The food industry helped get us where we are today. Now it’s profiteering on the results.

It’s something we’ve all heard before: Those at the highest risk of a severe reaction or death from a COVID-19 infection have an “underlying condition.”

And the top “condition,” as it turns out, is obesity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released results from a study last month that examined those who were hospitalized due to COVID-19 in 99 counties across 14 states, and the results are staggering. Close to 60 percent in the 18-49 group involved those who were obese. For people 50-64, obesity was the underlying condition for nearly 50 percent who were hit hard, along with 41 percent of patients 65 and over.

While it’s hardly news that obesity, especially in America, is so widespread it’s now referred to as an “epidemic,” many experts seem to have just realized that the food industry has been working for a very long time to make its ultra-processed foods considered normal eating options for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Some, such as UK cardiologist Dr. Aseem Malhotra, are going so far as to say that if health authorities don’t warn citizens to change the way they eat, it would constitute “negligence and ignorance.” 

Professor Tim Spector, an expert in genetic epidemiology at King’s College in London remarked that “Obesity and poor diet is emerging as one of the biggest risk factors for a severe response to COVID-19 infection that can no longer be ignored.”

And Professor Robert Listig, from the University of California commented on the CDC report by saying that “ultra-processed food sets you up for inflammation,” which is something COVID-19 is “happy to exploit.”

But as they say, talk is cheap. What isn’t, however, is how much money Big Food spends to make sure that these stockpiles of processed products that have undermined our health so much keep on selling. And despite what that CDC report revealed, ultra-processed, obesity-spawning foods are flying off the shelves faster than ever before.

A distressing comfort

At one time, comfort foods used to constitute mom’s mac and cheese, homemade mashed potatoes or a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies fresh out of the oven. Now it appears that our eating habits have deteriorated to the point where many of the hundreds of New York Times readers commenting on an article titled “‘I Just Need the Comfort’: Processed Foods Make a Pandemic Comeback,” are arguing the vital need to consume unlimited amounts of Velveeta, canned pasta and “cheese” that comes from a can.

For Big Food, it’s likely a sales dream come true.

General Mills reported that sales are up “across-the-board” during the last month, including packaged dinner mixes such as Hamburger Helper, described by a spokesman as a “simple and delicious meal.”

Conagra Brands saw a 50 percent increase for products such as Slim Jim and Chef Boyardee canned pastas during March. Kraft/Heinz now needs to keep some factories working three shifts just to keep cranking out enough boxed macaroni and cheese, with Campbell’s soup sales jumping almost 60 percent from where they were a year ago.

And Impossible Foods, which makes the additive filled, ultra-processed fake meat called the “Impossible Burger,” has been able to use this pandemic to get its products into 777 more grocery stores in the U.S.

If, as many experts are saying, the threat posed by COVID-19 will be with us for quite a while — even gaining tragic traction in the fall — now is the time to make sure you’re in fighting shape. And judging from the CDC’s research, it appears that can best be started right in your kitchen.

Linda Bonvie

Linda Bonvie is journalist, blogger and co-author of “A Consumer’s Guide to Toxic Food Additives: How to avoid synthetic sweeteners, MSG, artificial colors, and more,” Skyhorse Publishing, March 2020.

Comments/thoughts?