Obesity and Food Science Being Part of the Solution

The Journal of Food Science is proudly presented on our web page as a “Publication of the Institute of Food Technologists;” which members, like me, abbreviate as IFT. Every year members and other interested parties gather at our Annual Meeting + Food Expo. This year it was over July 13–16 at McCormick Place in Chicago, IL. For those of you who have not attended, it is an information dense few days of scientific talks, student activities, IFT societal activities, and the Food Expo where you can see ingredients, analytical services, equipment, publications and an array of other businesses and services associated with the food industry. One can easily be overwhelmed with the magnitude of activities and information.

On my way to the meeting, and afterwards, I read “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” by Michael Moss. This is the first time I ever read a book one night and the next day talked with someone quoted in the book! In fear of omitting someone, suffice it to say that many Food Scientists were quoted. I do not think I need to post a spoiler-alert for any intentional reader to say that one theme is the role of the food industry in the obesity epidemic. In fact, his book would imply that we should point either an accusing finger or a thumb up to the various ingredient suppliers found in the Food Expo.

One would be hard put to not admit that there is an obesity epidemic and that it threatens the health and longevity of individuals, in addition to placing a major burden on health care systems in many countries. The Center for Disease Control states on their web site that “During the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States and rates remain high. More than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7%) and approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2–19 years are obese.” (http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/facts.html)

Now that a Problem is Identified, What is the Solution?

In a 2005 article in The Lancet titled Obesity, Haslam and James state in their abstract, “…Obesity, with its array of comorbidities, necessitates careful clinical assessment to identify underlying factors and to allow coherent management. The epidemic reflects progressive secular and age-related decreases in physical activity, together with substantial dietary changes with passive over-consumption of energy despite the neurobiological processes controlling food intake. Effective long-term weight loss depends on permanent changes in dietary quality, energy intake, and activity.” (Haslam DW, James WPT. 2005. Obesity. The Lancet 366:1197–209.)

Three points are made in their statement that require elaboration. First, obesity is related to several factors and the element of “dietary quality” is an opportunity for Food Science to play a role. Second is that obesity is a problem that needs a multi-discipline approach. Or coming from another perspective, since there are arrays of factors contributing to obesity, there is less likelihood that one approach, say increased exercise, will solve the problem for all obese individuals. Finally, they are describing ways for “effective long-term weight loss,” which is treating the disease once it has occurred. Most would agree that, ideally, it would be better to have approaches that prevent obesity from occurring in the first place.

Finding a way out of the obesity problem must start with omitting a simple fact – food is more than a package of nutrients and bioactive compounds that we need to subsist. It is there at key moments in our lives (think birthday and wedding cake). Months before attending the meeting in Chicago, my wife and I made reservations at our favorite restaurant and, with friends, had a truly memorable meal that cost almost as much as my 350 Honda Scrambler motorcycle that I purchased in 1971. The goal of the evening was enjoyment of food and friends and the nutrients were never considered. However, I also know that I cannot exist daily on a diet with no boundaries on composition, calories, or cost. Simply put, food is part of our culture and daily lives and needs to be “managed” along with other activities such as work, exercise and sleep. Therefore, when we start thinking about people who should be “at the table” when developing solutions for obesity, disciplines of nutrition, physiology, psychology, sociology, history, medicine, exercise physiology, food science, and possible others, should be represented. Moreover, each needs to pledge that they are not the one with the magic bullet and maintain an open mind in discussing cause and effect. This way, all factors that contribute to the problem can be expounded and modified to be part of the solution.



E. Allen Foegeding, Ph.D.

Editor in Chief,

IFT Scientific Journals