Q. WHY IS OUR COUNTRY IN THE MIDST OF AN OBESITY CRISIS AND WHAT FACTORS HAVE CONRIBUTED TO IT?
A. Much has changed in the last 50 years about the way America eats. Where before, soft drinks came in 8 ounce bottles of 97 calories, Supersized versions of 64 ounces are prevalent; burgers are no longer the size of quarters, they’ve morphed into 1420 calorie Monster Thickburgers®. Portions have gone out of control and consumers have now been able to resist them.
Q. IS THIS CRISIS UNIQUE TO THE U.S.?
A. Obesity is now a global problem. More than I billion adults are overweight, with at least 300 million of them obese. Our North and South American neighbors, most of Europe, Eurasia and Australia/new Zealand are experiencing severe rates of obesity.
Q. AS A FOOD INDUSTRY EXECUTIVE, CAN YOU EXPLAIN HOW MARKETING INFLUENCES OUR DIETS AND FOOD CHOICES AT THE SUPERMARKET?
A. Clearly advertising and other promotional devices influence consumer choices. Otherwise, they would not be utilized. How and where products are shelved influences purchasers as well as packaging and perceived price/value. As a rule of thumb, the more visible a product is, the more likely it’s profitable to the grocer and manufacturer.
Q. WHAT PART DO RESTAURANTS PLAY INTO THE BIGGER PICTURE?
A. Almost half of our food dollars today are spent in restaurants, up from 25% 40 years ago. In conjunction with this trend, restaurants have increased the portion sizes of many of their offerings. This has happened for several reasons:
1. The larger the size, the better the value to the customer. This is now engrained in customer expectations.
2. Larger sizes = larger profits. Supersizing drinks is one way to crank up profits for a marginal increase in cost to the customer. Both win on value, but the consumer loses due to the added calories.
3. Combo meals are another way to incorporate a third item like fries into a meal, thus increasing the restaurateur’s profits. Again, the customer receives a perceived higher value, but also adds some extra pounds.
Q. PLEASE IDENTIFY THE THREE TOP REASONS FOR THIS PROBLEM?
A. Oversized portions, the consumer’s inability (or unwillingness) to say no, and the failure of government educational initiatives.
Q. WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?
A. It’s time that the food companies take custodianship over their customer’s health and well-being. That means that they must stop marketing high calorie Weapons of Mass Consumption. The only way to engage the food industry in helping is to show them how to make a profit while doing the right thing.
Q. HOW CAN THE FOOD INDUSTRY HELP AND STILL MAKE A PROFIT?
A. Very simple – they can push great tasting, lower calorie versions of their iconic brands, many described as so called “junk” foods. Case in point: Coca-Cola Zero. By more aggressively promoting CokeZero, the Coca-Cola Company can enjoy the same profits as it does for its core Classic brand. Why? For one, they can offer value deals promoting supersized Coke Zero. The result: Coke makes money; the restaurant makes money; and consumers drink up to 600 less calories while enjoying a taste eerily close to Coke Classic. Another example is 100-calorie snack packs. Studies have shown that consumers eat 120 less calories a day when eating out of 100-calorie packs than from the box. Next time you crave Oreo’s, go for the 100-calorie pack.
Q. WHY DON’T WE JUST TAX OR OUTRIGHT BAN JUNK FOODS?
A. Penalizing so called “bad” foods does have its proponents. The claim is that taxation has helped cut the rate of smoking in half, so why not use it for food. There are problems with this approach. For one, the tax would be regressive, that is, it would hurt those least likely to afford it. Secondly, it is not pragmatic since it assumes consumers will immediately shift from sweetened beverages, for example, to bottled water overnight. Consumer behavior has demonstrated that this will be unlikely. Thirdly, it takes products enjoyed by millions and vilifies them, rather than dealing with the real problem: when they transform into oversized Weapons of Mass Consumption. Finally, it wreaks of the Nanny State, where a small group of advocates impose a system on the consumer because “they know what’s best for us.”
Q. YOU REFER TO WEAPONS OF MASS CONSUMPTION -- WHAT ARE THESE?
A. WMCs are highly caloric versions of popular foods and beverages. And because they are brisk sellers, they add a tremendous calorie load to our diets. For example, a Double Big Gulp sugared soft drink weighs in at over 600 calories – a definite WMC. This could be neutralized by driving consumption to Diet Pepsi or Coca-Cola Zero, which would deliver a payload of 0 calories. Another example is the Monster Thickburger® from Hardee’s at 1420 calories. Better to choose the Little Thickburger and save yourself 800 calories.
Q. WHY DON'T DIETS WORK?
A. More than half the people who start on a diet program bail out in 30 days. Overall, less than 5% stick with these programs. The reason: diet plans are regimens that require people to change their habits – not an easy thing to do. Diet plans are geared for those amongst us who are like Jack LaLanne or qualified to be Navy Seals; most American’s are not.
Q. WHAT IS STEALTH HEALTH?
A. Stealth Health is making a perceived less healthy product better-for-you by not telling the consumer about it. The food industry has learned that despite pleas to make food healthier, consumers will not compromise on taste. If they try to sell a heart-healthier hamburger, better not to say anything, otherwise it will be perceived to taste bad.
Q. HOW CAN THE INDUSTRY HELP THE CONSUMER MAKE THE RIGHT CHOICES -- WHOSE RESPONSIBILITY IS IT?
A. The responsibility lies with both. Corporations need to renounce the marketing of overstuffed foods and beverages and consumers need to chose and demand lower calorie versions and packages of their favorite foods.
Q. HOW DID YOUR OWN HEALTH CRISIS CONTRIBUTE TO YOUR COMMITMENT TO CHANGE AND ADVOCACY?
A. Dealing with a health crisis opens up one’s eyes to see the big picture. I realized the linkage between lifestyle, diet and health and came to believe that my food industry pedigree would serve to reframe the debate in a way that could result in a win-win for both the food industry and the consumers.
Q. WILL THERE EVER BE A HEALTHY FRENCH FRY?
A. There was a lot of effort behind taking trans fats out of frying oils and industry is looking at ways to reduce the amount of oil that is absorbed in fried foods. Perhaps we’ll soon see a crispy, low calorie French fry in restaurants.