by Marion Nestle
Apr 18 2011

Obesity as collateral damage: changing food industry behavior

I am a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Public Health Policy, which publishes research and commentary on matters that affect international public health.  Dr. Anthony Robbins, one of its editors, and I are calling on authors to submit articles that consider ways to change behavior—not, as is all too common, of individuals but of the food industry.

The journal has published many papers on obesity policies aimed at improving the diet and exercise behavior of individuals.  These may be necessary, but they are not sufficient.  It is now time to deal with the behavior of the food industry.  Food industry profits are

generated by capturing increasingly larger shares of the market and by selling the population more food – and calories –than it needs. In this marketing environment, obesity is collateral damage.

The food industry’s ultimately anti-social behavior – whether conscious or inadvertent – is spreading globally. In higher income countries, it is ubiquitous, whereas in places where people have less disposable income, it is but the camel’s nose under the tent.

Thus, effective strategies to reduce obesity may vary depending on penetration by the industry – and less developed nations may still have more opportunities to avoid obesity, by getting ahead of the curve.

How are countries to do this?

Efforts to control obesity will have to enlist the public to focus on behavior, with a shift from a sole focus on citizens to a new one on the behavior of food corporations…We cannot eliminate the food industry to reverse the obesity epidemic, but we can constrain its anti-social behavior…We encourage authors to reach beyond the kind studies of policies on eating and activity that we receive so frequently.

We have come to believe that research studies concentrating on personal behavior and responsibility as causes of the obesity epidemic do little but offer cover to an industry seeking to downplay its own responsibility.

Instead, we urge authors to submit articles that consider how to understand and change the behavior of the food industry.

As a starting point for thinking about how to approach this topic, we ask: does the industry need to overfeed the population to remain profitable?

Have ideas?  Write them up and submit them to JPHP.  There is no deadline.  The journal will consider submissions whenever they arrive, but sooner is better than later.

  • Heather

    Wow what a coincidence. I am just wrapping up my semester research paper on this VERY same topic. Perhaps I should submit it. One of the books I read to gain perspective on the topic was Michele Simon’s Appetite for Profit. The chapter on the Anatomy of a Corporation were very helpful.
    Thank you for sharing.

  • Do we change the behavior of the pusher or the addict? Ultimately, there are so many social and cultural distractions to healthy choice, that it’s going to be hard to address them all. However, if we start with the vulnerable and impressionable…5 to 15 year olds and make it culturally “cool” to make healthy choices, we have a chance in a generation to make a difference. Choosing healthy is just not “cool” in our media and big-food created and perpetuated culture of celebration of self-indulgence. Prochaska’s Transtheoretical Model of Change has change beginning with the “contemplation” of the reasons to change or act. Let’s make doing healthy things and choosing healthy…cool. We need to capure th minds of our young…and inspire them in a new direction.


    General Healthy

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  • Doc Mudd

    So, the “behavioral” shift you’re dreaming of is away from private businesses producing a variety of foods and selling them, toward government/non-profit organizations intervening to limit access to all but a select few ‘approved’ foods and parsimoniously rationing even those?

    This shallow political idea isn’t exactly an original thought.

    Perhaps you should begin by documenting a history of successful similar efforts in the U.S. Let’s see; prohibition (uh, nope), gasoline (uhn uh, no), money lending (not so much either), sensible housing (heh, no), automobiles (nope, still see plenty of minivans and SUVs)…good luck, orthorexic crusaders!

    Do you single out businesses to bash and slander out of frustration…from your disappointment in the multitudes of free thinking individuals who routinely fail to make the narrow choices you insist they should? Is the perceived “problem” primarily that these impudent common people are ignoring you, that they simply aren’t doing as you think they ought, as you tell them to do?

    If the majority rejects your sanctimonious interference is there at least a remote chance you are wrong or out of line, instead of the entire rest of the world stupidly living out a doomed existence, oblivious to their error according to your calculations? OK, so obesity rates are up – is the sky really falling on the human race, as you imply? Doomsaying isn’t the oldest profession, but it ranks right up there. It sells books.

  • Suzanne

    Doc Mudd –

    I liken your disrespectful tone, sarcasm, and irrelevant malice to chewing on tin foil. I truly wish I could place you on ignore like I could on Facebook.

    I look forward to this blog daily, but your supremely irritating trolling is like finding a fruit fly on my strawberries.

  • Felipe G. Nievinski

    About your question, “does the industry need to overfeed the population to remain profitable?” Need look no further — Starbucks Petites are the prime example of the counter movemente:

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  • Jennifer

    So Doc Mudd,
    We’re not even allowed to have a discussion about the issue and gather ideas to address it? How do you know that someone can’t come up with a brilliant idea that helps the situation while still satisfying corporate shareholders? Rather than immediately throwing out negative and non-productive statements that don’t even focus on the topic at hand, why not try to join the discussion? Opposing viewpoints can be tremendous resources if respect and a common goal are imminent. I’m assuming that you aren’t begrudging a public that actually wants for people to be healthy, and I do understand your mistrust of anything that might limit personal choice, but your comments thus far really won’t help us get to any common ground.

  • Cathy Richards

    re: Doc Mudd, I never have figured out why he persists in reading a blog he so obviously disagrees with.

    But he seems to like stirring up frustration amongst the commenters. Especially when Marion writes about the food industry. Perhaps he’s even a concern troll for the food industry.

    Concerns troll, from wiki: “The goal is to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt within the group.”

    Troller or not, let’s not feed his disagreement-loving ego with our dissent.

    Let his comments slide away like water off a duck’s feathers.

    Fuller excerpt from wiki
    “A concern troll is a false flag pseudonym created by a user whose actual point of view is opposed to the one that the user claims to hold. The concern troll posts in web forums devoted to its declared point of view and attempts to sway the group’s actions or opinions while claiming to share their goals, but with professed “concerns”. The goal is to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt within the group.[17]”

  • john

    Hello all, new to this blog but I really like it. I am a school cafeteria manager that has become a vegetarian (about 60% raw). It has been a personal journey for me and I don’t preach to people what they should eat.

    That being said, the more I learn about the connections with the food industry and our government, the more I become so sickened by the whole process. Yes Doc Mud, the government should not legislate what we eat, but they also should not accept money from companies that clearly have a financial stake at risk if people start to eat healthier.

    My two cents is this, people have some responsibility to inform themselves. The information is out there, just remember who it’s coming from. Most everyone has an agenda. Especially the government.

  • Doc Mudd

    I prefer choice within a proven system with the potential to “overfeed” a population, as opposed to submitting to dictates within a hypothetical hacked-apart system likely to intermittently underfeed a population.

    Directing your frustration and hatred upon “the food industry” may be cathartic but it lacks focus and isn’t much of a strategy for real progress toward your unclear goal.

  • Interesting article if not controversial.

  • Hi Marion, I would love to write for you, you are welcome to check my site out for my rates. This is a subject close to my heart. While I agree that there is much advertising to make people eat junk, there is certainly an awareness about healthy options. I think people should take responsibility for their own health. 🙂

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  • My 13 year old has watched Gary Hirshberg’s JUST EAT ORGANIC, a hip hop youtube about a million times and has memorized it. It’s moved her to often ask me if what we’re eating is organic. Documentaries like Food, Inc. and Meat the Truth have not had that same effect on her. This leads me to think that music and perhaps other art can make the next generation of consumers aware and demanding.

  • Doc Mudd

    Great example, Cyndie! Hirshberg’s cheesy video is an excellent example of corporate misbehavior – colorful advertising directed at children and the gullible.

    Why do greedy CEOs like Hirshberg display this anti-social behavior? Let’s radiate some intense hate in his direction, maybe put a voodoo hex on the shameless profiteer.

  • Anthro

    I’ve concluded that Doc Mudd is F-A-T. He LIKES being FAT. He doesn’t want anyone to tell him it’s unhealthy to be FAT. It’s his right to be FAT.

    It may surprise him to realize that public health experts are concerned about children and about the health costs we all share when fat kids become fat adults. Doc thinks he lives alone on an island.
    I would second the nod to “Appetite For Profit” by Michelle Simon. Ms. Simon offers not only criticism, but real-world solutions to putting public health above profit.

  • Doc Mudd

    Nope, not F-A-T, never have been. Also not bigoted against fleshy folk.

    Anthro frets that I may have to chip in on health care for some fat folks…sorta like I had to pay for food stamps to feed her and the brats back in the 80’s when I was working, providing for my family and she wasn’t (see Anthro’s comments in previous thread).

    Heck, I’ve paid for all of your liberal give-aways for decades, and plenty. I would support cutting out all handouts, but I oppose letting you nannies pick and choose which ones to kill and which ones to keep for yourselves. All or nothin’, Anthro, and no more bigotry – fat folks gotta live, just like sanctimonious orthorexics…and just like capitalist taxpayers who bankroll it all.

  • Ash

    Quality (i.e. nutritionally superior better-tasting food) is almost always associated with food that is grown locally and biodynamically on a small scale – and big business is not interested in that. They want homogenous, generic, standardized inputs for their ‘product’.

    So rather than influence big-business, what we need is a whole host of new (smaller) businesses in their place, that thrive on producing and using as inputs, food that is sustainably produced (i.e. grown, made, marketed locally).

    How do we create this (which is basically a new model for food industry)?

    Firstly we need to remove government supports (implicit and explicit) for big industrial food. They want free market? Let’s give it ’em. Subsidies for corn and soy – the biggest inputs for industrial, low-quality high-caloric food are one example. Another example is the lack of accountability large outfits have for their negative externalities – If you create toxic sewage effluent, you’re responsible for dealing with it (and not just by spraying it onto fields in unsustainable quantities). They should be made to pay for these costs which are borne by all in the form of polluted air, water and earth. A third example is all the red-tape and regulations that benefit larger producers but do little to actually improve quality of food. For example, instead of prescribing specifications for slaughter facilities, set benchmarks for quality and hygene that all are responsible for meeting. Let also make food traceable from field to table with RFID tags and other now affordable technologies so that all producers become accountable for quality. And let’s get rid of regulating what people can eat or drink – if they want to buy and drink raw unpasteurized milk from a local farm, let them.

    We need freedom of Food Information Act. Food is a national security concern. Therefore ordinary people should not be allowed restricted from access to their facilities. And if the people could see what goes behind those tightly closed doors, they wouldn’t buy what they’re making however cheap it is.

    These kinds of changes would not only make it easier to make a living from food on a small scale and encourage people to return to agriculture – which is fundamentally what we need to make this change happen.

    The paradox is we need Government to get out of the way.

  • Anthro

    I’d like everyone to know that I was working for 99% of the 80’s, so I sorta paid for my own 30 days of food stamps, no? Also, I had a well-paid husband for most of that time, who also paid taxes.

    This is the problem with people thinking that the way taxes are allocated are personal rather than part of a joint effort to make sure that innocent “brats” are fed when a catastrophe strikes a family.

    My calling Mudd FAT was figurative (but that went over his head, obviously) and there are obese people in my family whom I love very much. He misses the point entirely, as usual.

    I’ve decided to agree with the poster who says it’s time to ignore this troll.

  • Drifty Driftwood

    I decided long ago that the use of the word “nanny,” “nannies,” or “nanny state” automatically disqualifies an argument from my having to pay attention to it. Life has been grand since then.

  • MYoung

    Thank you Ash. Until I read your post I thought the entire topic was about how disgusting Doc was.


    I agree by the way. That is exactly what we need; to move BACK to small indistry participants. That was the way it was back when we weren’t what we are today……

    Whole foods, farmers markets…. all those are “new” names. Once, before, all food was whole and of course the farmers ran the markets……

    Now the question Marion stated was (in a different light) How do we get Big Foods to revamp, to help us feed ourselves with out making us fat blobs full of cholesterol and diabeties? And I’m not so sure them making money really needs to be an issue. They already have enough to last them a couple lifetimes. They can stand a loss while they change how food is supplied to us.

  • Q

    Many years of work in financial analysis in the US restaurant industry leads me to second (third?) Ash’s point. Of the major elements of a restaurant’s P&L, Food Cost is not actually one of the most significant items and its percentage contribution is the most easily manipulated. Upselling from (e.g.) a $1 quarter pound burger to a $5 one pound burger, or a $1 small soda to a $3 enormous soda, creates a huge gain in the so-called penny profit available to pay the fixed costs, with scarcely any impact on the other ‘variable’ costs. However, if the food inputs were truly priced to cover all of their real costs to the present and the future, the incentive might start to go the other way.

    Interesting and still valid: Robert L Emerson’s “Fast Food the Endless Shakeout” (1979) and “The New Economics of Fast Food” (1990). The restaurant industry as a whole, of which Quick Service is by far the largest component, is still one of the nation’s largest employers and has made many millionaires in the ownership ranks. So to get real about this, the possibility of the above scenario, which would at best be highly disruptive to that industry, seems distant and a hard fight to achieve.

    Has anyone done a cost-benefit tradeoff analysis between the obesity epidemic and the unemployment etc which would be caused by such radical changes in the key contributing industries? It would be enlightening, I think.

  • oslo

    Just wondering if there had been many papers submitted on this subject which was the original point of the post I think?