Can good nutrition and corporate profits peacefully coexist? Can they even help each other?

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November 7, 2012 by Esther

Can improved nutrition be good for the bottom line? The short answer is yes—if it’s what customers want to buy. In his book “Stuffed,” Hank Cardello points out that while the food industry may be partially responsible for America’s growing obesity epidemic, it is not because food industry CEOs and marketers are out to destroy American public health. Instead, they have historically been trying to make a profit by giving customers what they want—after all, the most profits come from maximizing sales by ensuring customers are getting what they think is the best value. So as long as customers think bigger is better and convenience is more important than quality, they’ll get big, cheap, convenient, low-quality products. But…is it that simple? My guess is that most consumers would say nutrition is a priority, but is far more difficult to assess than parameters such as cost and size. Knowing that the same size item at $2.50 is cheaper than one priced $3.50 is a no-brainer. But when you try to figure out which one is healthiest good luck: is that Smart Balance better than the Brummel & Brown? Sure, avoiding trans-fat heavy margarines is a good idea, but should you then move to products advertised as healthy or go traditional and all-natural and stick to butter? Dietitians disagree on such questions, how is the poor consumer supposed to figure it out? Understanding and interpreting nutrition facts is challenging and can be an added time cost. Many of the posts from last month dealt with whether calorie labeling on menus would make a difference; one of the key considerations was whether anyone would care to read them (see for example the post by Elizabeth). So back to the question: yes, I think good nutrition can be good for the bottom line as long as customers understand that they are getting an improved product and it still meets their other shopping criteria (such as tasting good and fitting inside their budgets).
Framing the issue is more difficult, because “healthy” can have a bad rap. Some studies have shown that labeling food as healthy may decrease their perceived tastiness to children, while other studies among adolescents indicate they may be more willing to try healthy foods. (see, for example, the discussion of this in Harris & Bargh’s article) At the same time, capitalizing on the combined force of industry players’ reputations for tasty, inexpensive food and an emphasis on improved nutrition to address consumers’ health concerns may be a winning combination. Cardello cites a study which showed that children rated as more tasty foods that came wrapped in McDonalds branding whether or not they were foods served at McDonalds—perhaps such branding can provide an opportunity for children (and adults) to try healthier foods without fear of loss of flavor. Time will tell: already, food and beverage manufacturers and businesses such as WalMart and McDonalds have announced their intention of making their offerings healthier. This has great potential to discreetly improve the intake of Americans without any real effort on the part of the consumer. For example, removing trans-fats can offer customers a health benefit without requiring any behavior change for them. This is a win for public health as it reduces disease risk and a win for businesses who have earned renewed consumer confidence in the quality of their products.

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4 thoughts on “Can good nutrition and corporate profits peacefully coexist? Can they even help each other?

  1. Elizabeth says:

    This reminds me of “stealth health” – like when Oreo’s secretly removed trans-fat from their cookies years ago without telling anyone (making oreos ‘healthier’ would not be a politically popular move). I also am reminded of the Sesame Street characters being used on packages of fruits/vegetables – Elmo does a lot for sales!

  2. lizzyannsanders says:

    Esther makes a great point about the importance of value. It is always important to remember that healthfulness can be a component of a products value. Companies have already realized the benefits of not just marketing foods as tasty and inexpensive, but as tasty, inexpensive AND healthy.
    Unfortunately though, value is often linked to portion sizes… and we know that portion sizes are a major culprit in the spread of obesity. Companies (including major restaurant chains) have to start thinking of ways to emphasize value other than getting more food for less money. Ideally, companies would re frame the idea of value to mean “more nutritious food for less money” instead of just “more food for less money.”

    • lizzyannsanders says:

      Speaking of Portion Sizes, here is an article that examines whether value in terms of portion size effects consumer choices: http://eurpub.oxfordjournals.org/content/20/1/65.long

    • hkari2012 says:

      Even if portion sizes are equivocal, how does the consumer know which is the better choice? For example, consumers often think that the chicken sandwich is going to be healthier than the burger. But if the consumer gets the Mozarrellla Chicken Supreme instead of Dave’s Hot’N’Juice quarter pound burger at Wendy’s they just asked for almost 100 calories more, a total of 1630mg sodium (over 400 mg sodium more), and more grams of refined carbs. And the “value” of this meal compared to a meal that actually meets the cost of producing a cow or chicken, producing the bread, and growing the vegetables as toppings–that’s a whole different story. The glory of companies advertising value is that the consumer does not need to be conscious of the food chain or how the food product was made.

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