World Health Day is celebrated today, and never before has the world turned its eyes in the same direction as in these times: the Coronavirus epidemic unites us all, and is putting the physical, social and economic well-being of the whole of humanity to the test. Scientists are busy analyzing all its implications, and many questions remain unanswered. However, one thing is certain: the evidence related to the mortality rate, from the Chinese studies published in the Chinese Journal of Epidemiology to the reports of the Istituto Superiore di Sanità in Italy, all highlight that the presence of previous pathologies, in particular cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, is a factor implicating a higher mortality risk (double or even triple) if infected with COVID-19.
This relation should in no way be underestimated as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes have to a large extent the same origin: poor quality nutrition, sneaky and lethal because it makes people much more vulnerable. According to the WHO (World Health Organization), obese or overweight people have at least twice the risk of developing heart disease, cancer and diabetes, the so-called non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
The number of obese children and adolescents worldwide has risen from 11 million in 1975 to 124 million in 2016, an 11-fold increase in 40 years. Causes are widely recognized: an exponential increase in the consumption of fast food, sugary drinks, ultra-processed foods, at the expense of vegetables, whole grains, and in general simple foods, cooked at home, without preservatives or additives. This phenomenon has been favored, since the 1980s, by an aggressive marketing strategy on the part of large industries and retailers, to stimulate consumer desire – and consequently demand and sales – for products that are too fat, too sweet, too salty, made with low-quality primary ingredients and transported over thousands of kilometers.
Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition and Public Health at New York University, explained this clearly in an investigative book that sheds light on this other pandemic. In her book Unsavory Truth Nestle scientifically analyzes the influence of food marketing on the nutritional policies of U.S. authorities, tells how the food industry corrupts scientific research for profit, and brings to light the deep conditioning on U.S. official nutritional guidelines by multinational food corporations. It is a mechanism that is replicated in most countries of the world as junk food is a global phenomenon, particularly widespread in poor areas, and in the economically weaker strata of the population within the rich states of the West as well as in countries where per capita income is low.
Diabetes, hypertension and obesity, today more than ever are among the world’s greatest killers, and are favored by food environments where sugars are hidden in soft drinks, fruit juices, cereals, as well as in savory processed meals, ready-to-eat soups, sauces, frozen pizzas, yogurts, cereal bars and so on. The consumption of refined sugar has increased in a century from five to thirty kilos per person per year, as adding it abundantly in its products allows the industry to compensate or camouflage the poor quality of the primary ingredients it uses. A rise in sugar consumption can be as well related to the little-known dependency this substance creates, which is of the same nature as alcohol or tobacco. When the human body is deprived of it, it asks for more and more. The sweetness of sugar has the power to condition our brain: as soon as a sugar molecule hits one of the thousands of taste cells in our tongue, a stimulus starts in the direction of both the brain and the intestine, which activates the pleasure centres and modifies the biochemical pathways. If this happens many times, the brain is conditioned by it and demands more and more sugar. And by sugar we also mean all the more or less synthetic sweeteners, glucose syrups, corn starch, to name a few. So, if the need for sweetness gets to you and you don’t just have enough of what is naturally found in fruit, there is a nice illustrated recipe book that is a real 10-step detoxification program, Sugar Detox Me by Summer Rayne Oakes.
The same is true for salt, added in ultra-processed industrial foods to improve their taste: little by little our palate gets used to it, and we tend to exceed daily maximum amounts recommended to maintain our arteries in good condition. This dynamic replicates with a series of ingredients that have become part of the food habits, which we distractedly look at listed on the labels (glucose, glucose syrup, ascorbic acid, citric acid, malt, maltodextrin, dextrin, crystalline fructose, modified starch, sorbitol, lecithin, powdered yeast, dextrose, lysine, lactic acid, maltose, sucrose, caramel, xantham gum, invert sugar, monoglycerides, monosodium glutamate, all corn derivatives) and which form the basis for those so-called “empty calories” responsible for the obesity epidemic in the world.
Today, the COVID-19 epidemic has raised public health issues to the top of governments’ concerns. Once we will have overcome the emergency, it will be time to seriously think about prevention and the importance of staying healthy.
And to act effectively in this direction, governments will eventually need to implement the policies needed to follow WHO guidelines on healthy diets, not as a declaration of intent, but by countering the spread of junk food, for example by adjusting the menus in school and hospital canteens, by banning candy and sweetened drinks dispensers in public places, or by taxing junk food producers, as has been done in some countries recently. And since there is no point in prohibiting without an adequate information and awareness-raising campaign, it will be crucial to include food education in school curricula – at all levels – through educational programs. Slow Food is already pursuing this mission at the international level, from Italy to Africa, to the USA, with the school gardens program.
Obviously, similar measures are in direct conflict with the economic interests of multinationals whose turnover even weighs as much as the GDP of some countries. Streams of money are spent on more or less hidden and legitimate lobbying to influence the decisions, or rather the lack of action, of governments on matters of public health related to diet.
We hope that, when this emergency will be over, the health of everyone, which begins with a good, clean and fair diet, will finally be considered one of the fundamental priorities of policy, not just in words. For too long, those who have the power to change things seem to have forgotten their main objective: to preserve, defend and implement the common good of all, and not to protect the economic interests of a few.