Nutritional groups across the Western world are encouraging a fat tax on high-fat foods. The move, although largely unpopular, does however indicate a very real problem that is currently hitting governments across the world - obesity.
"In Europe, governments spend approximately five per cent of total national health care costs on obesity," said Professor Andreu Palou of University of Balearic Islands and a member of the EU Scientific Committee on Food. "These are direct costs to which other indirect costs have been added: loss of work days; loss of years of work due to early death; cost of special clothes," Professor Palou continued.
Although available data is imprecise, according to Palou the European countries currently facing the highest rates of obesity are Greece , Romania, Czech Republic, England, Germany and Finland. For these countries clinical obesity touches more than 15 per cent of the population.
"Obesity is rising in epidemic proportions. In the past ten years it has increased by approximately 25 per cent in Europe, and in the UK alone obesity has more than doubled in the past 20 years. This is similarly the case for Greece and certain east European countries," he added.
It is with some concern that scientists are also observing a steep rise in obesity in developing countries. "This is occurring in the shadow of 'westernisation'," said Palou. "The West has brought fast food, food of high palatability, energy dense, big portions. This is combined with a sedentary life style, less exercise and more TV, to name but a few reasons," Palou explained.
A further explanation for this increasing problem has a distinctly Darwinian angle. "Our genes are better prepared to combat the lack of food than to combat excess of food because for many generations we have evolved in an environment where food was not always available."
While we can not concentrate millions of years of evolution into a couple of decades, solutions to the problem are pressing. "I think education is very important, and from a very young age. Interestingly, alterations in food intake and body weight during infancy and adolescents appear to have a bigger impact on the founding of resistant obesities," said Palou.
"Today, the relationship between diet and health is clear, and preventive measures should include nutritional education as a key element. This is not only applicable to obesity but to two other chronic diseases in Europe - cancer and cardiovascular disease," he added.
Professor Palou believes that scientific advancements in the field of genetics could provide future solutions to the problem of obesity.
"The ongoing development of the so called new post-genomic technologies will open new perspectives in the following years. They will allow us to distinguish those for whom obesity or being overweight (even moderately overweight) will cause more medical complications from those for whom being overweight is only an aesthetic problem."
So what active steps is Europe taking to combat the problem? "For many years obesity was not considered to be a real disease, simply an aesthetic problem. It is only recently, during the last seven or eight years, that the number of research activities looking into obesity has exploded. "
"There is intense research activity and both the food and health care industries should prepare for new developments to be applied in the next five to ten years," said Palou.
Highlighting again the power of genetics Palou added: "Pandora's box was opened when the cloning of the first few genes relating to obesity occurred, approximately from 1994 to 1996. Now we know of more than 200 genes that can influence body weight control. Scientists are currently unravelling molecular mechanisms that govern body weight control systems."
While the geneticists tackle the problem from a DNA perspective, what role can food science play?
"A very important one," affirmed Professor Palou. "The food industry should be prepared to produce food that fulfils its traditional purpose - satiety, pleasure, nutritional needs - but it must also meet other demands. For instance, people with a tendency to gain excess weight will demand the appropriate food - one which helps increase energy waste (the so called thermogenesis) and/or decrease food intake."
"The European funded COST Action 918 is currently analysing body weight control from the perspective of thermogenesis (energy expenditure) and includes the potential interest of 'thermogenic food'. The excess of ingested energy is lost as heat (thermogenesis) instead of being accumulated as fat."
As scientists reduce solutions to obesity to a molecular level, for Professor Palou the most differentiating characteristic in the near future will be the individual consideration of obesity.
"There is no one single obesity but a variety of different obesities. If each case has particular genetic-molecular characteristics, then we can expect a different response to drugs and foods." "Foods that aim to prevent disease through nutrition, otherwise known as functional foods, should have an impact on the problem. Science and the food industry are currently moving in parallel with science providing new visions of nutrients."
An interpretation of Palou's words, in particular the role of nutrigenomics, could lead us to the perverse paradox that food, largely the source of obesity, could actually also hold the solution.