Saving me from myself?
A chocolate-lover mourns the passing of the King-Size Mars Bar.
Those, such as myself, who love king-size chocolate bars, were dismayed to learn this week that they are no longer to be sold in the UK.
In response to the growing panic over obesity, Cadbury has announced that it will withdraw king-size Crunchie and Boost bars, while Masterfoods has announced that it will withdraw king-size Mars and Snickers bars. Nestlé has so far resisted pressure to withdraw king-size Kit Kat and Lion bars, and king-size packs of Rolos.
It is unclear what effect this will have on obesity, unless you subscribe to the notion that people are somehow compelled to eat a bigger chocolate bar just because it exists. Masterfoods, for example, says that ‘our king-size bars that come in one portion will be changed so they are shareable or can be consumed on more than one occasion’ – as though the king-size bars currently on the market have a magic spell on them meaning that they can only be eaten by one person in one go (1).
The contemptuous view that the authorities and campaign groups have, of our ability to decide for ourselves what, when and how we eat, is perhaps summed up in the expression ‘unconscious eating’ (2). The idea seems to be that if only the big, bad chocolate companies would withdraw products from the shelves, then we mindless drones would all start eating what the food police want us to.
A growing number of food manufacturers and retailers are complying with these demands. For instance, McDonald’s has decided to remove ‘super-size’ portions from its menus, following the release of Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Super Size Me (3). Spurlock seems to believe in ‘unconscious eating’, because in his experiment to test the effect that McDonald’s is supposedly having on our health, he eats nothing but McDonald’s for a month and says ‘yes’ each time he’s offered a super-size portion (see Bashing the McMasses, by Brendan O’Neill).
In its new Food and Health Manifesto, the industry body the Food and Drink Federation commits its members to ‘exploring new approaches for individual portion sizes to help reduce overconsumption’. The manifesto is the industry’s latest attempt to head off the official criticism, regulatory initiatives and crippling lawsuits that are beginning to rain down upon it. This document also commits the industry to a raft of other obligations, including:
- ‘continuing to reduce levels of sugar, fat and salt in products’;
- ‘removing all vending machines from primary schools’;
- ‘participating, together with the rest of the food chain and advertising industries, in a government-led campaign of public education on healthy eating and healthy lifestyles’;
- ‘working with Ofcom and government on further tightening of self-regulatory codes, and discussing with Ofcom and government the whole range of concerns relating to advertising to children’;
Some might think these commitments excessive – since when was it the task of people who make humble chocolate bars to contribute to ‘community development’? But campaign groups have dismissed the measures as ‘half-hearted and cynical’ (5). This just goes to show that there is little point in giving in to campaigners’ demands. Since their basic aim is to stop us from eating what they consider to be the wrong types and the wrong portions of food, and the food industry’s aim is to manufacture and sell food, the objectives of these two camps are irreconcilable.
The demands of those insistent that obesity be tackled are insatiable, and trying to meet these demands halfway only invites further criticism. The only measure that Cadbury and Masterfoods could conceivably adopt, which would be immune to accusations of being ‘half-hearted and cynical’, would be to stop selling chocolate altogether.
When Cadbury recently attempted to give itself a more healthy image with its Get Active campaign, where children could exchange tokens that come with Cadbury products for school sports equipment, the initiative backfired. The campaign was hammered for supposedly compelling children to eat more, as commentators complained that ‘a set of posts and net for volleyball for secondary schoolchildren would require…tokens from 5440 chocolate bars’ – as though by offering free sports equipment on top of its confectionery, Cadbury were somehow forcing 5440 chocolate bars down one child’s throat at once (6).
Confectionery manufacturers are now routinely subjected to the same opprobrium as the tobacco industry. Cadbury has been attacked for organising school trips to its theme park Cadbury World, which makes you wonder how the forthcoming new film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will be received (7). Will the Chocolate Factory still be irresponsibly depicted as a place of enchantment and wonder? Or will Willy Wonka, with an entourage of five-fruit-and-veg-a-day Oompa Loompas, now hector children about the importance of healthy eating?
Cadbury has even been accused of causing ‘rainforest destruction, pollution problems and conflicts with local communities’, through its use of vegetable fat derived from Asian palm oil as a preservative. It has also been persuaded to remove hydrogenated vegetable fat and oil from its products, because of claims that these substances are linked to heart disease. ‘Although the evidence is inconclusive’, says Cadbury, ‘we are aware of rising levels of public concern’ (8). But there is little limit to the ‘public concern’ that could be stoked up over different aspects of food.
‘Choice’ figures prominently in the Food and Drink Federation’s Food and Health Manifesto, but as often seems to be the case today, this actually means placing limits upon choice. The manifesto starts out by discussing the importance of ‘broadening choice’, but then qualifies this by calling for ‘a wide choice of safe, high quality, wholesome and enjoyable food and drink products’. It then qualifies this further, by calling for us to ‘make informed choices through science-based information programmes such as foodfitness, foodfuture, foodlink and National Food Safety Week’ (9). Some choice.
What about our choice to eat and enjoy unwholesome products if we so wish, without being ‘informed’ by the food police first? The notion of ‘informed choices’ sounds empowering, but is really about submitting to an official view of what’s good for you.
The next time this chocolate lover feels peckish, and finds that king-size Snickers bars are no longer available, he intends to make his own informed choice – to buy two regular-size Snickers bars instead.
Commercial brake, by Sandy Starr
The more they talk about ‘choice’, the less we get, by Mick Hume
spiked-issue: Food scares
(1) Chocolate bars cut down to size, Nic Fleming, Daily Telegraph, 27 September 2004
(2) See, for example, the use of the expression ‘unconscious eating’ in How to live in a world of ‘big food’ – yet stay slim, World Cancer Research Fund, 17 September 2003
(3) See McDonald’s to scrap ‘super-sizing’, BBC News, 4 March 2004
(4) Food and Health Manifesto (.pdf 509 KB), Food and Drink Federation, 27 September 2004, p4-6
(5) Chocolate bars cut down to size, Nic Fleming, Daily Telegraph, 27 September 2004
(6) How much chocolate do you need to eat to get a free netball from Cadbury?, Felicity Lawrence, Guardian, 29 April 2003
(7) See Cadbury school trips criticised, BBC News, 16 June 2004
(8) Cadbury’s shareholders find palm oil leaves a bitter taste, Friends of the Earth, 21 May 2004; Sweet firm to cut fat, BBC News, 5 July 2003
(9) Food and Health Manifesto (.pdf 509 KB), Food and Drink Federation, 27 September 2004, p5-6
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