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Processed Food and Beverage Industry Shifts Stance

Just 14 years ago in Minneapolis, enduring a wave of criticism from health advocates over their role in the nation’s obesity epidemic, CEOs from eleven of North America’s largest processed food companies gathered at Pillsbury to consider their options. According to New York Times Magazine investigative reporter Michael Moss, they briefly discussed revamping their product lines to cut back on salt, sugar and fat, but the gathering broke up without taking action. Decrying the notion of an industry-wide nutritional code, one CEO asserted that “fickle” consumers would never sustain their wellness kick.

But it didn’t work out that way. Today, healthy food awareness is rising faster than ever. Against the backdrop of soaring health care and insurance costs and with First Lady Michelle Obama leading the way, a national campaign to restore healthy eating and exercise is taking shape. Parents and children are shifting gears. Now, it’s cool to eat well, and that means whole foods and nutritious drinks.

Industry Responds

In 2009, the industry took another look in the mirror and, this time, formed the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation “to reduce obesity – especially childhood obesity – by 2015. “Pulling on a vast network of corporate connections, the Foundation now boasts 210 retailers, restaurants, sporting goods companies, insurers, trade associations, non-governmental organizations and professional sports groups. Its Board of Governors is a who’s who of sugar-added products manufacturers, including Hershey’s, Kellogg’s, Hillshire Brands, Coke, Pepsi, Nestle’s, Bumble Bee, Campbell’s, General Mills, Mars Chocolate, Smucker’s and McCormick & Co.

Focused on families and schools, the Foundation’s strategy is to “help people achieve a healthy weight through energy balance – calories in and calories out.”But critics question that strategy, saying it dodges the key insight of recent nutrition research, the fact that all calories are not the same. Emerging science (see, for instance, Harvard School of Public Health and Robert Lustig, MD, Professor of Pediatrics, UCSF) differentiates among calories, recognizing that some contribute significantly to weight gain and metabolic syndrome (diabetes and heart disease) while others do not. Controlling total calories is important, but restricting the worst offenders is critical. And sugar-added, processed foods and drink are the worst of all.

While the Foundation’s “energy balance” strategy is questionable, the admission of complicity in North America’s obesity epidemic is a step in the right direction. It lends credibility to the educational efforts of health professionals and nutritionists and confronts consumers with the need to more carefully monitor their food and beverage choices.

Coke’s Admission

In this regard, Coke’s recent decision to reposition itself with a splashy, two-minute television spot also adds momentum to the battle for healthy diets in North America.

The ad begins with an open acknowledgement of the obesity epidemic and the role that “the nation’s largest beverage company” can play in fighting it. It then runs through a series of facts about Coke’s product line and public relations, including the fact that 180 of Coke’s 650 beverages are “low- or no-calorie, ” that all products prominently display the number of calories on the front of their containers, that Coke and other beverage manufacturers have reduced the portion of full-sugar drinks in school vending machines, that Coke supports the Boys and Girls Clubs of America (exercise for kids) and that the industry backs scientific research, notably the search for an all-natural sugar substitute.

Though critics were quick to point out the self-serving nature of the ad (here, here, here, here (Canada)), a counter-Coke ad here and a Center for Science in the Public Interest satire here, the mere fact that Coke felt the need to directly address its role is solid testimony to widening health awareness. A brand like Coca-Cola – that has long nurtured an image of active fun and responsible social awareness – cannot afford a negative association with obesity and disease. With its new ad, Coke clearly hopes to stay ahead of the curve.

Although Coke may be the biggest name in the industry, all processed food and beverage giants face the same dilemma. No longer in strict denial of their impact on public health, they are now struggling to reposition their products and preserve their reputations.

[Steve Clark]

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