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Battle of the Bulge Going Global

Americans aren’t the only ones battling the bulge nowadays. Obesity has become a worldwide problem, spreading to nearly every corner of the globe.

In Germany, every third child under age 12 and every fifth teenager are overweight, according to the New York Times. And the so-called healthy Mediterranean diet hasn’t saved more than 70 percent of adult Greek men and women from tipping the scales.

The Middle East is not immune to the super-sizing of its citizens. Nearly 60 percent of women in Egypt are overweight.

With 61 percent of Americans overweight, they are finding themselves in good company with their global brothers and sisters.

Multinational food companies are the latest target when it comes to fighting obesity on a global scale. Lawsuits have been “the American tool of choice,” the Times reported, while Europeans are going the way of tougher regulations on food.

Guardian reported that proposals set in motion last week in Brussels force manufacturers to justify claims of healthy food products.

The European Commission said phrases like “fat-free”, “light” or “high-fibre” should be subject to scientific standards, and the “vague promises of boosting energy, improving immunity and helping concentration and physiological well-being should be prohibited.”

“The need to encourage dietary and behavioural change is clear,” Health and Consumer Affairs Commissioner David Byrne told Guardian. “The dramatic rise in obesity within Europe is a particular cause of concern with far-reaching consequences if left unchecked.”

This could mean hard times for some food companies.

Last year, American companies exported 11.8 billion euros (about $13.22 billion) of agricultural products to the European Union. Exports included everything from cranberries and candy bars to cereals and sodas.

American food companies have all but exhausted their potential for expansion within the United States and are pushing their salty and sugary food on the generally healthier eating populations of other countries, said Marion Nestle, chairwoman of the nutrition and food studies department at New York University and author of “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.”

But with tougher regulations on food labeling, the U.S. manufacturers may have more difficult time infiltrating the Europeans markets.

The European regulations will not go into effect until 2005, but if Byrne has his way only products that are low in salt, sugar and fat will be allowed to be fortified with vitamins and minerals. This, he said, would make labels more comprehensible to consumers.

Even foods considered healthy, like cereals, could be adversely affected by the new regulations. For instance, some of Kellogg’s cereals would be acceptable, but others would not. Their children’s cereals, which are fortified with added vitamins and minerals, would likely not make the grade due to higher sugar content.

A March World Health Organization report showed a correlation between an unhealthy diet and little physical activity to a marked rise in chronic diseases like cardiovascular diseases, cancers, diabetes and obesity. And, these problems are on the rise.

In 2001, chronic diseases contributed about 59 percent of the 56.5 million total reported deaths in the world and 46 percent of the global burden of disease.

By 2020, the WHO is predicting that these chronic diseases will account for nearly three-fourths of all deaths worldwide. The organization is planning on releasing a draft of recommendations to its 191 member states this fall that would provide action plans for how to address this growing problem.

The WHO recommendations are expected to include important charges for business like nutritional labeling and marketing to children.

Growing health concerns have provided compelling motivation for some companies to make voluntary changes.

Kraft decided earlier in July to stop promoting its products in schools and to start making smaller portions. Of course, this decision came shortly after the company was the target of a lawsuit wanting to block the food giant from selling Oreos to children because the cookies contain trans fats, which exist in hydrogenated oil.

Last fall, McDonald’s announced its intention to use a healthier alternative to the oil with trans fats that it used to cook French fries.

And Nestle’s chief executive, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, pledged in May to stop marketing jumbo candy bars to children, according to the Times. Cadbury Schweppes also announced intentions to review its use of hydrogenated fats in confectionery and other products.

Jodi Mathews is news writer for EthicsDaily.com.