A group posing as a health organization but funded by Coca Cola and other fast food and drinks companies sought to undermine the Chinese government’s anti-obesity efforts, a new paper claims.
As China’s middle class swells and its citizens get a taste of the good life, their waistlines have also expanded. 42 percent of the Chinese population are overweight and 11 percent obese. Meanwhile, western fast food chains have set up franchises at a breakneck pace. McDonalds plans to have 4,500 restaurants in China by 2022, adding around 1,000 outlets per year. KFC – China’s most popular fast food restaurant – already has 5,000 outlets and plans to keep expanding.
The Chinese government has noticed the bulge, and announced a public health blueprint, ‘Healthy China 2030’, two years ago. Among the blueprint’s recommendations are a nationwide information campaign to educate the population on the importance of a balanced, healthy diet.
Behind the scenes, western fast food giants were already hard at work deflecting blame from themselves. The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), set up in 1978 by a former Coke executive, organized obesity conferences around China, where speakers overemphasized the importance of physical activity in fighting fatness, and downplayed the role of diet, according to a paper published this week by the British Medical Journal (BMJ).
While Coke provides most of the ILSI’s funding, its other contributors are a rogues’ gallery of junk food hawkers and sugar merchants. McDonalds, Nestlé and Pepsi all fund the ILSI, and the organization’s Chinese branch enjoys close ties to the Chinese government, the paper claims.
Indeed, several of the government’s anti-obesity initiatives appear to have been directly influenced by the ILSI. ‘Happy 10 Minutes’ – a government exercise program that sought to ward off obesity by giving Chinese schoolchildren an extra ten minute break every day – was developed and partly funded by the ILSI.
Likewise, the government’s ‘Healthy Lifestyles for all Action’ campaign was touted by the ILSI’s funders as their favored kind of public health campaign.
More ridiculously, the ILSI sponsored conferences promoting the health benefits of processed food, according to the BMJ report. Danone Biscuit supported a 2004 symposium – on the health effects of dietary fat, while a Coca Cola spokeswoman gave a presentation on the “importance of water as a nutrient,” making sure to point out that her company’s beverage – which contains seven teaspoons of sugar per can – is “a fine source of water.”
While the idea may seem laughable, more so at an anti-obesity conference, the ILSI was able to promote its ideas partly because of the perception among Chinese officials that Chinese medicine and nutrition science were backward, and lagged behind that of the West, the BMJ report claims. As a western organization, the ILSI was automatically considered credible and, since opening shop in China in 1999, rapidly became “a bridge builder between government, academia and industry.”
The organization responded to the BMJ report with an admission: “ILSI does not profess to have been perfect in our 40-year history,” it said. “Not surprisingly, there have been bumps along the way.” The organization said it has fired several of its ‘experts’ mentioned in the BMJ article, but the Chinese government is still struggling to stay on top of its growing obesity problem.
The country now has more obese citizens than the US, although the US still ‘wins’ the percentages game, with 39 percent of adults obese and another 31 percent overweight. In an era of increased competition between the two nations, Chinese lawmakers might need to take stronger steps to trim down its population, before they get too fat to compete on the sports field, or the battlefield.