Obesity 2011: Food Industry

This week, the Obesity Society’s 29th Annual Meeting (Obesity 2011) is taking place in Orlando, Florida. Today the pre-conference events began, including a group of talks titled Food Industry Outreach — Strategies the Food Industry Is Using to Address Obesity.

food industry

Goal of reducing kids ices to fewer than 110 calories by 2014.

The first talk was given by Mark Andon, PhD, Vice President of Nutrition at ConAgra Foods; he focused on the potential use of single-serving frozen meals in weight loss. He presented the results of several short-term studies which showed a weight loss benefit of frozen meals. In a simple nutritional analysis, Dr. Andon presented data showing that not only frozen meals marketed as ‘healthy’ (like Healthy Choice), but even frozen meals traditionally thought of as less healthy (like Marie Callender’s), contain on average fewer calories and less fat and sodium than do the meals participants generally ate; these often included restaurant, take-out, and cafeteria foods. Dr Andon highlighted a particularly powerful, unexpected benefit of the studies which was that a large majority of participants reported the use of single-serving frozen meals taught them portion control. There was also a much higher compliance rate of people who ate the frozen meals, as compared to those that cooked their own food at home.

The second talk was given by Douglas Balentine, PhD, Vice President of Nutrition Science at Unilever. Dr. Balentine talked about portion size over time, giving examples of the doubling or tripling of the size of bagels, soda, and burgers over the last several decades. His company’s food products have 2 billion daily consumers, and he spoke about buying patterns which show that even though consumers say they want to be healthy, they don’t shop for ‘healthiness’ as their top priority. Unilevel is working on 3 types of food products with health goals: weight-friendly (e.g. decreasing the calories in kids popsicles to fewer than 110), lite (e.g. a lite version of an existing mayonnaise), and active weight control (e.g. meal replacement drinks).

In addition to fighting unhealthy options, many consumers are making decisions based on false assumptions. One example given by Dr. Balentine was of a particular consumer saying she didn’t mind eating a double fudge brownie, as long as she knew it was organic and came from Whole Foods. The idea that healthy food can be defined as where it’s bought, is a dangerous one. We spoke with Dr. Marina Kurian, Medical Director of NYU Langone Weight Management Program, about the role the food industry plays in the obesity epidemic. She echoed Dr. Balentine’s concern about consumer sentiment: “Healthier food doesn’t mean organic potatoes. It encompasses paying attention to the nutrient value of foods, which will go a long way towards reducing the caloric intake of Americans as a whole. Personally, when I was doing research and had very little money to make ends meet, I ate pasta, nachos and ramen noodles. These were foods that were cheap, easy to make and filled me up. However the nutritional makeup of these meals was very carb heavy. People experience these choices every day.”

The final talk was given by Richard Black, PhD, who is the VP of Nutrition at Kraft Foods. He works for the largest US food company, which produces many of American’s favorite brands. Kraft is struggling to find its place in the ‘healthy’ segment of the food industry. A particular challenge is that “Kraft is not interested in a food product unless it can achieve 50 million dollars in sales in 2 years”, according to Dr. Black. The balance between health and revenue is a hard balance to find, especially with a consumer base that is not interested in sacrificing taste. Dr. Kurian agreed that this balance is key, saying “On the one hand, the food industry should feel the accountability of creating calorically dense and overly palatable foods and the resultant rise in obesity and related co-morbidities. Their moral compass should charter them to providing better foods at reasonable prices. On the other hand, the food industry is in the business of selling food.”

Dr. Black went on to talk about marketing. He gave the example of a Ritz Crackers product that failed in the market: Low Sodium Ritz. But when the exact same product, with almost exactly the same packaging, was re-released as Hint of Salt Ritz Crackers, it was well received by consumers. Dr. Kurian spoke about the marketing of the food industry: “The food industry came up with the fantastic idea of restriction with 100 calorie snack packs of nutrient poor foods in the guise of helping people manage their caloric intake. Then there was also the fat free craze of the late 1990s where snack foods including cookies were made with ingredients that we couldn’t pronounce. Catchy brand-names like ‘Snackwells’ arose during that period.”

Dr. Black focused on ways Kraft is working to create healthier products, including one strategy he calls “stealth nutrition”. Two new forms of the traditional family-favorite Kraft Mac & Cheese are now available: Mac & Cheese with veggie pasta, and Mac & Cheese with whole grain pasta. Products like these may make it easier for parents to ‘sneak’ more nutritional options into their kids’ meals. They also allow consumers to slowly make better choices, since jumping from an extreme of unhealthy eating to the other end of the spectrum, is unrealistic.

The three speakers ended with a panel discussion of the role the food industry plays in addressing obesity. One question was about how The Obesity Society might work with the food industry going forward, which led to one of the final comments from the panel: “The Obesity Society working with the food industry is a little bit like porcupine sex. You need to proceed very carefully.”

Comments are closed.