Global Food, Health, and Society

A Colby Community Website for ST297, Fall 2018

Has Technology Caused an Obesity Epidemic?

This essay discusses the effect that technology has on the food industry, as well as how change could be beneficial to the population.

In a world where food is genetically modified to our liking and mass produced for convenience, there is a common saying when it comes to choosing which products to put into your body: “If you can’t say it, don’t eat it.” Rarely can a person truly know all of the ingredients of most meals or snacks, despite the tiny nutrition labels on the side of a box. There is a massive distribution of food and beverages filled with high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, artificial colorings, flavors, and sweeteners, all of which are affecting the health of millions. In America, a little more than one third of adults have obesity, which leads to life threatening diseases such as heart disease, type II diabetes, and arthritis, as well as some forms of cancer (2). Ever since the start of the 20th century, there has been an obvious effect of technology on the food industry and our health, in both positive and negative ways. Technology has allowed for the rise of enormous fast food chains, as well as the marketing campaign of different packaged goods that lack the nutrition that humans should be getting. In order to decrease the staggering amount of obesity-related chronic diseases, the way that technology shapes the food industry should be guided by public health, as opposed to the short term economic benefits of companies involved.

Food technology has had an impact on our health long before the dawn of genetically modified and processed foods. There have been three major transformations in human diets, dating all the way back to the Paleolithic era nearly 2 million years ago (1). Early hominoids of this time used stone tools to hunt large animals, and fire to cook them. This allowed for a remarkable increase in the quality and diversity of human diets, due to their methods of hunting and gathering. The diet of plants and proteins supported the development of a larger brain, and aided the evolution of the human species.

The next big revolution in food technology came during the time of the Agricultural Revolution, about 14,000 years ago. The domestication of animals and essential grains allowed for humans to settle down across the globe. A massive increase of human populations accompanied this change to a more agrarian lifestyle, leading to the countless diverse civilizations that are so widely spread today. However, this advent of agriculture also sparked the first occurrences of nutrient deficiencies, because grains tend to have less nutrients per calories than other foods like animals and plants. This was evident in archeological evidence, which showed a loss of several inches in height when comparing those from the age of hunting and gathering to those of this time period (1).

Lastly, the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century changed the food industry forever, with its mass production of refined flour and concentrated sugars. This advancement opened the doors for the massive consumer-fueled market that is present today, driven by the substantial distribution of ultra-processed foods. Humans have long strived to develop technologies to improve food availability, digestibility, safety, transportability, and storage life. As food science has accelerated in the past few decades, we have accomplished these goals. Yet as we continue to develop new ideas and methodologies, it is crucial to think about the major implications to human health and nutrition (1).

Since the industrial revolution, the food industry has developed to keep goods fresh longer and alter the nutrients that are available in different foods. Some of the primary methods used to maintain freshness include cooling, pasteurization, drying, salting, and separation of various ingredients. More advanced techniques of separation, such as milling and pressing, have allowed for the production of particular components of food, like fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. These techniques have been applied on a colossal scale and they have changed the nutritional content of the food that we eat, by saving certain nutrients while removing others. Processed foods are often enriched with critical nutrients like different vitamins or dietary minerals, both during and after processing. Although this sounds beneficial, their nutritional value is inferior to those of fresh foods in regards to the content of sugar, potassium, sodium, vitamins, and fiber.

Observational research suggests that a diet based on ultraprocessed products such as fast food can cause excessive weight gain and chronic disease (2). These processed foods are heavily concentrated in calories, but lack the proper amount of fiber, micronutrients, and other important chemicals derived from plants that have protective effects against heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Ultraprocessed products typically emphasize sugar, salt, and fat, while removing or destroying most healthy fats during the manufacturing process. They may resemble natural foods, but processed goods are more similar to a Frankenstein-like creation of poor-quality ingredients. These products are packed with energy in high doses, and have low contents of fiber and high intensity flavoring (1). Many people constantly consume these ultraprocessed products, which promote obesity and chronic disease through a variety of ways.

To promote shelf life and decrease transportation costs, manufacturers drain their products of water to make them more condensed, which helps to increase the number of calories in a bite of food. This causes a major problem, as most individuals base their diets on volume as opposed to the number of calories or proper nutrition. In the long run, these highly energy dense processed foods are directly related to weight gain because of the poor dietary quality of the products.

An estimated 93 million Americans are effected by obesity, based on a study from the Obesity Action Coalition (2). This amount is staggering, especially combined with a statistic from Medical News Today, which states that heart disease accounts for almost 1 in 4 deaths, making it the leading cause of death in the U.S as well as worldwide (3). Clearly, the world is going through an “obesity epidemic”, yet there is little action against the big businesses which are profiting from the food industry. Companies can save money and increase profit margins by making, transporting, and selling processed goods. This causes an extensive circulation of food with extremely long shelf lives and low nutritional value. As more calories are packed into smaller amounts of food in a process that eliminates healthy fats, those that base their diets on portion size often experience weight gain over the long term. Furthermore, these products rely on the inclusion of trans fats and saturated fats which increase the risk for heart disease. Technology has helped businesses to optimize their profits by efficiently transporting goods and giving them a longer shelf life, yet its effect on public health is detrimental and concerning.

As a society, it is important that we realize the negative impact that parts of the food industry have on our health, and we must work together to solve the health crisis of obesity and the diseases that often accompany it. A combination of agricultural subsidies, pricing policies, regulatory action, and consumer education, involving cooperation among governments, academia, and the food industry, could facilitate access to an affordable supply of fresh, nutritious foods. In addition, while the responsibility to provide low-income consumers with inexpensive, healthy foods is currently on the food industry, this view could shift to the need for policies to address broader societal issues, such as the falling value of the minimum wage. Environmental and policy interventions will be needed to address the observed inequalities in access to healthy foods, particularly as they relate to body weight and health.

Works Cited

  1. Ludwig, David S. “Technology, Diet, and the Burden of Chronic Disease.” JAMA Internal Medicine, American Medical Association, 6 Apr. 2011, jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/896031.
  2. “Obesity Action Coalition » Obesity Statistics.” Obesity Action Coalition CommunityBased Programs Comments, 2018, www.obesityaction.org/educational-resources/obesity-statistics-fact-sheets.
  3. Nichols, Hannah. “The Top 10 Leading Causes of Death in the United States.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 23 Feb. 2017, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/282929.php.

1 Comment

  1. I really enjoyed reading about the history of nutrition throughout the ages and was interested to learn in the decrease in nutrients in post hunter-gatherer societies despite the fact that the population blossomed. I believe that your suggestions to regulate the obesity problems on a nation, or even international scale, are very valid but will likely take many years to implement if they can be implemented at all. One question I had relating to your piece is asking what can we do on an individual level to ensure that we are receiving proper nutrition as well as not consuming too many calories? I was also wondering whether this issue would affect people of different socio-economic background more than others?

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