Fighting the Food Industry

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November 13, 2012 by hkari2012

>Food Inc. Earthlings. Farmageddon. SuperSize Me. King Corn. These are all movies aiming to reveal the food industry’s deceptive practices, unethical standards, and marketing schemes that harm animals and make us fat. These movies are the tip of the iceberg of the growing hatred for the modern food industry–starting from agrarian practices all the way to the evil labels of packaged foods on our shelves. Everyone concerned for public health or involved in nutrition feels the need to reveal such deceptive practices for the sake providing a service to help fellow citizens. It appears in news stories as “Things the Food Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know!” as if to say you need to know tricks to avoid being duped by multi-billion dollar corporations. While I must admit that I have always been on the  same side of the fence proclaiming the problems with our food industry as they are more concerned with profit margins rather than the margins in the public’s waistline, I do appreciate the reminder from Hank Cardello in his book Stuffed that the food industry created foods based on demand.

Consumer demand drives the creation and advertising for food products. (I say food product because these manufactured, packaged foods are the ones most hotly contested; not the bananas and carrots.) Cardello reminded me that:

“The better consumer packaged goods firms are very responsive to consumer needs…With this mind-set came a fundamental belief in consumer research and market testing. The only problem was that all the consume feedback frequently seemed to push them in the wrong direction from a health perspective: Bigger is better; it equals more bang for your buck” (1).

This mind-set then begs the question: Which came first? The demand or the product? If we blame the food industry for mashing together unnatural food combinations–like sweet and salty or fat and sweet–thus making it impossible to resist consuming such products then the public has to take no responsibility for making such decisions to eat them in excessive amounts. Cardello reminds us that the food industry was not setting out to make us fat but rather was perceptive to consumer demand and their profits. So is the food industry really out to deceive us that consuming their products will expand our waistline?

One could argue that using labels such as “No Carbs”, “Trans Fat Free”, “All Natural” are often used to be deceiving. But again, those labels were developed after nutrition experts proclaimed that high carbohydrate diets were making us fat and advocated for the Atkins diet, or that trans fats were the bad processed fats that were killing arteries nationwide, or that processed ingredients that we can’t pronounce are causing cancer so then the public demanded such low carb, trans fat free, and all natural products.

The issue now is that so many Americans are overweight or obese and experiencing chronic diseases that increase medical costs, shorten life spans, and decrease quality of life. The consumer demand may have led the creation of such products but this was well before “we knew better”. One could argue with education comes responsibility; now that we know that eating McDonalds #1 Combo daily can cause weight gain in epic proportions (thanks SuperSize Me) then McDonalds should stop serving it or promote healthy options as shamelessly as they make kids addicted to Happy Meals. But then there’s the counterargument of moderation from the food industry. One Happy Meal once in awhile is totally fine and all wise dietitians will agree on principle (unless they oppose the meat processing industry like me but that’s whole new ball game).

It is easy for me to be more lenient on the food industry folk in the case of the obesity epidemic. For those that know me, they know that obesity is not why I became interested in public health. It is a huge issue (no pun intended) and I am glad there are researchers, practitioners, and dietitians alike that are willing to tackle it. To be angry at the food industry for seeking to make money off Cheetos at the expense of public health really isn’t really my mantra.

However, the food industry taking advantage of the poor by creating unhealthy foods the cheapest option does get me going. McDonald’s promise to reduce the sodium content their Chicken McNuggets and providing more nutrition information doesn’t leave me praising the fast food chain as a public health champion (2). I’ll hand over a high five when the Angus Burger combo is more expensive than the salad. As much as I am not a fan of Wal-Mart I have to congratulate them on making moves to “dramatically reduce or eliminate the price premium on key “better-for-you” items, such as reduced sodium, sugar or fat products” (3). This move does not guarantee that the food product is in fact healthy (if the sugar is reduced it’s usually replaced with fat to still keep it palatable) at least Wal-Mart is considering the effect of the economic downturn on consumer’s shopping choices. I would be more likely to buy Wal-Mart a cookie (see how food rewards with unhealthy items are ingrained in our culture?) if they were to use profits from companies’ payments for prime shelving space to subsidize the cost of the fruits and vegetables in the store.

In a saturated market where profits drive decision-making the push has to be for the industry to see that there is still an unmet consumer demand. There is a growing demography of the poor in America–those below the poverty line and just above it–who cannot afford the healthy food products. The push needs to be for Kellogg’s to make Frosted Flakes more expensive than the higher protein, lower sugar Kashi cereal to cost less. In addition to this idea, the food industry has to believe that healthy foods taste good. This idea has not entered into the mindset of package foods; healthy foods are marketed as tasting good. Healthy foods are marketed for their health benefits. And as we’ve learned consumer demand is not based on health concerns but on taste. Why else did those palatable foods become so popular?

 

1. Cardello, Hank. Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (really) Making America Fat. New York: Ecco, 2009.

2. McDonald’s USA. Long-Term Plan Involves Ongoing Menu Evolution, Nutrition Awareness Communication. N.P, July 2011. <http://www.mcdonalds.com/us/en/home.html&gt;

3. WalMart. Walmart Launches Major Initiative to Make Food Healthier and Healthier Food More Affordable. Jan 2011. <http://news.walmart.com/news-archive/2011/01/20/walmart-launches-major-initiative-to-make-food-healthier-healthier-food-more-affordable&gt;

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4 thoughts on “Fighting the Food Industry

  1. yuiweng says:

    It is always a pleasure to read your post, Kari. Obesity is indeed a complicated issue and you present interesting opinions with Kari-style humor. As public health fellows, we often times label food industry as the “bad guys” that supersize Americans. But who are they, actually? They are well educated people, maybe with Phd, MS, or MBA after their names, processioned at food science, nutrition, chemistry, and business. Their mission is to make better products that consumers like and bring up sales. The main difference here is that we define good foods/products differently. It’s our mother nature to pursue high fat, high sugar, and calorie dense food to help us survive Stone Age. But sadly our genetic is not catching up with industrial revolution and now we are here, stuck with massive unhealthy choices than ever. So the questions is, if our palate is deceiving, what else we can trust on? It’s hard to come up with the best answer but science is making an effort to find out the truth. CDC, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and USDA release dietary guideline for Americans to advice about consuming fewer calories and making informed food choices.( Let’s just skip the politics and lobbying groups behind these recommendations.) It is also important for public health practitioners and government to send out positive messages on good nutrition foods and shape the social norms toward them. As New York City Board of Health had approved Mayor Michael Bloomerg’s plan on food procurement guidelines (1)this June, it lets public and food industry knows NYC’s stands on restricting large(>16oz) sodas, processed foods, and their determination on following dietary guidelines along with promoting public health.

    (1) http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/downloads/pdf/cardio/cardio-food-standards.pdf

  2. locklearcr says:

    You make some really great statements here. I agree with the idea of us as Americans creating the demand for these hyper-palatable convenience foods; we’ve seriously dug ourselves into a hole now. The market for those products has exploded and has become this monster of temptation everywhere we turn.

    We do need to shift advertising to healthy foods being DELICIOUS and not just nutritious. People don’t want to eat a meal and leave feeling deprived or restricted. Most of us don’t choose something based on solely its nutrient content; we want to get some pleasure from it too gosh darnit! That’s where we have to connect the two.

    It’s sad that it’s come to the point where we feel that the laws and environment have to change for people to make healthier individual choices. But then again, we are in a situation that we have never been before; a bombardment of addictive and cheap foods. And I can understand why it might be offensive to some because of the implication that we can’t “think for ourselves” anymore. Just like in the hospital setting; should we be allowing fried chicken and Coke onto the tray of a patient who just had an MI? It’s tricky. Should we only help those who want to help themselves? Or should we take the stance of superiority and make decisions for the ones who could also care less?

    I do think a shift in food prices/taxes would be very helpful at this point, especially seeing how effective those kinds of programs have been in hospital settings (making burgers twice as expensive as the salad bar). I love the idea because it would seem to reach more people without them having to go out and learn a ton about nutrition to make the choice based upon their knowledge.

    We are driven by $$$. So as nice as it would be to educate everyone and have that immediately result in better food choices, it’s just not realistic. It has been repeatedly proven that changes in food pricing will change the sale of the product (1). Maybe that could be the first step, to give us the ‘nudge’ that we need to lessen the consumption of these irresistibly unhealthy foods.

    1.http://jn.nutrition.org/content/133/3/841S.full

  3. eldavies3 says:

    Great post, Kari! You brought up some fascinating points, especially the idea that, as much as we’d like to demonize the food industry for getting us all addicted to peanut butter M&Ms (or maybe that’s just me?), the products were created in response to consumer preference and demand. It’s like Mars, Inc. knows me better than I know myself. I’ve been mulling this idea over, and maybe a potential solution is attempting to change taste preferences. Since we know that taste preferences form early and are affected by various psychosocial factors and exposure to different foods (1), perhaps we could use the National School Lunch Program or the educational system in general as a springboard. Of course, schools already serve fruits and vegetables as part of lunch, but as discussed in another a post, they’re often quite unappealing. I know I’m being idealistic here, but if we could work on changing the preferences of an entire generation of children, they may be better prepared to face and avoid the gastronomical temptations presented by the food industry down the line.

    References:
    1. Harris, Gillian. “Development of Taste and Food Preferences in Children.” Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care 11.3 (2008): 315-19. Print.

  4. jaherber says:

    Kari, your thoughts are well articulated and definitely resonate with me. I too am frustrated by the fact that the more nutritious items at restaurants (fast food or sit down) and grocery stores are always the most expensive. However, as we well know, preservatives allow for products to have a longer shelf life and in turn drive down costs. As can be summed up through your post, it’s definitely a complicated situation. On the one hand, I fully advocate for companies to be more responsible when it comes to their deceptive sales practices and to offer a higher quality product that is both healthy and affordable. On the other hand, I totally understand that businesses are in business to make money; and that the consumer also has to be in charge of their own diets. So in essence, a middle ground must be met. Commitments from the likes of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF) and Wal-Mart to reduce caloric content of their products by 2015 shows an earnest pledge on the part of the business community. Now, it is on the consumer, with the help of health professionals, to better educate themselves and become champions of portion size and food choice.

    1. “Walmart Launches Major Initiative to Make Food Healthier and Healthier Food More Affordable.” Walmart. Jan 2011. Available at: http://news.walmart.com/news-archive/2011/01/20/walmart-launches-major-initiative-to-make-food-healthier-healthier-food-more-affordable
    2. “Food and Beverage Manufacturers Pledging to Reduce Annual Calories By 1.5 Trillion By 2015”. Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation. May 2010. Available at: http://www.healthyweightcommit.org/news/Reduce_Annual_Calories/

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