by Marion Nestle
Oct 14 2011

“Better-for-you” products better for food industry? Only if they can be marketed as such.

A study released yesterday reports that so-called “better-for-you” (BFY) foods (those low in salt and sugar, high in fiber or with added vitamins, for example) may account for only about 40% of company sales, but they account for more than 70% of growth in sales.

Hudson Institute, October 2011

According to the press release accompanying the report, companies that sell BFY products “record stronger sales growth, higher operating profits, superior shareholder returns, and better company reputations than companies that sell fewer BFY products.”

The public health implications?  According to the report:

  • Placing more emphasis on selling BFY foods and beverages is an effective pathway to improved sales, profits, shareholder returns, and reputation.
  • Proof that bottom lines can benefit when companies have a greater percentage of sales from BFY foods could accelerate progress toward the development and marketing of more nutritious foods.
  • Public health officials and policymakers need to be aware of food and beverage companies’ core business goals in order to work effectively with them to address the obesity epidemic.

I emphasize the third one because it sounds so much like a veiled threat.

I think it means that if public health officials want the food industry to make healthier food products, they better let food companies market their products any way they like:

  • To children with no restrictions
  • Using cartoons on packages of products aimed at children
  • Using health claims with no restrictions
  • Using front-of-package labels that emphasize “good-for-you” nutrients

Or else.

Or else what?  Just watch what the food industry will do (and is doing) whenever public health officials try to restrict advertising to children or demand that that companies put nutritional “negatives” on front-of-package labels.

Here’s CNN Health’s account (I’m quoted) and the one in the Wall Street Journal (I’m not).

  • That isn’t really surprising, is it? Companies look after their well-being, it’s the authorities responsible for regulation who need to keep an eye on their endeavours.

    If this control mechanism doesn’t work – due to heavy lobbying efforts – then something is going wrong way elsewhere and higher up the ladder.

  • Charlie L

    It’s interesting that federal authorities would step in had one of these companies advertised, say, “arsenic-free” apple juice (implying other apple juice brands have arsenic) under the BFY umbrella, but are otherwise non-existent when it comes to all sorts of flimsy, misleading health claims made to the public.

    Consumers can’t (and shouldn’t) depend on food processors to act like public health agencies. And since public health agencies rarely intervene quickly, if at all, on the consumer’s behalf, consumers are on their own to investigate and think critically about these marketing claims, just like every other consumer product on the market.

  • Jonesy

    Focusing health claims on single nutrients like vitamin, fiber, fat, sugar, salt, etc., is one of the ways some food firms try convince consumers that the entire product is wholesome. Very simply the ad or claim tells you what the seller wants you to know and reveals little about the ingredients you may want to avoid.

    A whole product non-industry controlled, public nutrition recommendations based labeling scheme may help consumers to see beyond narrow claims and make healthier choices. To no one’s surprise industry also tries to dilute or preempt such efforts.

    Consumers being on their own is precisely what the industry hacks want.

  • Thank you so much Marion!

    To the food companies: Is it realistic and fair to call overly processed items that are created in a laboratory, food? Apples, oranges, lettuce, or chicken wings are food. And to call these overly processed foods “better for you” is an absolute hypocrisy.
    “Better for you” than what? A spiral bound note book probably has more nutrients and fiber than most of the things that come in a box, freezer, or drive thru that are deemed “convenience” foods. And why are they considered convenient? Because in the manufacturing process (are we manufacturing engines, or cooking pizza?!) they’ve been stripped of most nutrients, and the fiber, so they can be easily heated and eaten up. Unfortunately though, as a result eating, those “edible food like substances” only makes the eater sick. And being sick isn’t so convenient.