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.
- Cardello, Hank, and Doug Garr. Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (really) Making America Fat. New York: Ecco, 2009. Print.
- “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/>.
- Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation. Fighting Obesity by Balancing Calories In with Calories Out. N.p., 17 May 2010. Web. <http://www.healthyweightcommit.org/>.
- 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>.