Al Jazeera (yes, that Al Jazeera) has a new report out for its Fault Lines program called “Fast Food, Fat Profits,” that purports to document America's obesity problem. A spokesperson for the Center for Consumer Freedom was interviewed for the segment by reporter Josh Rushing. The resulting report is filled with distortions and bad science. Instead of a piece of journalism about a genuine problem, Al Jazeera produced a standard blame-the-food hack job.
The promo for “Fast Food, Fat Profits” declares that “400,000 Americans die every year because they are obese.” That number came from a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that caused an uproar within the government and was later discredited. A subsequent CDC study found that the actual number of Americans who die prematurely every year from being overweight was closer to 26,000. Al Jazeera could have discovered this with a simple Google search.
One of the more dramatic moments in the piece comes when Rushing triumphantly hands a Center for Consumer Freedom spokesman a bottle of Chubby soda. Somehow the cameraman knows to pan the shot right before Rushing reaches into his bag, perfectly capturing the spontaneity in its full glory. Chubby soda, Rushing explains, was developed to be marketed directly to children. Our spokesman refuses to defend Chubby and notices something odd: There are no nutrition facts on the side of the bottle—something that’s legally required in order for the drink to be sold in the U.S.
If you're scratching your head and wondering just what in the world Chubby is, you're not alone. We went through the trouble of actually contacting Chubby's distributor in the United States. It turns out that Chubby is based not in the United States, but in Trinidad and Tobago. Not a dime has been spent on Chubby advertising in America. According to figures provided by the distributor, Chubby accounts for about 0.01 percent of annual soda sales in the United States, or one in every 10,000 drinks.
Al Jazeera also failed to double-check its nutrition facts. At one fast food restaurant in Times Square, Rushing orders up an enormous, pizza-shaped cheeseburger. The dish is clearly meant to be consumed by a group of people, but no matter. He darkly warns that the burger contains 3,600 calories, which he claims would take about 18 hours of exercise to burn off. This is true if by "exercise" you mean "bowling," which burns about 200 calories per hour. But if you're actually doing something that a normal person would consider working out — say, running — you'll burn 700 to 800 calories per hour (or more, depending on your weight), according to the Mayo Clinic. Also, Al Jazeera's calculation seems to ignore our bodies’ natural Basal Metabolic Rate — the number of calories your body burns naturally without exertion. This is about 1,760 calories per day for a 30-year-old male of average height and weight.
Then there's Rushing's claim that two out of every three Americans are overweight, and three out of four will be by 2020. This is based on the government's official Body Mass Index (BMI) standard, a controversial method of measuring obesity that treats lean muscle and body fat the same. According to BMI measurements, Donovan McNabb and Arnold Schwarzenegger are both “obese.”
To prove his point, Rushing heads to New Orleans and interviews several homegrown cooks frying their seafood. What he neglects to mention is that New Orleans is only the eighteenth-most-obese city in the United States, behind Oklahoma City. He also never bothers to travel to Albuquerque, Denver, or Oakland. These are cities with similar socioeconomic disparities, yet they've been rated as some of the least obese. (For more on the Colorado-to-Mississippi obesity gap, see here.)
Predictably, New York University nutritionist and professional naysayer Marion Nestle made an appearance in the piece. Nestle frets that the government has transitioned from “paying farmers not to grow food to paying farmers to grow as much food as they possibly could. And the result of that was an enormous increase in the amount of food available in the country for consumption.” Yes, food in America is just too darned abundant. Sometimes we wonder if broadcasting clips of Nestle in Ethiopia or Somalia would cause an international incident.
“Fast Food, Fat Profits” is full of wide shots of fast-food signs with ominous music playing in the background. But it doesn't explore the biggest factor in America's obesity problem: our national lack of exercise. Studies have established a firm link between obesity and a lack of exercise, yet Rushing never somberly walks into an electronics store and plays a video game.
It's a shame, because solid investigative journalism about obesity is desperately needed. Instead, Al Jazeera cranked out a slapdash piece of conventional wisdom that failed to look deeper than food companies’ evil-villain stereotypes.