Big Food takes a lot of heat when it comes to consumer health. And no wonder: Books like Michael Moss' Salt, Sugar, Fat and Melanie Warner's Pandora's Lunchbox have pulled back the curtain to reveal the dirty little secrets of how the processed food industry has insinuated itself into the lives of consumers around the world—and how that power has affected global wellbeing.
It's true that many food manufacturers have tweaked their formulations for maximum craveability (how many people can stop at one spoonful of ice cream? 🍦) because cravings make for repeat customers, and repeat customers drive profits.
And profits, in the end, are what keeps businesses alive.
So, if they're just doing what businesses do to stay afloat, can these companies really be blamed for the current health crisis? And is it fair to ask them to shoulder the burden of shifting consumers away from ultra-processed, hyper-palatable fare and toward healthier food choices? 🥗
Part of the answer lies in one of the most obvious—and startling—effects of processed foods' infiltration into daily life in the recent past: obesity.
The prevalence of overweight and obesity has been on the rise for somewhere between 35 and 40 years.
According to the World Health Organization, current numbers are nearly three times what they were in 1975.
What does this translate to? In 2016, 39% of adults over 18 were overweight and 13% were obese, a combined global prevalence of 52% of the population.
In the U.S., the prevalence is even higher: 73.6% of adults over age 20 were overweight or obese in 2018, 42.5% of which qualified as obese. 📈Millions more children and adolescents, including 38 million children under the age of five globally, are also struggling with their weight.
While it may not be 100% accurate to blame highly processed foods for the sharp increase in weight, it's impossible to deny that there has been a noticeable shift in testing habits.
In the U.S., for example, people consume far more sugar, grain products, fats, and oils now than in the 1970s. Most sugar and grains come from corn sweeteners, corn products, and baked goods; fats are largely from cooking oils, chicken, and cheese. 🧀And where are the majority of these ingredients found?
In the cheap, calorie-heavy, nutrient-poor food that's absolutely everywhere. Although the colorful packages and clever branding promise infinite variety, most packaged foods contain the same ingredients in various arrangements. (Spend time reading boxes in the cereal aisle, and this becomes clear pretty quickly. 🌽 🥣 ) It's simply by a clever formulation that products manage to deliver a range of distinct tastes. Most people are too busy to notice.
The breakneck pace of modern society drives demands for faster, more convenient food options at the cheapest possible price points—which creates more opportunities for Big Food to swoop in with a deluge of new and enticing offerings. It's a vicious cycle, and it's literally killing people. But data shows the tides may be starting to turn. 🌊
Healthy, or at least healthy-ish, is on track to become big business all its own. Ninety-three percent of consumers claim they want to eat healthy "at least some of the time;" 63% are trying for it "most" or "all" of the time. And they're on the lookout for foods and drinks that promise specific benefits and outcomes. The most popular choices? Anything that hints at natural origins or contains "less" of ingredients perceived to be harmful to health, including:
Foods catering to specialty diets—like plant-based, paleo, and vegan—are also in higher demand. Big Food is taking notice, which can be seen in the sudden flood of functional foods crowding the market, particularly those with ingredients promising stronger immunity.
🤧 As consumers demand benefits across a broader range of categories, brands are responding with new or "enhanced" products to cash in on the trend. And cash in they can: 70% of consumers say they're willing to shell out more money for foods with benefits.💲💲
A 2018 report from the U.S. Access to Nutrition Index suggests profit may be more important than promises for some of the biggest food brands. According to the report, the 10 leading companies (which include Nestlé, Unilever, PepsiCo, and Mars) aren't doing enough to "improve the nutritional quality, pricing, and distribution of their products nor to improve their practices related to responsible and transparent product marketing and labeling."
Translation: They're talking big talk while continuing decades-old practices of using cheap ingredients and slick marketing to hook consumers. 🍭On the other hand, there's the Consumer Goods Forum (CFG), which "bring[s] together the CEOs and senior management of some 400 retailers, manufacturers, service providers, and other stakeholders across 70 countries" in an effort to drive positive changes across the food system.
As part of the CFG's Collaboration for Healthier Lives Coalition, brands like Nestlé and Danone are coming together to try and make healthy eating more accessible and sustainable. From healthier store environments to better workplace food options, members are committed to creating positive change in the lives of consumers.
But the question remains: Should consumers be looking to Big Food to provide healthier options?
Doesn't this also allow the very same companies that have contributed to a society increasingly burdened with excess weight (and the health problems that result) to dictate what qualifies as “healthy?”
🌱And does asking the brands that have made ultra-processed fare part of daily life to take up the role of nutritionist run the risk of removing consumers' responsibility while creating "health halos" around products that are only marginally better than their predecessors?
A report from the Consumer Goods Forum, Boston Consulting Group and Nielsen Global Connect highlights the reality of the challenges faced in answering these questions. Of the 7,000 consumers who participated, 97% said health was important to them, but 23% "struggle[d] to achieve a healthy, balanced approach to nutrition."The biggest challenges for that 23%?
These results suggest Big Food falls far short of expectations when it comes to healthy eating but has done a fantastic job producing cheap, hyper-palatable fare while contributing to the confusion surrounding what's healthy and what's not—through ubiquitous advertising, biased scientific research and even national dietary guidelines. (T. Colin Campbell has quite a bit more to say on this in his insightful book, The Future of Nutrition.)
These combined forces have contributed to a kind of societal conditioning that's difficult to reverse. People are so used to grabbing convenient food—and are so convinced healthy eating is disgusting, difficult, and/or expensive—that they default to acting on impulses and desires. And ultra-processed, convenient food is everywhere, making it easy to inhale thousands of empty calories while zipping through the back-to-back insanity of a typical busy schedule.
It's a food environment positively designed to perpetuate itself. 🏃🏻♀️💨But it doesn't have to. Conditioning doesn't equate to stupidity. Consumers do understand that their choices can have negative consequences—hence the pervasive desire to "eat healthier" even when the how remains elusive. Making big changes, however, is rare, largely because it's unnatural for humans to put their immediate desires on the back burner in favor of better outcomes at some nebulous point in the future.
This is especially true if they believe they have to suffer through a diet of bland, boring, subpar food to reach their health goals. This could be part of the reason why companies seeking to drive change are opting to introduce better options into the environments consumers are already conditioned to frequent. "Plant-based," for example, is becoming a more common option at fast-food restaurants. 🍔 Gas stations have bananas and apples at the checkout counter. 🍌 Avocado toast is turning up everywhere. 🥑But for these foods to start edging out chips, burgers, pizza, donuts, and candy bars, consumers need to choose to eat them instead. Which could turn out to be one of the biggest hurdles of all.
Taste buds primed by perfect proportions of salt, sugar, and fat—the magical trio that makes ultra-processed food so enticing—are not easily satisfied by substitutes. Consumers like what they like and expect foods to taste the way they've always tasted.
🤤This makes changing to new ingredients a particular challenge for Big Food brands. Reducing sugar, salt, and fat in formulations can mess with texture, flavor, and the overall eating experience. Swapping in a new ingredient means having to find a new "sweet spot"—literally—due to differences in the level of sweetness and nuances in flavor.
Cutting down on fat can require adding other ingredients to make the formula behave properly, which makes it difficult to achieve clean label goals. And introducing hitherto unused functional ingredients could throw everything into unexpected chaos. Even after hitting what seems like the perfect combination of healthy and tasty, there's no guarantee of consumer adoption. So a company could labor for years in pursuit of a good thing only to have it fall flat once it hits the market. 👎🏻
There is always the option of making incremental changes to standard products instead of doing a massive overhaul or releasing a new variety that's specifically touted as "better."After all, if consumers are going to buy a product anyway, why not get something healthier into their carts—no choice required? 🛒Such an approach may sound enticing, but it does nothing to actually help consumers eat better.
"Stealth health" removes personal responsibility and ignores the need for consumer education in the shift toward a food system that actively promotes wellbeing. Despite decades of conditioning and a plethora of conflicting food and nutrition messages, consumers are still responsible for their food choices. Availability, environment, and information do, however, play a role in determining the extent to which people are able to shift toward better options.
🍎A solution, then, maybe twofold: food manufacturers committing to changing formulas over reasonable periods of time while simultaneously committing to integrity in messaging and practice. This approach has the potential to remove a great deal of conflicting influence on the health and nutrition information available to the public and reduce the number of health-damaging ingredients circulating within the food system. It could also mean that some well-loved products and formulations slowly disappear from shelves in favor of truly better-for-you options.
It’s a sacrifice that both consumers and big food brands must be willing to make, but getting there is going to take a while. But happen it must.
The alarming rise in obesity rates signals a desperate need to break the vicious cycle powering the food system’s current trajectory before the entire system crashes and burns, taking the healthcare system—and likely a large part of society—with it. 🔥Of course, there are other barriers to address.
Equal access to nutritious food, budget restrictions, and lack of cooking skills are just a few of the additional challenges those who wish to transform the current food system must overcome. Big Food is on the frontier of what could be a seismic shift. ⛰ Whether these companies can succeed in providing a bridge for consumers between current consumption habits and healthier food choices requires a great deal of thought and a willingness to deal with multiple failures In pursuit of long-term change.
It requires paying more attention to the actual problems consumers face instead of developing new products in response to eating habits that have become so deeply ingrained as to be mindless. It requires empowering consumers to achieve their health goals by not only giving them better products but also providing the opportunity to gain actual knowledge they can apply beyond those moments of choice at the grocery store or the drive-through.
🚗Is Big Food up to the challenge?
Only time will tell. ⏰