Mmm…mmm…who’s to blame for obesity?

My mornings often begin with a run along the Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda, Md., and a visit to Quartermaine’s, a neighborhood hangout where the coffee’s great, the baristas are friendly and the pastries are tempting. Often, I yield to temptation. If Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest had his way, they’d serve nothing but oatmeal with skim milk, no salt.

Last week, Jacobson assailed the Campbell Soup Co. after its new CEO, Denise Morrison, told investment analysts that the company “plans to bring back some higher-sodium soups after several years of working to reduce sodium, sometimes at the expense of taste,” according to the AP. Sales of the low-sodium soup were disappointing.

Jacobson wrote:

If Campbell has reason to believe consumers don’t like the taste of their products, why resort to salt? Why not improve their soups with more and better-quality vegetables and chicken, or with herbs and spices? I suppose that’s a question that answers itself, and the answer is money. Campbell enjoys a huge profit margin selling what are often basically overpriced disease-promoting cans of salt and water.

Yikes! This “public interest” advocate doesn’t think much of the public, does he, since, in his view, they are wasting their money on “overpriced disease-promoting cans of salt and water.”

His blast made news, as CSPI often does. More than 300 stories, according to Google News, like this one from ABC News.

So what’s wrong with this picture? A couple of things.

First, it reflects an unfortunate blurring of the lines between “corporate responsibility” and personal responsibility. Is Quartermaine’s responsible for my pastry consumption? Should Campbell limit its offerings to low-sodium soups if consumers don’t want them? What about Ben & Jerry’s? This isn’t to suggest that corporations don’t bear some responsibility for the obesity crisis–they do, as I’ll explain below–but as a society, we’ll never get people to take responsibility for their own health and well-being if we point the finger at others.

Second, it misunderstands the power of business. Assume Campbell decided to sell only low-sodium soups. (No more Chicken Noodle, with its whopping 890mg per serving. The FDA currently recommends no more than 2,300 mg — roughly a teaspoon — of salt per day.) Shoppers would simply turn to other brands–or buy a frozen pizza instead.

It should go without saying that companies can’t force us to buy stuff we don’t want. Power in the market belongs, for the most part, to buyers and not to sellers.

When they become buyers, companies like Campbell–as well as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.–can have a meaningful impact. They should be held accountable, not so much for what they sell, as for what they buy.

Here, as it happens, the Campbell record is not too shabby. Outgoing CEO Douglas Conant told my GreenBiz colleague Heather King last spring that the company is “cutting the environmental footprint of [its] product portfolio in half” by working with farmers to better manage pesticides, improve yields and cut costs. The company is cutting water use and CO2 emissions per ton of product produced. Most of the company’s products, aside from tomatoes (about which more, another day), are locally farmed.

I called Dave Stangis, Campbell vice president of sustainability, to learn a bit more. He told me that Campbell has pledged to dramatically reduce its packaging and that he’d just come from a meeting with a cocoa supplier to the Pepperidge Farm brand, which is part of Campbell, where they’d talked about sustainable cocoa production. The company is working with all its farmer-suppliers to improve their environmental performance. “We teach them, and they teach us,” Dave says.

Does this get Campbell off the hook when it comes to salt and obesity. No–it seems to me that, at the very least, as a major food company (2010 revenues: $7.7 billion), Campbell ought to offer healthy options, if only to appeal to health-conscious shoppers. That it does. A Campbell exec told ABC News:

The company will extend its Healthy Request line from 25 soups to 33, all of which are reduced-sodium and carry the American Heart Association’s stamp of approval.

So what are the responsibilities of of a big food company, when it comes to obesity? First, and most important, be transparent. Second, offer a range of choices–which most do. Third, stop marketing unhealthy food to children. Fourth, think hard about the impact of portion size, and reduce portions if you can. Finally, if you are a food service company or retailer, as opposed to a manufacturer, try to nudge customers to choose healthier foods, as Sodexo and Bon Appetit have done. (See Where’s the Beef? Sodexo’s Meatless Mondays and The Low Carb(on) Diet.)

CSPI, to its credit, has put many of these issues on the national agenda. Its lab tests of the fat and calories in movie popcorn help me to resist that particular temptation. CSPI has also done a great job spotlighting excessive fat, calories and salt in restaurants like Ruby Tuesday and Uno Chicago Grill.

Having said that, obesity is really complicated. A variety of factors come into play–everything from the spread of video games to suburban neighborhoods without sidewalks to cutbacks in school gym and the crappy food served at school lunches. Brian Wansink, author of a book called Mindless Eating, has said we live in an obesogenic environment–one that promotes overeating in a variety of ways.

Such as saltier soups? Sure. But let’s keep things in perspective, folks.


  1. says

    Marc, a great followup to Let’s Do Away with CSR, where you argue strongly for (and I agree) the importance of progressive business values that enable human flourishing.

    In this food post I think that you allow business leeway, at least when it comes to the issue of delvering consumers what they want, as opposed to what companies might think is good for consumers. This is a valauble counterpoint. The two posts together illustrate what I see as the central issue – the right balance between societal good through profit alone and societal good through a broader definition of the contribution of corporations.


  2. darren says

    I think the issue comes along when we attempt to help financially with individual’s Health Care, yet the chain-smoking, donut-addicts out there require some pricey pills. If it were just about freedom of Choice affecting the Market, it wouldn’t be any bureaucrat’s business, but when more and more government spending goes to doctor bills–preventable doctor’s bill–then I think that “Freedom of Choice” is actually the antagonist in this tale.

    • says

      Darren, this is a good point. To the degree that the government, i.e., taxpayers pay for a bigger share of the health care bill, people’s individual health choices will become everybody’s business. It’s a little scary, at least to those of us who would prefer to see less government intervention in the economy,

  3. says

    Very nice post Marc – it’s consistent with what I wrote in December on defining the line between corporate and personal responsibility:

    Of course, like other vexing issues such as climate change, we don’t have the economics right. As a consumer, you should be rewarded for skipping those pastries but you’re not: your health care premiums remain the same regardless. And, if one eats well and does not need health care, he still pays the same and doesn’t “contribute” to GDP in the same way as one who eats poorly and requires drugs and frequent doctor visits.



    • says

      Michael, excellent point. You’re right the economics aren’t aligned when it comes to health insurance. People who take better care of themselves should be rewarded with lower premiums which would then, of course, help persuade more people to take better care of themselves.

      • says

        I believe that all of the sustainability problems we face come down to economics and accounting. I recently read that if the cost of coal energy fully integrated the externalities it would be 0.17 cents per KwH. Considerably higher than solar for instance.

        I think the actions of companies like GE, IBM, Walmart, Nike and many others are great strides by pushing sustainability down the supply chain. However these are just nice steps in a much bigger game. Until we account for all externalities at the point of purchase sustainability problems will continue.

        When the cost structure is in alignment with sustainability goals, that is when we really make big progress fast. How to do that of course is the gazillion dollar question. I wish I had the answer.

  4. Kyle Cahill says


    I agree with the majority of this article. Companies should not be expected to tackle issues such as obesity alone, and that personal choice is too often left out of the discussion. But at the same time, focusing only on food/bev company buying decisions misses the full picture. Let’s not forget a) they’re producing, selling and marketing food, a human right; and b) that value chains don’t end at Campbell’s or at a grocer/retailer for that matter. They continue through consumption and hopefully, into end of life and/or disposal. How can companies take responsibility for the societal impacts of how their products are grown, assembled, manfactured, distributed, etc. but not for the direct impacts their products are having on the people who eat and drink them? It seems odd that the healthcare industry often gets saddled with the weight of a “social contract” often expected to heal illness caused in part by what we eat, but for some reason those actually producing the food we eat do not. In theory, healthcare-related companies were created to make people healthier. I would hope that Campbell’s was founded 150 years ago because it believed in its mission statement: “nourishing people’s lives everywhere, every day.” But you have to wonder after reading CEO Morrison’s quote below regarding the added-sodium decision, if that mission might have gotten lost somewhere along the way:

    “Our central mission and overarching priority is long-term value creation for our shareholders.” -Campbell Soup Company’s CEO-elect Denise Morrison

    -Kyle Cahill

    • says

      Thanks, Kyle, that’s a great contrast between the “official” mission statement and the more recent comment by Morrison which reflects more honestly what the company is about. This is one of those cases where there’s an unavoidable tension between driving shareholder value and doing social good. But again, I don’t see how we can hold Campbell (or other food companies) responsible for the food choices of millions of people. As a practical matter, if they sold only low-fat, low-sodium soups, it’s unclear what if any the benefit would be. And I assume no one here is suggesting that we ban salty soups, ice cream and muffins…at least I hope they are not.

      • Aaron Bergbusch says

        Some things *could* be banned perhaps though, or greatly discouraged (i.e. as with labels for cigarettes). Trans-fat is an unnecessary man-made artery-clogging additive in all sorts of fried foods that should probably be banned outright. Some once-widespread farming practices (i.e. feeding animals their own ground-up body parts) (funny what the priority of long-term value creation for shareholders can inspire) have been banned because of the occurrence of mad-cow and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Over-use of hormones and antibiotics in meat production may also not be in the public interest. There are food-handling regulations for the prevention of outbreaks of E-Coli, listeria, salmonella and others. Why not food-selling regulations for the prevention of heart disease and diabetes? Food retailers could be licensed to sell certain food-products in certain-proportions only (in terms of size or general product mix). There could be a cafe license, a restaurant license, a grocery store license, a convenience store license, etc. (these licenses probably already exist as ‘business licenses’ at City Hall, but the point here is that they could be adapted to specify more requirements and limitations) Fast-food joints could be regulated into a new, healthier incarnation (i.e. called a ‘restaurant’ for example). Soda pop and energy drinks could be forced to die the death they deserve. Anyway I have a feeling we could find some feasible solutions if we applied ourselves to the task.

  5. Gern says

    Good article; as balanced as it could be on a very thorny topic. As many of those commenting point out, the social responsibility piece comes from knowing your customer base and then encouraging healthier choices. The issue of course is that the healthier choices often come with a price-tag that makes them unreachable. This has been demonstrated time and again; not in the upscale cafes of WDC that produce (or provide) such amazing pastries, but rather in the crowded, urban, lower income convenience stores that have neither the (cold) facilities to store, nor the relationships with fruit and veg distributors to make those choices affordable. Looking at the demography of obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia and heart disease, you’ll see an interesting concentration in those same demographics. Salt and fat taste good and generally dont spoil. Some neuroscientists even claim that fats amd sugars show addictive properties similar to some drugs of abuse. While I’m not saying that buttered movie popcorn is the same as herion or cocaine, what is understated (I believe) is the power that such tastes have over adults food choices when there are: 1) developed in generations of children and adolescents (who become adult consumers) and 2) remain much more accessible both price and geography-wise in urban and lower income areas.

    • says

      Thanks for your kind words, Gern, and I’m glad you’ve drawn attention to the problem of obesity in low-income communities, sometimes called food deserts, where healthier choices are not available. The question of food “addiction” is also an interesting one. I’ve been meaning to read David Kessler’s book which I’m told digs into that issue.

  6. says

    Great conversation you are hosting here Marc, thanks. After Kevin’s comment I went back to the “Let’s do away with CSR” post and was struck by the quote from Carol that ‘CSR “can’t be bolted on but must be built in”‘.

    While I don’t think Campbell should have to take full responsibility for the obesity epidemic, they should be responsible for their products and decisions. I like Umair Haque’s concept of “thick value”. Saltier soups are a pretty good example of its opposite – thin value.

    One test will be in the marketing – will Campbell tell the straight story to shoppers? For example, they could choose to label the new soups as “high salt” and drop the reference to salt on the previously “low sodium” products thus reframing the choice. What would unwillingness to do this mean?


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