends more on health care yet ranks last in terms of health outcomes. It’s like healthcare (18% of the U.S. economy) is run by Soviets.
There is a lesson for Cuba in its slow path towards economic integration with the West. The rest of the world enjoys its tasty first bite of Western culture through the media – followed soon thereafter by our processed, branded junk food products. In no place is the urge to influence popular sentiment more enticing than in the third world where rising food cost can be a key ingredient to political unrest. Many developing countries share a special mix of growth (aspirational, transitional population), favorable legal contexts and a weak civil society that make replacing indigenous foods with processed, branded junk food both a rich prospect (private gain) and a political victory; yet what remains out of immediate view is the massive social loss in the form of health consequences that are shifted into the future.
For millennia, humans have strived to make food has been a source of health, medicine and culture. Today, Western food products are too often a pathology and a disease.
Along the Amazon, Nestlé operates river barges that ply the waters of far-away peoples in order to exploit the first opportunity to convert new economic pilgrims fresh out of the bush. The barge is dubbed Nestlé Até Você a Bordo— or Nestlé Takes You Onboard.
Nestlé and other food companies offer special smaller size SKUs (candy bars, yogurt, sugar cereals) suitable for enticing even the poorest people to alter consumption behavior. As such, obesity once associated with city dwellers is now appearing more frequently with people in rural areas who often have no access to health care.
In Cuba, Nestlé already has at least one beachhead. According to media reports, the company is planning a $60 million facility at Cuba’s Mariel Special Development Zone (ZED Mariel) to produce coffee, biscuits, and cooking products. You can be sure that cheap, domestic sugar will make up the bulk of the ingredients, and nutrients important for human health will be non-existant.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that the percentage of obese humans globally has doubled in the past twenty-eight years. The fatal social side-effects are clear: according to the Red Cross, for the first time in history, more people in the world are dying from over-consumption than from starvation.
Sensing a peak in unit growth and a potential for political backlash in Western countries, global branded junk food companies have found a new “metabolic donkey” in the populations of the third world. At play are billions of upwardly-mobile people who are emotionally and psychologically available to bear the burden of fantastic profit growth. After all, who better to exploit than people who equate freedom and upward mobility to novel junk food products adorned with cartoons? And among these billions of emerging consumers, children are the most susceptible to persuasion by Western executives thirsty for the prompt seizure of opportunity.
The roadmap outlined by junk food companies for third world exploitation reveals an affable, whistle-while-you-work attitude to what is nothing more than ever more automagical ways to engorge humanity with pathogenic processed food products. PepsiCo’s public annual reports illustrate Mexico as a major first target of opportunity more than 20 years ago. In fact, PepsiCo mentioned the word “Mexico” 118 times in its 1999 Annual Report. By comparison, the King James Bible uses the word “worship” 120 times.
With the stealthiness and precision of modern aerial drones, the Western marketing machines employed aggressive visual campaigns in Mexican schools and civic events unhindered by cultural or legal boundaries. Researcher Luis Gomez reports the beverage industry actively lobbied against Latin American efforts to regulate the marketing and accessibility of sweetened beverages and instead invested in superficial campaigns to promote physical activity – thereby inculcating the notion of self-blame in the obesity equation at the earliest possible opportunity.
PepsiCo’s 1996 annual report illustrates the world according to PepsiCo. Mexico’s importance to net sales appears to be on par as a category comparable to Europe and the other 198 or so countries of the world.
Predictably, the once bucolic Mexican health landscape has been eviscerated beyond recognition. In Mexico, according to Barry Popkin, an expert on food and diet in developing countries at the UNC School of Public Health, virtually no one was overweight 15 years ago; now 71% of Mexican women and 66% of men suffer from obesity. Mexicans consumer more soft drinks than any other people in the world. Today, diabetes is the leading cause of death in Mexico, making it the global leader in disease rates for diabetes – a non-communicable disease. In a superlative case study for the double helix of demographic and geographic marketing segmentation, the junk food merchants can claim that Mexico now has the highest rate of childhood obesity in the world. This represents millions of human life-years sacrificed at junk food’s alter in Mexico alone.
It wasn’t until 2013 that Mexico’s congress passed a tax (of about 10%) on sugary beverages. Early results show a decline in consumption. Measuring the longer-term health effects of the new tax will have to wait for more evaluation.
The bonanza of opportunity in Mexico that was proven up by PepsiCo’s tenacity and commercial acuity didn’t escape notice of its chief rival, Coca Cola. Coca Cola reports Mexico leads the world in per capita consumption of its sugary drinks.
The free-wheeling spirit of imagination in PepsiCo’s marketing department envisions the whole of developing country humanity mimicking Mexico’s stupendous result in terms of market opportunity. In other words, Mexico is the gold standard. No doubt Cuba is now in the cross hairs.
The truth is that food is not always what you think it is. Its physical transformation into a food product belies a much darker reality. What spills out is the equivalent of a “leveraged recapitalization” designed to suit the financial goals of its creator – much like the packing of mortgages that cratered the U.S. econ0my in the 2008 economic crisis. Consumption of junk food (for example a Twinkie or a sugary drink) is akin to a financial exchange where short-term gains are privatized and long-term costs are socialized in the form of horrific health outcomes. The metabolic donkeys – third world consumers – pay relatively little money and turn a blind eye to the health consequences of their food choices — instead hoisting the fantastic profits to foreign private companies.