E. coli and Listeria are dangerous pathogens, but what about French fries, snack foods and candy? A medical journal article goes too far in saying junk foods deserve the same label.
Three experts in Alberta, writing in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology, say products with sodium, simple sugars, saturated and trans fats in excess of physiological needs justify the label of pathogen.
“A clear understanding by the food sector, public and policy-makers of the role of foods in disease – in part through the use of an appropriate terminology – might help change policies and behaviours,” wrote the lead author, Norm Campbell, a University of Calgary professor of medicine.
Other journals have issued similar calls to action. A Nature article earlier this month proposed an age limit for buying sugary soft drinks . A Journal of the American Medical Association article last year suggested extremely obese children in dangerously poor health be placed in temporary foster care.
Sugary, fatty foods are ubiquitous in the Canadian diet, purchased at drive-throughs or grocery store. Another study argues that 40 per cent of premature deaths are related to diet. These hazardous foods play a role in diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.
The CJC study says that governments have been reluctant to respond meaningfully to the deaths and disabilities of “tens of thousands of Canadians each year” attributable to junk-food diets.
Their commentary is an important wake-up call at a time when the public is worried about rising health costs and when obesity, poor eating habits and inactivity are contributing to chronic disease.
“Pathogen” is a combination of two Greek words, meaning “producer of illness.” But in popular use, it evokes alarm: a virus, infectious agent or bacterium striking down the public – not a bag of potato chips falling out of a vending machine.
The three authors are right to advocate new terminology, but “pathogen,” in its current usage, is too extreme.