Healthy options good for consumers AND food industry’s bottom line

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November 12, 2012 by eldavies3

On a recent trip to Atlanta, I visited the World of Coca-Cola Museum. Almost immediately upon entering the new and attractive facility, I was ushered into a movie theater where computer-animated characters sang and joked from the screen. Their message focused principally on selling Coca-Cola, by reminding viewers that Coca-Cola is pure Americana, claiming that it can reverse a bad mood, etc. Naturally, I was surprised when they began to sing about the importance of physical activity in maintaining good health. Thanks to several recent studies, including one out of Harvard School of Public Health, the link between soda consumption and obesity seems clearer than ever. With this knowledge in mind, I wondered to myself, since when does The Coca-Cola Company care about my health?

            It’s practically a matter of fact that the food industry values profit over the healthfulness of their products, generally speaking. According to Hank Cardello, a former executive at Coca-Cola and General Mills and author of Stuffed: An Insider’s Look into Who’s Really Making America Fat, the food industry comprises three major arms: packaged goods (e.g. Frito-Lay), supermarket chains (e.g. Harris Teeter and Whole Foods Market), and restaurants (1). One only has to consider packaged foods and foods served at restaurants and sold at grocery stores to realize that the majority of them are processed and often loaded with additives such as salt, sweeteners, fat, and stabilizing and flavoring chemicals. Why is this the case? The answer isn’t simple, but one reason is that processing food adds value, meaning that food corporations can charge more and thus increase their profit margins.

Another important factor is Americans’ increasing reliance on convenience and restaurant food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, in 2010 Americans spent $594 billion on food away from home, or 52 percent of total food expenditures for all food consumed (2). Here, too, the food industry can push for profits. By increasing portion sizes, food corporations can charge higher prices with only a nominal increase in the cost of ingredients, which are generally purchased in bulk (1). As Hank Cardello points out, “Big brands do not like to make big changes” (1). They are often loath to make any changes that could affect the bottom line and instead focus on manufacturing consistent products to maintain brand loyalty.

Despite resistance to change, convincing the food industry to sell healthier products is not a hopeless cause. The key lies in helping major food corporations see that changing their products by substituting healthier ingredients and even minimizing processing will not necessarily decrease the bottom line. In my opinion, the only way for this shift to occur is to generate public demand for healthier foods, namely through educational efforts and public service announcements. Over the past decade, the media has focused increasing attention on the nation’s obesity epidemic and efforts to address it. First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign is an excellent example. Thanks to advertisements, billboards, and guest spots on popular television shows, Let’s Move! is widely known and has helped create more public awareness about the need for healthier foods and increased physical activity, especially among children. By extension, people with more knowledge about nutrition can be empowered to make better choices, and to demand the availability of better choices from the food industry.

In fact, it seems that increased demand for healthy options is already leading to change in the food industry. In 2010, the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, which includes such major food conglomerates as Campbell Soup, General Mills, Conagra, Kraft, Mars, Nestlé, Pepsi, Coke, and Hershey, committed to reduce annual calories available in the marketplace by 1.5 trillion (3). Their efforts, monitored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, will include educational initiatives as well as changes to actual food products. Even McDonald’s, the quintessential fast food restaurant, has responded to consumer demand by producing healthier Happy Meals for children with smaller portions of French fries and sliced apples in every meal (4). Because the demand for healthier options is present and growing, food corporations can respond by creating healthier options without worrying about the bottom line.

 

 

  1. Cardello, Hank, and Doug Garr. Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (really) Making America Fat. New York: Ecco, 2009. Print.
  2. “Food Consumption Trends – Agricultural Marketing Resource Center.” AgMRC. Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2012. <http://agmrc.org/markets__industries/food/food-consumption-trends/&gt;.
  3. Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation. Fighting Obesity by Balancing Calories In with Calories Out. N.p., 17 May 2010. Web. <http://www.healthyweightcommit.org/&gt;.
  4. McDonald’s USA. Long-Term Plan Involves Ongoing Menu Evolution, Nutrition Awareness Communication. N.p., 26 July 2011. Web. <http://www.mcdonalds.com/us/en/home.html&gt;.
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3 thoughts on “Healthy options good for consumers AND food industry’s bottom line

  1. Esther says:

    Good post! But I must say, your first paragraph left me wondering not “since when does The Coca-Cola Company care about my health?” but “since when does The Coca-Cola Company have anything to do with physical activity?” Oh, I know they talk about it. I know they encourage it. I know they have pictures on their Coke cans of little running people inspiring us to exercise more. But what really, is the fundamental link between drinking sweet things and running out for a jog? If we’re going to be honest, there isn’t much of one. So the cynical side of me is left asking why they’re focusing on an aspect of health—physical activity—unrelated to their products when there’s an equally important health issue—nutrition—staring us in the face with every can. Is it all just clever advertising to get the concepts “Coke” and “healthy” subconsciously associated in our minds? Or is there a more dangerous subliminal message that America’s obesity epidemic is really just an individual concern and not one the industry must take responsibility for? Yes, I agree that healthy products can be good for the bottom line, but I think the food industry should be more active in promoting truly healthy products to their customers, keeping in mind the importance of prices and not pricing poorer consumers out of the market for healthy food as Kari discusses.

  2. jsohl says:

    Elizabeth, I’ve been to Atlanta once and was said I didn’t have time to visit the Coca Cola Museum!
    I find the food industry’s response to bad press really interesting. I wonder if these campaigns make any difference at all in terms of public health. Does Coca Cola’s new message encouraging physical activity actually increase physical activity in its consumers or even thoughts about physical activity? Or do these types of campaigns just make people more cynical about their motives? It’s certainly obvious to us why companies that sell unhealthy foods are promoting other healthy activities and choices. Cereal ads have been stating, “as part of a healthy breakfast” for decades, so the concept of selling the idea that their product can be part of a healthy lifestyle isn’t brand new, but these overt campaigns for promoting exercise seems to be. Perhaps the campaigns actually make the consumer more likely to increase their consumption of the product because they are associating it with a healthy lifestyle. I love the concept of the Healthy Weight Commitment. I would imagine that this has increased reformulation of many products, which might be a step in the right direction, but it could be a double-edged sword. If consumers start eating more of the reformulated products because the marketing convinces them that they are healthy or part of a healthy diet and lifestyle, there overall intake of that type of product may increase. So many things to think about!

  3. amberpulaski says:

    I agree with you, Elizabeth, that if companies minimize processing involved in producing commonly eaten foods their bottom lines will not necessarily be affected. However, I imagine the transition period will require extra effort and associated increase in funds. As you pointed out in your post, companies need a push from the general public to motivate them to change their products. I think part of the reason companies don’t feel pressure to adjust products is that, in general, many Americans don’t focus enough on quality of ingredients in food. As you mentioned in your blog post, often Americans are enticed by quantity/price ratio. I read a book last summer called, “Why French Women Don’t get Fat”, in which the author, Mireille Guiliano, (a women who grew up in France and now lives in America) presented her opinion that Americans don’t demand quality ingredients and are often more interested in quantity. Mireille believes this is one of the links to high rate of obesity in America. Perhaps, public service announcements and education could focus on helping people identify products with quality ingredients (e.g., those without preservatives or trans fats). I think campaigns focused on “healthy” foods have confused people, because companies have found clever ways to advertise their foods as being “healthy”. The general public is confused (understandably!), due to being bombarded with misleading health information. Back to my original point, I agree that the public needs to demand healthier foods (and be able to identify foods that are indeed healthy) to encourage the food industry to change their products. At the end of the day, I think their bottom line will be just fine.

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