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CHICAGO - When the Oreo was first introduced in 1912, one of the biggest health problems in America was undernourishment. By the dawn of this century, as Oreo sales reached unprecedented heights, scientists were arguing over how severe the nation's obesity crisis had become.
Estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are that nearly two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. Although government experts have had well-publicized differences over how many deaths obesity causes, they all agree that the problem is real - and getting worse.
What happened? The answer is complex. Americans ate more fast food and exercised less, while kids in particular pushed snacking to new extremes. It's a story that goes far beyond the Oreo, yet in many ways the rise of the cookie parallels the story of how America got fat.
For decades employees at food companies such as Kraft saw their job as a calling to banish scarcity and feed the world. But in their push to make food abundant, they helped the nation go too far. Falling prices and aggressive marketing of fattening food helped bring about a cultural shift in snacking habits.
"The role of snacking in our diet has really become as important as breakfast, lunch or dinner," said Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina who has analyzed decades of snacking data. "That's a remarkable shift."
Dueling studies released in the last year raised some doubt about the scope of the obesity epidemic. One study by CDC researchers estimated that obesity-related health problems account for 365,000 deaths in the United States each year; then last April, a different group of CDC researchers looking at different data placed the number at 112,000. But Katherine Flegal, a CDC researcher who led the second study, said there is little question that obesity is a looming health threat.
"We know from our data that obesity is going up and up in the U.S. and all over the world in developed countries," Flegal said.
America's love affair with snacks has grown along with the obesity crisis. Once a luxury, snacks now are seen as a cheap staple. Longer working hours make it harder for people to prepare balanced meals at home, increasing the appeal of fast food, bottled soda and on-the-go snacks.
Processed food also has become an increasingly good bargain. In 1930, American families spent about one-quarter of their income on food. In 2003, they spent just one-tenth, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A package of Oreos today costs far less, adjusting for inflation, than it did when the cookie was first launched.
The rise of fast food and junk food contributed to skyrocketing levels of sugar and fat in the national diet. According to U.N. figures, Americans consume more sugar and other sweeteners than any nation except India, which has more than three times as many people.
Children made the biggest jump in snacking. Since 1977, an average child has increased snacking by the equivalent of one helping of potato chips or three extra Oreos per day, Popkin estimates.
Eating just 100 fewer calories per day could help adults shed as many as 10 pounds per year, Popkin said. A few less treats each day would be enough - avoiding the equivalent of a small glass of Pepsi, four Hershey's Kisses or two Oreos.
(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.