Fast foods may kill you faster than you think possible | Sunday Observer

Fast foods may kill you faster than you think possible

A little over 40 years ago, Sri Lanka became (what is known as) a liberalised society. With the complete change of the economic and social landscape, there were lots of benefits to society but there were also serious flaws.

One such flaw was the availability of a multitude of foodstuff, both imported and locally produced, with no restrictions. As our qualified nutritionists have been warning, we began to poison ourselves and our children with every meal.

Several weeks ago, a Food specialist from the Government Analyst’s Department and Colombo’s Chief Medical Officer of Health revealed that as many as 1,200 food additives, most of them harmful –are being widely used in Sri Lanka today. These include preservatives, in some cases even traces of formalin which are familiar to undertakers. Sri Lankan foods are polluted if not a little bit poisoned, by flavour-enhancing substances, sweeteners, chemicals for colouring and texture, and antioxidants.

Some years ago, the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) had found in one of their surveys, that many fast food items and beverages sold in the market were high in salt and sugar content, thus making them dangerously harmful to people. The survey that focused on 54 food items and beverages, local and imported, including noodles, pizzas, sausages and meatballs had found in them more than one teaspoon of salt, which is the government recommended daily limit.

Nutritionists say, the authorities need to check and reduce the fat content mainly in fast food items. The CAA warned there was a possibility of an increase in blood pressure, diabetes, cancers and heart diseases due to the consumption of high levels of salt, sugar and fat.

Obesity levels

Sri Lanka is no exception to the worldwide trend which has led to the expansion of harmful food products and what is generally labelled as junk food. It is a matter of concern that we in developing countries have blindly aped the developed world and acquired food habits which have proven harmful to the health of a growing number of people.

According to news reports hunger has been reduced in Latin America and the Caribbean, but obesity has doubled in the region in the past decade. For example, Chile and Mexico are nearing the overweight and obesity levels of the United States according to the World Health Organisation. Chile’s Health Ministry states that five out of every 10 children are overweight and one out of every eleven deaths is linked to obesity.

Chile has taken an unprecedented step by requiring labels (in visible bold letters) to be placed on food that has high sugar, calories, sodium or saturated fat. It also bans the sale of any of these products in schools, as well as advertisements related to them that target children under the age of 14. This is clearly a step forward by any country to ensure curbs on junk food and the excessive intake of sugar, salt and fats, which are proving harmful for the health of children and adults all over the world.

In Sri Lanka, with rapid urbanisation and through the power of advertising the move towards junk food is becoming a serious menace. This is a problem confined not only to urban areas, but even in rural areas packaged junk food is making major inroads. It is particularly disturbing to travel to our hill stations and find that beautiful mountain sites are not only denuded of green cover but littered with piles of packaging material from potato chips to biscuit wrappers.

For very clear demographic and economic reasons the junk food industry also targets youth as their favoured customers. This is not only because of the size of the market that young people represent, but also because if the suppliers of these products catch them young they would remain hooked on as addicted customers throughout their lives.


Food analysts rightly state that the goal of the producers of junk food is to create a craving for those products among consumers. Craving is a function of taste, smell and how a particular food product feels in the mouth, referred to as “oro-sensation”. According to them, companies spend millions of dollars to make sure that potato chips produced by them have the right type of crunch, so that the consumer enjoys it and gets addicted to its taste and smell.

As far as taste is concerned, the focus of the suppliers is on the actual “macronutrient make up of the food - the blend of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates that it contains”. In the promotion of junk food, suppliers work towards creating a perfect combination of salt, sugar, and fat with an intent to excite the brain, which would induce the consumer to keep coming back for more.

Soft drinks, and Colas are also harmful to human health, but producers of these products spend large sums of money and adopt innovative ways to promote their products, such as through sponsorship of prominent tournaments and events. In Sri Lanka too, consumption of soft drinks has reached unprecedented levels. It is reported that young males, aged 12 to 29 are the biggest consumers. At these levels the calories from soft drinks alone are as much as 10 % of the total daily calorie intake for growing youngsters.


In a free and democratic society, the dissemination of information is fundamental for the exercise of free choices, but where advertising a product leads to harmful effects for the public, such as through negative health implications, the authorities have to introduce appropriate regulatory measures and practices.

This, of course, has to be driven by public concerns and action by civil society. Such a strong movement is not in evidence in Sri Lanka, yet. Within that context it is particularly important that we study what other countries have achieved through their regulatory actions. It is time that we in Sri Lanka consider similar steps in the interest of protecting the health of the public, particularly, the younger generation.