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