by Marion Nestle
Mar 18 2010

What are food companies doing about childhood obesity?

Food companies interested in doing something meaningful to prevent childhood obesity are in a bind.  Preventing obesity usually means staying active; eating real, not processed, foods; and reserving soft drinks and juice drinks for special occasions.  None of this is good for the processed food business.  At best, food and beverage companies can make their products a bit less junky and back off from marketing to children.  In return, they can use the small changes they make for marketing purposes.

Perhaps as a result of Michelle Obama’s campaign (see yesterday’s post), companies are falling all over themselves – and with much fanfare – to tweak their products.

GROCERY MANUFACTURERS ASSOCIATION (GMA):  By all reports, GMA members applauded Mrs. Obama’s remarks.  GMA says its member companies are already doing what she asked.

Parke Wilde, a professor at the Tufts School of Nutrition (and food policy blogger), gave a talk at that meeting in a session dismissingly titled,  “The New Foodism.”  His comment:

I enjoyed hearing Michelle Obama’s talk, which was well written and delivered and fairly forceful in places. In my afternoon panel, I said grocery manufacturers would find some threatening themes in books and documentaries promoting local and organic and sustainable food, but that there is also much of substance and value. Then, Susan Borra [Edelman Public Relations] and Sally Squires [Powell Tate Public Relations] in the next session said that grocery manufacturers are frequent subjects of unfair criticism and have nothing to apologize for.

Take that, you new foodists!

MARS must think it knows more than the FDA about how to label food packages.  It is developing its own version of front-of-package labels. It volunteered to put calories on the front of its candies; its multi-pack candies ay 210 calories per serving on the front.  That number, however, remains on the back of the small candy store packs.  Mars’ new labeling plans use the complex scheme used in Europe.  I’m guessing this is a bold attempt to head off what it thinks the FDA might do – traffic lights.

KRAFT announces that it is voluntarily reducing the sodium in its foods by 10% by 2012.  Kraft’s Macaroni & Cheese (SpongeBob package) has 580 mg sodium per serving and there are two servings in one of those small boxes: 1160 in total.  A 10% reduction will bring it down to 1050 mg within two years.  The upper recommended limit for an adult is 2300 mg/day.

PEPSICO announced “a voluntary policy to stop sales of full-sugar soft drinks to primary and secondary schools worldwide by 2012.”  In a press statement, the Yale Rudd Center quotes Kelly Brownell saying that “tobacco companies were notorious for counteracting declining sales in the U.S. with exploitation of markets elsewhere, particularly in developing countries:”

it will be important to monitor whether the mere presence of beverage companies in schools increases demand for sugared beverages through branding, even if full-sugar beverages themselves are unavailable…This appears to be a good faith effort from a progressive company and I hope other beverage companies follow their lead…this announcement definitely represents progress [Note: see clarification at end of post].

According to PepsiCo, this new policy brings its international actions in line with what it is already doing in the U.S.  The policy itself is voluntary, uses words like “encourage,” assures schools that the company is not telling them what to do, and won’t be fully implemented until 2010.  It keeps vending machines in schools and still allows for plenty of branded sugary drinks: Gatorade, juice drinks, and sweetened milk for example.

Could any of this have anything to do with Kelly Brownell’s forceful endorsement of soda taxes?

LOBBYING: The Center for Responsive Politics says food companies spent big money on lobbying last year, and notes an enormous increase in the amount spent by the American Beverage Association (soda taxes, anyone?).  For example:

American Beverage Assn $18,850,000
Coca-Cola Co $9,390,000
PepsiCo Inc $9,159,500
Coca-Cola Enterprises $3,020,000
National Restaurant Assn $2,917,000
Mars Inc $1,655,000

How to view all this?  I see the company promises as useful first steps.  But how about the basic philosophical question we “new foodists” love to ask: “is a better-for-you junk food a good choice?”

OK.  We have the Public Relations.  Now let’s see what these companies really will do.

Addendum: I received a note clarifying Kelly Brownell’s role in the PepsiCo press release from Rebecca Gertsmark Oren,Communications Director,The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity,Yale University:

The Rudd Center did not work with PepsiCo on their initiative to stop sales of full-sugar beverages in schools worldwide, nor did we jointly issue a press release. A statement released by Kelly Brownell in response to PepsiCo’s announcement was simply intended to commend what appears to be a step in the right direction. As Kelly’s statement also mentioned, there is still plenty of work to be done. It’s also worth noting that the Rudd Center does not take funding from industry.

  • Anthro

    They will really do very little and attempt to take maximum credit for their paltry efforts by spinning them into major changes.

    As with smoking, people will need to just quit junk food cold turkey. The best first step for decreasing smoking, however, was the banning of tv advertising. You probably couldn’t even do that today, sad to say.

    It all makes me glad I’m older and my children grown.

  • I’m not going to hold my breath on this one… as long as the food industry is a for-profit venture, the food quality will be poor.

    What’s needed is a vigorous campaign promoting real foods; you know, the ones that generate very little profit for anyone.

  • Sheila

    Reducing the sodium by 10% over the next couple of years is paltry, and leaves a store full of highly-processed food that is still too high in sodium, as well as too high in fats, sugars, and chemicals. The consumer would still be better off to avoid processed, packaged foods and eat “real” food from the fresh food areas.

  • I’m impressed with what these companies are doing. I personally think a lot of processed food companies could handle lowering their sodium counts like Kraft did…do we really need to add a day’s worth of sodium to canned soups to taste good? I think not.

  • Pingback: Tom Douglas » Blog Archive » Food in the News/ by Shelley Lance, Blog Editor()

  • Certainly do not want to defend the processed food companies, but the “holier than thou” approach is not earned. For example you say: “Preventing obesity usually means staying active; eating real, not processed, foods; and reserving soft drinks and juice drinks for special occasions.”
    While this is closer than the processed food companies, this, by itself, will make no difference in any group studied using sound science and sound principals in the analysis. Until we follow the science on how each food reacts in the body i.e. what physiological effects it elicits and then modify our diet to reflect the foods that react positively in the body, we will continue to fail. Just as we do now, over and over again en perpetuity
    First Lady Obama is doomed to failure just as President Clinton along with the rest of the celebs extraordinaire
    Nice to see everybody thinking though or are they? Maybe just following the information cascades?

  • @ Joseph Gentzel, PT
    “Until we follow the science on how each food reacts in the body i.e. what physiological effects it elicits and then modify our diet to reflect the foods that react positively in the body, we will continue to fail. Just as we do now, over and over again en perpetuity”

    I’m not sure that nutrition science has advanced enough to be able to provide the information upon which we should construct diets.

    Here is a simplified tiered model of nutritional understanding (the size of the text correlates with the degree of understanding):

    Edible: is it food?
    Preference: do i like it?
    Health Benefit: is this good for me?
    Why? (basic): applies a basic knowledge of biology, chemistry, and physiology
    Why? (advanced): PhD level knowledge of science
    Interactions: how components of food work synergistically

    The information that you are advocating guide food decisions is the apex of the pyramid. We just don’t know it yet. Nutrition is still a very immature science, Michael Pollan makes the analogy that nutrition is today what surgery was in the 1650’s. We know what we should be doing (“eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) the issue now is reshaping food environments:
    -Bringing whole food to food deserts
    -School food reform
    -And even more importantly reducing the economic advantage of buying heavily processed foods

    Unlike during the Clinton administration, obesity and diet are now household issues. Americans understand the deleterious effects of the current food climate and are interested in changing it. There really isn’t a choice. What we are doing now isn’t sustainable for the environment, our health, and most importantly future generations.

  • WOW, the amount of money spent on lobbying listed above is incredible and scary. It is really no wonder why so many Americans consume packaged, processed “food” everyday. Disgusting.

  • DennisP

    While I agree with the revulsion in the above comments, I think that it is sort of beside the point. The goal of these companies is to earn a profit. They have to, to survive: revenues cannot fall below costs for any prolonged period. They have to, to satisfy their investors.

    How do they make profits? By selling food. How do they sell food? By making it taste good (hence the sugar, salt, and fat), by marketing, and by lobbying to gain governmental favors. They make money by selling unhealthy, heavily-processed food.

    Thus asking them to produce healthier food, less-processed food, and to “please” not market to children is asking them to act directly contrary to their fundamental purpose. The only way to win the game is to get consumers not to buy the food to which they are addicted (see Dave Kessler’s book The End of Overeating), like asking cocaine addicts not to buy the cocaine. Or just make it illegal to produce and sell heavily-processed food, like it is illegal to produce and sell cocaine in this country. But neither approach is going to happen.

    The hesitant half-steps being taken now won’t get us very far. Mrs. Obama can’t afford to cross swords with the food companies, and while you and I understand what happens to our health from eating these “edible, food-like substances”, a great many of our fellow citizens, and especially most young people, do not.

  • Why would the American Beverage Association spend so much money to promote taxes that would hurt beverage sales? I’m confused. Also bewildered by how much these companies spend to lobby.

  • Pingback: What Are Food Companies Doing About Childhood Obesity? « SpeakEasy()

  • Pingback: Kraft to Reduce Sodium in Products by 2012 | PCAS LABS()

  • Pingback: Fat Food is Back at 10,000 Monkeys and a Camera()

  • You know why they don’t change the way of selling food??? Because they think that if they start selling healthier food’s then less customors will come to the food buisness

  • If they started selling ‘healthy’ food I’m sure the price tag would be increased considerably, so as to sky-rocked the average family’s weekly food bill. Anything that is deemed healthy in our supermarkets here in the UK is overpriced. It’s expensive to eat healthy in most cases!

  • Pingback: Are food marketers responsible for obesity? « markgamache()

  • Yes! Finally someone writes about childhood obesity prevention
    in schools.