The multi-national food companies are killing us in unprecedented numbers, but the darkest hour is just before the dawn. Enlightened individuals in the food industry are looking for ways to develop and market the next generation of genuinely functional food products to better informed consumers. Big Pharma uses the regulatory agencies to slow product development, and covert agencies and the social media to suppress debate; but they will ultimately lose this fight, and public health will make a major leap forward. Probably.
We are being force-fed a truly toxic diet; so toxic that it is responsible, each year, for about 60% of ALL deaths. How do I come up with that figure? Simple …
The non-communicable diseases (NCD’s) are responsible for roughly 70% of all deaths globally, with the percentage rising to almost 90% in the OECD nations (1). About 10% of these are reckoned to be primarily caused by genetic risk factors and because I’m feeling conservative, I’ll round the figures down from 63 to 60%.
Cardiovascular deaths account for 31% of the global body count, with cancers coming in at 16%, neurodegenerative diseases at 8% just ahead of respiratory diseases at 7%, and diabetes in fifth place at 3% (1, 2). These chronic and generally progressive conditions rob us of many years of health as well as life, and impose considerable economic and personal costs.
Unsurprisingly, given the appalling dietary habits of American citizens and their equally appallingly run health care system, they come off the worst. If you add the price of lost lives, health and productivity to the costs of non-curative medical treatments and general support in hospitals, clinics and at home, the total bill reaches a staggering 47 trillion dollars over the period 2010-2030 (3). To put this in context, it represents a loss of 75% of the USA’s GDP (3).
Logically, by cutting down on ultra-processed foods and returning to basic produce (ie going back to pre-transitional eating), we should be able to reduce the burden of NCD’s by up to 90%. The cost of helping consumers to achieve this has been estimated at a paltry 11.2 billion $ / year (4), a relatively tiny investment in health which would transform public health and pay for itself many times over.
It doesn’t even have to be 11.2 billion. Minor changes in the way we tax and subsidise different agricultural sectors would change food prices in a way that would create significant health gains, yet remain revenue neutral (4). In the EU, cutting taxes on vegetables, fruits and wholegrains from 25% to 22%; raising taxes on butter, cheese, beef, pork and fatty meats from 25% to 31%; and introducing a sugar tax, would generate significant dietary improvements without costing the government a cent (5, 6).
Our political lords and masters know that policy changes like this that would allow more of us to live healthier and happier lives, but they will not stand up. The stake-holders who own them won’t allow this, and our politicians wouldn’t personally benefit from it. Big Phood and Big Pharma will not easily give up their markets, and can afford to rent as many politicians as they need at mere tens of millions of dollars a head.
The NCD figures can only increase because the non-communicable diseases are age-related and we are still, globally,an ageing population (7). By 2050 one in five people will be 60 and older, and with multiple pathologies (8). World health is in a death dive, the socio-economic bills cannot be paid and our health care systems cannot help because they are largely controlled and owned by the drug industry.
The pharma approach is lucrative for those who own it, but it is fundamentally mis-directed. The non-communicable disease are caused by multiple metabolic imbalances, which are driven by multiple dietary and a few lifestyle factors (9, 10).
The idea that you could cure or stop these diseases with synthetic magic bullets is absurd. The drug model is too specific, too limited, too expensive and too toxic. We need to change our diet, and the food industry must reform – or be reformed.
Let’s get specific.
There are four main horsemen of the nutritional apocalypse. These are chronic inflammatory stress, type B malnutrition, dysbiosis and, fourthly, an imbalance between the excessive glycaemic load of the modern diet and our astonishingly low levels of physical activity. All of these are driven by the ultra-processed foods which occupy an increasing share of our shopping carts and dinner plates.
There is good evidence that all four pathogenic mechanisms are countered by a pre-transitional diet, as consumed by the few remaining forager / horticulturist communities. Their diets are fundamentally anti-inflammatory. They contain higher levels of prebiotic fiber, which restore the microbiome. They also have a higher nutrient density and a lower glycemic load, and in this way they hobble all four horses.
The Bolivian Tsimane eat this diet. It protects them against neurodegenerative disease (12), and they have the lowest levels of coronary artery disease ever recorded (11). In the under 75’s, their incidence of CAD is between 5 and 10% of ours; indicating that roughly 90% of the cardiac disease and death we think of as ‘normal’ is caused by our lifestyle, and therefore preventable.
The Mediterranean diet (MeD) is not as austere but is more prevalent, and still healthy enough to reliably improve health and life expectancy (13-19).
Strict adherence to the MeD confersa significant reduction in overall mortality (9%), cardiovascular deaths (9%), cancer (6%) and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases (13%) (20–25). It also protects against diabetes (26-28), osteoporosis (29–31), serious respiratory tract disease (32–34)and death from all causes (35).
Nutritionists tell their clients to follow the MeD but the MeD cannot be everywhere; and due to the pernicious marketing of modern junk foods to our children it is fighting a losing battle, even on its home turf (36). It is difficult for concerned parents to fight back when ultra-processed foods are convenient, widely available, relatively cheap, and engineered to overwhelm our stone-age taste buds and self-control.
Ultra-processed foods do not, however, have to be dangerous.Most of the currently available examples are, but that is because they are so badly formulated. If a multinational player in this space were to gain a conscience (and market share) by developing ultra-processed foods that were properly constructed and genuinely healthy. If the regulators were to allow them to make meaningful claims, global health could be transformed in a few short years.
The good news is that enlightened individuals in these food conglomerates exist, and I am hearing from more and more of them. We cannot return to the original garden, but the keys to a second–generation garden could eventually be in our hands. Change is long overdue, and hopefully it will come.
Next week: Why drugs fail and why food works; the machinery behind the menu.