by Marion Nestle
Mar 25 2011

Are processed “junk” foods in trouble?

So many readers have sent me the link to the Chicago Tribune story about efforts of packaged food producers to make their products look healthy that I thought I had best say something about it.

The article lists the large number of companies that are “healthifying” their products:

  • PepsiCo: Combining Tropicana, Quaker Oats and dairy; low-sodium salt.
  • Walmart: Cutting trans fat and sodium in its Great Value products; encouraging major brands to make healthier products.
  • Kraft:  Adding fruit to Lunchables and more whole grain to Wheat Thins.
  • Nestlé (no relation): Making small changes so consumers won’t feel deprived.
  • Campbell’s:  Trying to reduce sodium in soup, promoting liquid vegetables through its V8 brand and whole grains with Pepperidge Farm.
  • Starbucks: Offering sweets with 200 or fewer calories.

And Pepsi, says the Wall Street Journal, is converting most of its products—but not Doritos or Cheetos—to all-natural ingredients.  Doritos and Cheetos, in case you wondered, are:

harder to retool and are marketed to teens and other consumers who might be turned off if told the chips were all natural.  As well, going all natural risks highlighting the artificial ingredients that were in the chips before.

What’s going on here?  Processed food makers must be in trouble.  “Healthy” and “natural” are the only things selling these days.

But isn’t a “healthy” processed snack food an oxymoron?  They can tweak and tweak the contents, but these products will still be heavily processed.

Too much evidence now concludes that marketing a product as “healthy” or “natural” makes people think it has no calories.

And as I keep saying, just because a processed food is a little bit less bad than it used to be, doesn’t necessarily make it a good choice.

  • Ellen

    I don’t think industry has much responsibility in contributing to childhood obesity, no. If there’s a direct linkage between sugar consumption and childhood obesity, it seems that the people who control the child’s access to sugar, their parents, bear the responsibility if they give the child too much. But I’m glad we agree that children would probably want sweetened foods even if they weren’t advertised.

  • Ellen

    @Michael– nothing you’ve said contradicts what I’ve said. The idea that food preferences are entirely innate and not influenced by culture and learned preferences is indeed ridiculuous and not worth discussing. Likewise the idea that food preferences are entirely dependent on culture and learned preferences and not influenced by innate preferences. Again, seriously: are you arguing that most children don’t prefer sweetened foods? That they would reach for brussels sprouts rather than chocolate cake if it weren’t for cultural conditioning?

  • Michael Bulger

    Blaming the parent is the simplest thing you can do. If you think this is a problem that is going to be solved that simply, you are in for a shock. We are a community, and the food companies play an enormous role in our choices.

    The corporations love when the blame gets shifted from them. It doesn’t change the fact that they made the chocolate cake (and research shows kids can learn to love veggies).

    It is truly ludicrous to prepose that if I create an unhealthy product and spend millions of dollars marketing it to your children, that I am not in someway responsible. That is patently absurd.

  • Doc Mudd

    Absolving parents (and adults generally) from an absence of personal accountability certainly sells books, as Marion Nestle and other pop foodie authors have discovered. Who wants to pay $29.95 for a book that holds your feet to the fire over something as important and timely as childhood obesity? This lucrative journalistic phenomenon harkens back to the days of Dr. Spock pop parenting and the “I’m OK, You’re OK” feel-good pop philosophies.

    If you are stubbornly committed to fanatically dismissing personal accountability out of hand, “the simplest thing you can do” is blame a vulnerable scapegoat, ideally one that is faceless and without human attributes, one that does not evoke empathy or sympathy. Et viola, corporations and government fill the bill perfectly!!

    In misdiagnosing causation of the childhood obesity ‘epidemic’ there is blame enough to go around, including culpability for any disingenuous zealot who would foist utter nonsense to sell books, to curry favor with clique leaders or for any self-absorbed purpose.

    The very suggestion that parental responsibility and accountability are irrelevant to childhood obesity is absurd, “patently absurd” with whipped cream on top.

  • Michael Bulger

    Thankfully, no one seems to be absolving personal responsibility. Some of us are just committed enough to our own health and that of others to realize that responsibility extends to the makers and marketers of junk food.

    It takes both genuine concern for others and intelligence to understand that decisions are not made in a vacuum. Hopefully, everyone involved will make better decisions.

  • Ellen

    Michael, I’m glad you recognize that parents bear responsibility for– and thus have rights concerning– their children. I certainly wouldn’t want to cede the responsibility/right to PepsiCo. It’s also interesting that you’ve chosen a much weaker claim to defend than the one I challenged you to defend. “Kids can learn to love veggies” is a claim that may in most cases be true (most kids have at least some veggies they can learn to love!), but it’s much less damning to industry than the ridiculous claim that kids only like sugar because eeeevil corporations advertise sweetened products. Kids usually like grandma’s homemade cookies more than her home-canned green beans for innate reasons; I’m glad to see you’re not so divorced from reality that you’re denying that.

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  • @Everyone

    Companies advertise their product to make you choose their product over someone else’s. There’s more than one company making any particular product.

    Again, the demand is already there. We market a particular product. Three other companies market the same exact product. We advertise ours to make you choose ours over theirs.

    By no means are we doing a “disservice” to society. By no means are we fighting a “losing battle”. This is not some grand conspiracy to trick people into eating junk food. If the people wanted healthy, we would give healthy.

    Forcing a healthy product down a person’s before they ask for it is a sure-fire way to go out of business.

    Take for example the original blog post here, people’s idea of good food is shifting, so some companies are adjusting. People cry out, and the companies respond. That’s all it is.

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  • Michael Bulger


    The research shows that kids will like what is marketed to them. I don’t think it is unreasonable to believe that if beans filled an aisle of the grocery store, featured packages with their favorite cartoon characters, and plastered the television with ads during Saturday mornings, that kids would look at them differently.

    The plain fact of the matter is that Chris and his company are contributing to the demand with tremendous force, and then trying to shift all the blame to the consumer.

    If you can’t see that, you are seriously lacking in any sort of perspective.

  • Ellen

    Ok, Michael, maybe I overestimated your rationality in my last comment. Just to be clear, you believe that innate preferences have no bearing on kids’ taste, because “kids will like what is marketed to them”? Animals, who can’t comprehend marketing as far as I know, are attracted to the taste of sugar. I don’t understand why you can’t admit that the tendency to enjoy the taste of sugar is natural.

  • Michael Bulger

    The tendency to choose a box of heavily sweetened junk cereal lacking in fiber is not innate.

    There are plenty of significantly healthier options that are not devoid of sweetness. The fact remains that these companies market poor choices to kids. They share the responsibilities that come with the public health crisis at hand.

  • Ellen

    I’ve been very quick to agree with you that marketing also has an influence on kids’ choices. It seems our only difference is difference is over how to apportion blame for the obesity epidemic, and I’m pretty sure we’re not going to see eye to eye there no matter how much we talk it out. But I’m glad you finally admit that kids usually like the taste of sweetness, which implies that there’s at least one factor besides marketing driving their consumption of heavily sweetened cereal. Refusing to acknowledge openly apparent facts (and no “corporations are to blame for our fat kids!” isn’t a fact; it’s a judgment) isn’t going to win you converts.

  • Michael Bulger

    Once you understand that this isn’t a problem that has a single, easily mediated cause, you will understand my position. Everyone needs to come to the table. That includes the companies that spend a tremendous amount of money aggravating the situation.

    If I was to say corporations are the only reason our kids are fat, it would not be a fact. When I say corporations are an important reason our kids are fat, it is- quite clearly, and indisputably- a fact.

  • This is all good news. As much as we know that eating real, less processed foods, and moving our bodies is how we maintain a healthy body and weight, it’s not that simple. These are complicated issues that are easily solved with cheap food that appeals to the over sugar/salted taste buds that overweight Americans have become accustomed to.

    If the food manufacturers cut the salt, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, food dyes and other artificial ingredients, the product improves. If they can do this while maintaining their prices, people will be buying healthier products within their budgets.

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  • Ok, can I ask you all something?

    Why would a company that exists to make money (as all companies do, sans non-profits), change? Why should Pepsi, or Kraft, or any other company change? Because it’s “morally right”?

    If you’re saying that companies have a moral obligation to feed our kids (and adults) properly, there’s something wrong.

    Yes, it’s a nice thought, but that is NOT how commerce works.

    You are acting as if we are creating the demand. Again, that is NOT how commerce works. I would say that we may be perpetuating the demand with our advertising and marketing.

    You need to realize that companies are greedy, money hungry things. When the ability to make money off a product is no longer there, the company will move on to something else. There is no emotion for (or against) any effects of indulging too much or misusing the products.

    So as long as people are eating junk food, companies will continue to make it.

    I’ll give you an example, take the movie “Supersize Me”. The outrage that movie caused against McDonald’s was staggering. McDonald’s saw that they were going to lose money unless they changed their ways. Within a few months, they dropped the “Supersize” and prominently featured salads on their menus.

    When the demand changes, the companies will adjust accordingly to keep the money flowing.

    Is it “morally right”? no. Is that the way it is? Yes! It’s always been about $$$.

    So stop going to McDonald’s 5 days a week, stop buying the sugar infused cereals, and shout out loud that you want healthy food. I guarantee you that things will change.

  • Doc Mudd

    Chris, you’re right, of course, about market demand as the driving force of manufacturing and sales.

    But, you overestimate the self-righteous screamers’ capacity to stop purchasing food. They can “shout out loud” all they want (and they do more than enough of that), but at the end of the day they must refrain from purchasing to send a meaningful signal to their archenemies. Not just an heirloom tomato here and an organic yogurt there, either.

    It all comes back around to personal accountability/will power, and that’s a responsibility nanny state proponents absolutely abhor and reject. Ironically, that’s what’s required to significantly alter buying patterns and ultimately change product demand & availability.

    So, lot’s of noise and no change – that’s really what most folks prefer anyway, isn’t it?

  • Crystal

    I weighed 125 lbs when I got pregnant with my daughter. I was back into a 29 inch jean when she was 1 week old. She was 6 weeks early and weighed 4lbs and 5.5 ozs at birth. All ads up to what skinny someone would call healthy. My 6 week preemie was gaining a pound a week after she was 1 week and started gaining weight. She was born on 09/13 and on New Years we have a fat cheeked baby that had quadrupled her weight on “MAN MADE FORMULA”. If you have done your homework then you know that more preemie babies use formula than full term as preemie moms have a harder time to get a baby to latch on. My milk never came in well enough to feed her. Do you want to condemn me now for something you obviousely know nothing about? O asked then but was told to wait until she walks and then she will lose weight. She is now 11 and weighs more than I did before I got pregnant with her. I try to feed them at home before school and show them labels and I am teaching them what the school won’t. Don’t you dare just blame parents.

  • Doc Mudd says that Corporations are “vulnerable scapegoats”.

    Anyone other than me smell bovine faeces? Smell a shill?

    Those poor, poor, vulnerable corporations…