Is it MY fault if MY food kills people?

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October 8, 2012 by kevintmiller

The food industry has a problem.  Studies have demonstrated that when people eat outside the home, they consume more calories.  The percentage of calories eaten outside the home has steadily increased over the past thirty years (just like overweight and obesity rates and the percentage of death coming from chronic disease) and more and more calories are coming from fast food.  What’s more, people who eat out more seem to be aware that doing so is unhealthy.  Despite policies that now require chain restaurants to prominently display nutrition information for customers, it was shown in New York City that customers believed that the displayed information led them to make healthier choices about their meals, their receipts told another story – that they ate just as many calories as before.

What is so wrong with increased consumption of calories when people eat out?  The nation’s growing (no pun intended) problems with obesity and chronic disease have come alongside an increased consumption of calories.  But isn’t that the choice of the consumer?

It would take a skewed view of the world to believe that the food industry wants to create products that contribute to health problems. This article from the New England Journal of medicine questions food industry motives with regard to labeling efforts, however.   Human appetites naturally tend toward foods that are high in fat and sugar and sodium as they are delicious and desirable.  It is inconvenient for health that the food industry has been so effective at producing desirable foods at favorable profit margins.  It has been quite favorable for the bottom line of several large companies, however.

Here’s the conundrum that food industry faces: 1. People don’t usually want healthy foods (like fresh vegetables, whole grains, or lean meats) when they can have the alternative (potato chips, highly processed snack cakes, and fast food cheeseburgers).  2. The alternative (and generally less healthy) foods can be produced at a high profit margin. 3. Our nation’s agricultural supply encourages the production of the foods that have led to increased calorie consumption.  4. Food industry has done an effective job marketing their products so that consumers demand them.

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If a company can sell cotton-candy flavored yogurt in a tube, it just might have the ability to market healthier options, too.

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Happily, these products have Front-of-Pack labeling to tell consumers how (un)healthy they are.  Despite being less nutritious than many other foods and having artificial and questionable flavors, they sell anyway.  This makes me think the food industry could market and sell anything it wants.

When I put myself in the shoes of a person in food industry, I realize that it is a struggle to have to balance making a profit with knowing that people may be facing adverse health conditions or even death because of a contribution of my products to unhealthy lifestyle.  I know that my customers have a choice, but I also know that I can influence the choices of consumers based upon my marketing and upon the options that I offer.  I do not know whether or not it is my responsibility or even my right to change my products with labeling (or whatever else) in an effort to ensure healthier choices.  I do know, however, that (assuming I am powerful enough within industry) I could probably influence people to have a healthier lifestyle.  Ultimately, I guess I have to ask myself if it is MY fault if MY food kills people.

Brownell KD, Koplan JP. Front-of-package nutrition labeling – An abuse of trust by the food industry? NEJM. 2011;364:2373–2375.

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4 thoughts on “Is it MY fault if MY food kills people?

  1. You might enjoy reading “Stuffed” by Hank Cardello…. to help you better understand the minds and motivation of those in the food industry.

  2. afrazzini says:

    So I just finished Stuffed on my plane ride back to Chapel Hill, and it’s clear that there are plenty of people in the food industry who do want to play a role in improving the health of the nation – but it’s also clear that they face many challenges. Cardello seems to believe that companies can improve their products by taking a “Stealth Health” approach, but I’m not optimistic that product formulations can actually get much more nutritious without customers noticing – people like things sweet sweet sweet!

    Food manufacturers have strong motivation to make unhealthy food because that is what sells best. Making healthy changes to products or launching new healthy lines of product is a big risk for food manufacturers, and even those CEOs who want to improve the health of their products may be under pressure from their shareholders not to do so. Companies who choose to take a risk for the sake of their clients’ health may be putting themselves at a disadvantage in the marketplace, compared to companies who don’t take the risk. By creating marketing-related policy such as mandatory traffic-light-labeling, which would promote a shift in customer demand and therefore motivate changes amongst all food manufacturers, I think we could do a favor to those companies that would otherwise go the extra mile for health and put themselves at a disadvantage – because there is no disadvantage if everybody is doing it.

    • kevintmiller says:

      I think you are correct – there are plenty in the food industry who would love to make great tasting food that is wholesome and fulfilling for people. I think many would love to improve health and happiness with their products – to be able to make true statements about how one’s life would be better with their product in it. And your point is well taken that those who might want to do good are under the pressure of having to focus on profit to be able to compete and stay alive in a market where other companies may not have the same feeling of moral responsibility. If the traffic-light approach or labeling in restaurants is a way of leveling the playing field for companies who want to do good, do you think it is the kind of good these companies want to do? What if they want to devote their “good efforts” in another direction? Will such a mandate require them to use resources for labeling that might otherwise go to another effort? I don’t know the answers, but they are tough questions, without a doubt.

  3. jsohl says:

    Hmmm…the blame game is always an interesting one to play when it comes the role that food industry plays in the health of consumers. Should food companies and restaurants be held responsible for chronic diseases that result from overindulgence in their products? The answer would be more obvious if small levels on intake were strongly associated with chronic disease, but in reality the food industry banks on the idea that they can get consumers hooked on certain profitable foods with clever advertising and through manipulation of ingredients to a deliciously tempting level of sugar, sodium and fat. With overweight and obesity rates continuing to climb and many large food companies not making efforts to make their products healthier, is it appropriate for the government to intervene?

    Nutritional facts labels are already required on all packaged foods, but perhaps front-of-pack labeling that uses pictures will better steer consumers to healthier choices? This is a possibility, but will pointing a consumer to a different brand with only a slightly better nutritional profile make a significant difference in their overall health (1)? As for calorie menu labeling, well, it hasn’t been shown to hurt. For those that do not become desensitized to the in-your-face nutritional facts approach, there is a chance it may help to at least raise awareness, but labeling is just one tiny approach to addressing a much larger problem.

    (1)http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Market/Front-of-pack-labeling-in-pictures-Healthier-choices-at-a-glance-or-more-nutritional-wallpaper/?c=nRB3k9g1NuQ1RzVZOITPdw%3D%3D&utm_source=newsletter_daily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Newsletter%2BDaily

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