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>
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>