The War on Obesity Heats Up: Big Food Drives Problem, Big Pharma Cashes In By Solving It
By Thierry Malleret, economist
The war on obesity is now ramping up, with new research estimating that the global cost will be a crippling $4 trillion by 2035. Telling: Novo Nordisk, the maker of obesity drug Wegovy, has seen such huge recent sales that it just overtook Nestlé (who recently announced that 54% of its food/beverages were not healthy) as Europe’s second largest company, trailing only luxury brand powerhouse LVMH. There is a certain logical irony in a pharma company overtaking the valuation of the world’s biggest food company after it developed a weight-loss drug. While the reasons behind the global obesity epidemic are fiendishly complex, scientists always point to the surge in ultra-processed foods, as does the new book, Ravenous, which argues that our current food system, instead of providing us with sustenance, joy and happiness, is destroying our health and wellbeing, and that of our planet too.
NESTLÉ VERSUS NOVO NORDISK – Shortly after Nestlé acknowledged that 54% of its food and beverages (in revenue terms) were not “generally healthy,” because of their high content of saturated fats, sugar and salt, Novo Nordisk (maker of obesity-diabetes drug, Wegovy) announced that its “obesity-care” sales had doubled in 2022. The resultant surge in market value now makes it Europe’s second largest company–after luxury brand conglomerate LVMH and before Nestlé.
There is a certain logical irony in a pharma company overtaking the valuation of the world’s biggest food company after it developed a weight-loss drug. Obesity is rising all over the world, with experts estimating that the annual global cost of excess weight could reach $4 trillion by 2035, which represents 2.9% of the global GDP. The war on obesity has been declared on multiple fronts, with food companies under fire both from activists and legislators.
OBESITY, WELLNESS AND WOMEN – Even in those countries that gave the impression of having obesity under control, it is still on the rise. One example is France, where the share of obese adults has doubled to 17% (8 million people) between 1997 and 2020, compared to 40% in the US, 26% in the UK and 33 % in Mexico. Obesity affects women more than men but in high-income countries, rich women are thinner than poor women, while rich men are as “fat” as poor men, most likely because of the economic and social pressure on women to be thin. All over the world, obesity is almost always marked along wellness lines, notably financial ones. Wellness practitioners celebrate thinness, as evidenced by the fact that in the rich world (the one that can afford wellness), obesity is a feature of poverty, while it tends to be the opposite in the developing world.
THE FOOD SYSTEM FEEDS OBESITY – The reasons that underpin the rise in obesity are fiendishly complex, but scientists always point to the rise in processed foods. So does Henry Dimbleby in his recently published Ravenous, in which he argues that much of our current food system, instead of providing us with sustenance and being a concomitant source of joy and happiness, ends up destroying our health and wellbeing, and that of our planet too. In blunt terms: today’s food system, with its insatiable propensity for ultra-processed products, makes us unwell, increasing healthcare costs and destroying nature in the process. In 2021, Dimbleby authored the National Food Strategy, submitted to the UK government with the aim of addressing simultaneously three different objectives: (1) feeding ourselves affordably while (2) preserving our health and (3) that of our planet. Two years later, not much has happened with his recommendations, apart from a few uncontroversial policy ideas that will fall short of what is required to transform the food system in a meaningful manner. This is exceedingly hard to do: much is at stake with many vested interests. Through lobbyists, the food industry fights.