Who’s responsible for obesity?

photo (7)While I have long been inclined to think of American’s obesity epidemic as fundamentally a matter of individual responsibility — after all,  despite what has been called an obesogenic environment, many Americans manage to keep fit or at least avoid getting too fat through a combination of healthy eating and exercise — I’m gradually coming around to the belief that big food companies and the US government need to take some of the responsibility for obesity-related diseases, and for their costs.

The other day in Guardian Sustainable Business, I wrote a story about Lunchables, the fun-to-assemble packaged lunches aimed at kids that were invented in 1988 by Oscar Mayer, then and now a division of Kraft. I did the story after learning that a healthier and more “natural” packaged lunch had been introduced by Revolution Foods, a company I admire. (See my 2012 blog post, Healthy school lunches: You say you want a revolution.)

As part of my research, I read a chapter about Lunchables in a 2013 book by Michael Moss, a New York Times reporter, called Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. I’ve since read nearly all of the book, and it delivers on the promise of its title, by showing how big food companies, notably Kraft, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, formulated their products with unhealthy ingredients, employed the world’s best food scientists to figure out how to get people to consume more of them, and then marketed them in ways that were often calculated to deceive. For example, they used unrealistic portion sizes on nutrition labels, or added a very small amount of fruit juice to a product and then boasted that it contains “real fruit.”

The government hasn’t been helpful in this regard either, despite the well-publicized efforts by First Lady Michelle Obama. Farm bill subsidies flow to cheap corn and soy, used to feed chickens, fatten cows or sweeten soft drinks, and not to healthier fruits and vegetables. The USDA coordinates marketing checkoff programs to promote meat, milk and cheese. Dairy marketers “teamed up with restaurant chains like Domino’s to help foster concoctions like ‘The Wisconsin,’ a pie that has six cheeses on top and two more in the crust,” Moss writes. Americans now eat about 33 pounds per capita of cheese and cheese-like products per year, he reports, triple the amount we consumed in the 70s.

As it happens, Lunchables deserve a small portion of the “credit” for the growth in consumption of fat-laden cheese and pseudo-cheese. Interestingly, the product was created way back when to increase sales of bologna–which were falling as a result of health concerns about processed meat. It worked, as my story notes:

Back in the 1980s, health-conscious shoppers began to shy away from processed meat because of worries about fat and salt. Executives at Oscar Mayer, facing declining bologna sales, could have sought healthier alternatives. Instead, they invented Lunchables, the packaged, refrigerated, convenient meal in a box.

Kids loved them – they found it fun to assemble the crackers, bologna and cheese – and so did harried parents. But food critics were, and still are, appalled by the fat, sugar and salt packed into Lunchables’ familiar yellow packages.

Today, Lunchables is a $1bn brand with a persistent image problem – and it’s facing a new competitor aimed at health-conscious parents.

The new arrival is Revolution Foods, a small company based in Oakland, California, that has already enjoyed success delivering healthier meals for kids to schools. Last fall, Revolution Foods introduced packaged Meal Kits. They can now be found in more than 1,000 stores, including Safeway, Target, King Sooper’s (a unit of Krogers) and Whole Foods.

Will Kraft Foods, Oscar Mayer’s parent company, respond with better-for-you versions of Lunchables, or will the company stand pat and risk further damage to its reputation?

To be sure, Kraft has already improved the nutritional profile of Lunchables, reducing sodium, fat and calories. What’s more, the company is in a tough spot because people like foods with fat, salt and sugar. When companies like PepsiCo and Campbell’s Soup removed fat, salt or sugar from products, sales reportedly declined.

I’m not sure how to resolve what appears to be an unavoidable tension between what’s good for business and what’s good for the health of Americans. Despite the rhetoric about social responsibility that comes out of the food industry — this page about Kellogg’s “Passion for Nutrition” is a personal favorite — companies like Kraft and Kellogg’s and Pepsico pay people to go to work every day and sell as many boxes of Lunchables or Frosted Flakes, or bags of Fritos, or cans of Pepsi as they possibly can. Of course, as these companies are quick to remind us, they also offer plenty of healthier alternatives. Consumers do have choices.

So can we blame the food companies when some people make themselves sick by consuming too much of their products? Hard to say, but I’m less likely to brush away the question than I used to be.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Comments

  1. I suspect it’s more the sugar than the fat. Next on our reading list should be Fat Chance by Robert Lustig. He does a great job at debunking the myth that the obesity epidemic is a matter of individual responsibility. After all, are the rapidly increasing numbers of obese children responsible for their condition? If so, it must be the original sin- but it wasn’t an apple, it was processed food!

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  2. Glad your views are evolving, Marc. There is an individual responsibility dimension, however, there are also important roles for governments and companies to play in making it easier for more people to make better food choices. Given your own healthy food journey, I think you might enjoy a free, personalized educational resource created by Brendan Brazier, author of Thrive book series: http://www.thriveforward.com

  3. Lisa Lilienthal says:

    This one hits close to home, Marc, as I have two kids (12 and 14) who have long begrudged their mom’s refusal to buy Lunchables because they are what we call “crap food.” Certainly, we adults have choices, assuming we are educated and have educated ourselves, but what your post doesn’t mention is how these types of products are marketed to our kids. We can certainly look on the bright side and call it a teachable moment every time our kids ask about buying crap food, but man, that gets old. I’m really glad to hear about Revolution and will try it out post haste — too bad they don’t have the deep pockets for marketing that the conglomerates have.

  4. I realize that personal responsibility is “dated” concept. However, the obese are responsible for their obesity. Sorry, but the availability of processed foods and forks do not make people fat. Eating too much of the wrong foods makes people fat. That might be unpleasant, but it is reality.

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