We are what we eat. That's the problem. Junk food trumps nutrition

Wan Lixin
With obesity levels rising on the heels of prosperity, could an advertising ban on processed fast food help turn things around?
Wan Lixin

The traditional sumptuous family feast on the eve of the Lunar New Year last month revealed an alarming generational divide in many homes.

Our family was one example. Two cousins, aged 15 and 20, snacked on junk foods prior to the event, diminishing their appetites. Grandparents' attempts to get the young people to eat some of the nutritious dishes on the table came to naught.

And when the grandma asked my young son to select some leftovers to take home, he chose two bottles of Coke.

So it came as some relief to learn that multinational food giant Unilever has announced it is raising the age for restricting its food and beverage marketing to include children between 13 and 16 years old.

It's a positive step, but I am looking forward to the day when the ban on advertising junk food applies to people of all ages.

At present, the food and beverage industry generally views anyone 14 years or older as fair game for its advertising.

One has only to look at the problem of obesity, diabetes and other diseases that can be triggered by an unhealthy diet to know where poor nutrition can lead. And it's not just children we are talking about.

According to the dietary guidelines issued by the Chinese Nutrition Society last April, Chinese people are catching up with the developed world in terms of obesity. Its report said about half of all Chinese adults are overweight, with 16 percent obese. And nearly a fifth of school children between six and 17 are considered overweight or obese.

One wonders why junk food advertising should be allowed at all.

However, the problem is not just the advertisers; the problem is also us. Too many people prefer the taste and convenience of processed foods.

"Fast food is convenient, hygienic and standardized," said a woman in her late 40s. "When I travel, I prefer junk food. My only objection is that you probably have to gobble it down in haste, ignoring your manners."

With most fast-food joints and franchises, you don't need to worry about hygiene in the kitchen because there is often no kitchen to speak of.

The debate about junk-food advertising raises another issue. If it were banned and the choice of diet were left to parents, would those who have grown up on junk food themselves know anything about nutrition for their children?

Before China's accelerated economic development in the mid-1980s, people didn't have much disposable income, and the fast-food industry didn't exist. Diets were generally healthy, with emphasis on fresh fruit and vegetables.

But the processed-food industry spotted the market potential.

The 40-something woman cited above said most people in the mid-1980s knew about Coca-Cola even before it was available in China because of company advertising.

When her husband, then a teenager then, finally drank his first can of Coke his father managed to get through the "back door," he said it was "bubbling, piquant, but not too sweet" – familiar words from ads. He later switched to Pepsi.

Why we have developed such a predilection for ultra-processed foods is hard to understand when more traditional, fresh food is so tasty. The loss of appetite for plain, wholesome food is alarming.

For some time, there's been public mockery about the quality and taste of food served up in office and school canteens. What the critics don't seem to understand is that the problem is often us, not canteens.

With fast food eateries springing up on every street corner, our traditional food is losing out to processed food rife with flavor enhancers that tend to attract consumers. Common sense is losing out to taste buds, and eventually to corporate profits.

Marketing bans are welcome, but what may be needed is better public education about nutrition, starting with schools. Young people taught to choose apples over soda pop when snacking might carry healthy attitudes into adulthood and pass them onto their own children.

No doubt, it's an uphill battle.

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