Up a rickety staircase at the Newarke Houses Museum in Leicester, England hangs a portrait of Britain’s first obese man, painted in 1806. Daniel Lambert weighed 53st (335kg) and was considered a medical oddity.
Too heavy to work, Lambert came up with an ingenious idea: he would charge people a shilling to see him. Lambert made a fortune, and his portrait shows him at the end of his life: affluent and respected – a celebrated son of Leicester.
Two hundred years on, I’m in a bariatric ambulance (an alternative term for obese, favoured by the medical world because it’s less shaming to patients) investigating why the UK is in the midst of an obesity crisis.
The crew pick up a dozen Daniel Lamberts every week.
Fifty-three stone is nothing special, it’s at the lower end of the weight spectrum, with only the 80st patients worthy of mention when a shift finishes. The specially designed ambulance carries an array of bariatric gizmos including a “spatula” to help with people who have fallen out of bed or, on a recent occasion, an obese man jammed between the two walls in his hallway. As well as the ambulance, there’s a convoy of support vehicles including a winch to lift patients onto a reinforced stretcher. In extreme cases, the cost of removing a patient to hospital can be up to £100,000, as seen in the recent case of 63st teenager Georgia Davis.
But these people are not where the heartland of the obesity crisis lies. On average, in the UK, we are all – every man, woman and child – three stone heavier than we were in the mid-60s. We haven’t noticed it happening, but this glacial shift has been mapped by bigger car seats, swimming cubicles, XL trousers dropped to L (L dropped to M). An elasticated nation with an ever-expanding sense of normality.
Why are we so fat? We have not become greedier as a race. We are not, contrary to popular wisdom, less active – a 12-year study, which began in 2000 at Plymouth hospital, measured children’s physical activity and found it the same as 50 years ago. But something has changed: and that something is very simple. It’s the food we eat. More specifically, the sheer amount of sugar in that food, sugar we’re often unaware of.
The story begins in 1971.
Richard Nixon was facing re-election. The Vietnam war was threatening his popularity at home, but just as big an issue with voters was the soaring cost of food. If Nixon was to survive, he needed food prices to go down, and that required getting a very powerful lobby on board – the farmers. Nixon appointed Earl Butz, an academic from the farming heartland of Indiana, to broker a compromise. Butz, an agriculture expert, had a radical plan that would transform the food we eat, and in doing so, the shape of the human race.
Butz pushed farmers into a new, industrial scale of production, and into farming one crop in particular: corn. US cattle were fattened by the immense increases in corn production. Burgers became bigger. Fries, fried in corn oil, became fattier.
Corn became the engine for the massive surge in the quantities of cheaper food being supplied to American supermarkets: everything from cereals, to biscuits and flour found new uses for corn. As a result of Butz’s free-market reforms, American farmers, almost overnight, went from parochial small-holders to multimillionaire businessmen with a global market. One Indiana farmer believes that America could have won the cold war by simply starving the Russians of corn. But instead they chose to make money.
By the mid-70s, there was a surplus of corn. Butz flew to Japan to look into a scientific innovation that would change everything: the mass development of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), or glucose-fructose syrup as it’s often referred to in the UK, a highly sweet, gloppy syrup, produced from surplus corn, that was also incredibly cheap.
HFCS had been discovered in the 50s, but it was only in the 70s that a process had been found to harness it for mass production. HFCS was soon pumped into every conceivable food: pizzas, coleslaw, meat. It provided that “just baked” sheen on bread and cakes, made everything sweeter, and extended shelf life from days to years.
A silent revolution of the amount of sugar that was going into our bodies was taking place. In Britain, the food on our plates became pure science – each processed milligram tweaked and sweetened for maximum palatability. And the general public were clueless that these changes were taking place.
There was one product in particular that it had a dramatic effect on – soft drinks. Hank Cardello, the former head of marketing at Coca-Cola, tells me that in 1984, Coke in the US swapped from sugar to HFCS (In the UK, it continued to use sugar). As a market leader, Coke’s decision sent a message of endorsement to the rest of the industry, which quickly followed suit. There was “no downside” to HFCS, Cardello says. It was two-thirds the price of sugar, and even the risk of messing with the taste was a risk worth taking when you looked at the margin, especially as there were no apparent health risks. At that time, “obesity wasn’t even on the radar” says Cardello.
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