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Junk food companies say they’re trying to do good. A new book raises doubts

As soda consumption has declined in the West, companies are scrambling to attract new customers elsewhere. This coke bottle ad is in Mozambique.

Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

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Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

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As soda consumption has declined in the West, companies are scrambling to attract new customers elsewhere. This coke bottle ad is in Mozambique.

Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

So how do you get people to drink more soda?

That’s a question Coca-Cola and other soda makers are wrestling with as soda consumption has slackened in the US and European markets.

In the 2010s, Coke made a major push into rural parts of lower-income countries to sell more soda. So they made smaller, more durable bottles—a 1-cup serving size that sold cheaper and stayed on shelves longer.

They built solar-powered coolers that allowed vendors to keep Coke bottles cold in off-grid locations — and offer their customers cell phone charging.

And they started “splash bars” — small, woman-run stores that sold Coke, Fanta, and other Coca-Cola products for just 7 cents a portion to make the drink affordable for everyone.

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Eduardo J. Gómez is the author of the new book Junk Food Policy: How the beverage and fast food industry is transforming emerging markets.

Eduardo J. Gomez

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Eduardo J. Gomez

The company presented this strategy as a win-win situation – they benefited because their product was increasingly available in remote areas and women entrepreneurs had a new way of making a living.

That’s a story Eduardo J. Gómez tells in his new book. As he points out, Coke’s characterization of a win-win situation is not universally accepted.

Gómez, director of the Institute for Health Policy and Policy at Lehigh University, says Coca-Cola is one of many junk food companies — fast-food giants like McDonald’s and KFC — targeting “emerging markets” — countries with rising Income rise along with trade with wealthier nations.

In these countries, many people see the possibility of so-called junk food — not just soda, but packaged chips and chain candy and fast food — as a sign that they’ve made it. And the junk food manufacturers are trying to put a positive face on their campaigns to expand their audience. They forge partnerships with local governments to fight hunger and poverty — even as rising consumption of junk food leads to rising rates of obesity and diabetes.

In his new book Junk Food Policy: How the beverage and fast food industry is transforming emerging markets, Gómez describes a two-way street in which industry and government work together to enact well-meaning social programs — but also bypass regulations that would hurt industry profits. The result, says Gómez, is that the junk-food industry thrives in low-resource countries at the expense of children and the poor who develop long-term health problems from consuming sugary, ultra-processed foods.

NPR spoke to Gómez about junk food ships, soda taxes and why healthy eating campaigns aren’t cutting back on candy and fried chicken ads. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity:

Let’s start with a simple question. What is junk food?

The new book Junk Food Policy.

Johns Hopkins University Press

I define junk food as highly processed fast food, from KFC to burgers, candy, confectionery and ice cream. Junk food is also Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew – high-sugar, carbonated soda drinks.

What role does junk food play in low- and middle-income countries?

There is now a proliferation of these junk foods not only in cities but in rural communities in India, in Mexico, even in the Brazilian Amazon.

In emerging markets, these foods were not [previously] accessible suddenly became very accessible in the 1990s or early 2000s.

we see [a vast and rapid] Infiltration of these foods due to what I call “fear and opportunity”. “Fear” of the industry of market loss [share] in western nations and “opportunity” because there is one [growing] Middle class keen to shop in these emerging markets.

What is Junk Food Policy?

Junk food policy is not a one-way street. it is when [junk food] Industries are influencing politics and society to avoid regulations that affect their profitability, such as B. Taxes on junk food and regulations on marketing and distribution.

We often think that the industry is to blame. But governments are also to blame [because political leaders partner with industry on their own political agendas – which gives industry clout to undermine policies that would cut their profits].

What’s a good example of junk food policy in action?

In Brazil, for example, you have the rise of industrial groups, [like the Brazilian Food Industry Association] who have been very, very influential in lobbying Congress and infiltrating national agencies working on regulations [like advertising restrictions for junk food]. They enter into partnerships [with governments and communities where] they can be perceived as a solution to the problems [of obesity and diabetes] for example by helping to improve them [sharing] of nutritional information. You build legitimacy and avoid costly regulations.

At the same time, [Brazil’s] President Lula [in his prior term] had a famous anti-hunger campaign. And Lula worked with Nestlé to strengthen that program, even going so far as to set up an office in his presidential palace to work with industries that wanted to contribute to this anti-hunger program. So this was a strategic, two-way partnership that benefited both industry and government.

Of course, President Lula’s intentions to alleviate hunger were admirable. But maybe it wasn’t a good idea to partner with companies that produce a lot of these ultra-processed foods because it indirectly legitimizes the company. It increases the popularity of their products and their harmful health consequences.

As resource-poor countries become more prosperous, rates of obesity and diabetes also tend to increase. How big is the problem? Why is this happening?

Childhood obesity is increasing at a much faster rate in developing countries [than in the West]. [Rates of] Type 2 diabetes among adolescents is extremely high in India, China and Mexico.

The rural poor are also becoming obese and developing diabetes. This is something we don’t normally accept. In India, for example, obesity was considered a “luxury disease” in the 1990s and early 2000s. It was believed that only people with status and money who could go to fast food establishments had this problem. For many years the government has done nothing because it saw it [growing rates of diabetes and obesity] than a small minority of the population.

But now it has become a common problem due to increasing access to junk food.

How has access increased? How did junk food go from being concentrated in the cities to becoming a commonplace staple in the countryside?

[Junk food distribution] started in cities, and over time they [expand] out to other regions of the country. In Brazil, for a time, Nestlé had these big blue Nestlé boats that went through the Amazon and distributed sweets and cookies all over the Amazon. [The “junk food barges,” as critics called them, have stopped]. In rural India, there are shops where people pay for a small shot of Coca-Cola while they charge their phones.

Junk food is something that is bought voluntarily in every country. It is eaten voluntarily. So why aren’t programs that encourage healthy eating and daily exercise and nutrition labeling enough to convince people to avoid it?

Of course we want people to have nutritional information – we want people to know more and we want them to know what they are eating. And there is a growing commitment and success to better food labels. Chile, for example, has adopted more effective food labels — on products high in salt, sugar, and fat, they’ve adopted those black octagonal images that are on the food — that have spread across America.

But people are always being inundated with marketing and access [to processed foods]. Even if you have this knowledge, there are incentives for you to eat those products that are readily available and less healthy.

I hear you say that healthy eating and exercise campaigns focus on the individual, but poor health and nutrition are rooted in larger, systemic problems.

Yes absolutely. Nutritional information is very important, but not sufficient. We have to look at socioeconomic factors, marketing factors and all those things that come into play [making junk foods an easy, accessible choice].

They say governments in resource-poor countries have made some strides in taxing junk food and improving labeling. What do you think still needs to happen?

none of these governments have pledged to restrict advertising. [Countries have, instead, relied on voluntary pledges from companies to refrain from marketing unhealthy foods to children.] Many of these countries do not have strict laws about what can be sold in schools. And even if they have laws or rules prohibiting the sale of junk food in schools, they are not effectively enforced.

There is a paradox: while countries [such as Mexico, Brazil, India and Indonesia] have done a great job of raising nutrition awareness, obesity and diabetes are still skyrocketing. And that’s because governments are acting a bit on the sidelines, but not really getting to the heart of the problem. They don’t compete with these industries by regulating sales and advertising.

What is the junk food policy costing society?

Society incurs extremely high costs, mainly due to the health consequences. If you develop type 2 diabetes as a result of high sugar consumption, it will have a huge impact on your quality of life. Argentina, for example, has experienced a crisis in insulin affordability. In the context of global universal health care, we don’t pay enough attention to making sure the poor don’t go broke when they get the drugs they need to fight their high blood pressure [blood] Sugar.

What is the solution? What can affect the impact of junk food policies on public health?

The solution lies in a government committed to the health of all of society. One that gives activists and communities a voice that equals or surpasses the voice of industry within government. One that is not afraid to take on powerful industries and create regulations that protect vulnerable populations – especially children and the poor – over the interests of big business.

And also the solution is our work in communities as researchers and as community members to raise awareness of the importance of good nutrition and exercise and to raise awareness of the need for access to healthier food.

And just wondering if climate change will play a role?

That is the subject of my next book – climate change and malnutrition.

And your thesis is that with the changing climate…

… the availability of healthy food is becoming increasingly scarce.

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