Don’t feed the models: Obesity, Part 1

Note to the reader — Be sure to click on both pictures and words with hyperlinks, they lead to sites that provide evidence and expand further on the subject. 

 “Obesity is the terror within. It is destroying us, destroying our society from within. And unless we do something about it, the magnitude of the dilemma will dwarf 9/11 or any other terrorist event that you can point out to me.”  

— Dr Richard Carmona, US Surgeon General 2002-2008

112,000 > 28

These numbers speak for themselves. Americans are in the middle of a battle far more lethal on our home turf, with very real death tolls. We’re not funding just one war, but two. Our tax money goes towards the many causes of our health epidemic.

The obesity crisis is deeply rooted within our country. I almost favor calling it a conundrum instead of a crisis because of how convoluted the issue has become with equally evasive solutions. Who do we blame? The government? The food industry? Ourselves? Biology? Is it nobody’s fault?

Regardless, obesity is here to stay unless we act. A third of our country is

We are corn people. Corn is in nearly everything. Skeptical? Click to read "Children of the Corn."

obese, and two thirds are overweight. (Click here to see how your state measures up.) We (unwittingly) continue to fund the corporations that produce junk food. We also allow our government to continue subsidizing foods that are junk food’s main ingredients. (Oh hello, corn and soy.) Our food system is making us sick, and our pharmaceutical system merely treats the symptoms. As a result, diseases continue and here we are. Treating symptoms doesn’t cure disease. 

Our children are projected to live shorter lives in abject health. That should be a wake up call. After millennia of our longevity perpetually increasing, we’ve managed to contribute to taking years off the lives of the next generation. In fifty years, food has changed drastically, but our bodies have not. We aren’t equipped to handle processed foods.

Chances are, you've never seen insulin and a syringe. Unless we act, you'll be handling these daily to inject your future children or grandchildren.

Our children are likely to be afflicted with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, ADD, and ADHD, to name just a few. As stated in Killer at Large, if nothing is changed, 40% of school aged children in the next ten years will be insulin dependent. 40% of our school children will need injections daily. Imagine the effects from the child’s development and socialization to the well-being of the family and their medical bills. Imagine these children as adults. All dependent on insulin.

How did we let this happen?!? What are the contributing factors? What can we do and what is being done?

Contributing factors include (but are not limited to):

1. Food companies’ business models

2. Incessant and powerful marketing

3. False “health” information propagated by the FDA

4. Misplaced farming subsidies that make junk food cheap

5. What qualifies as an “approved lunch” in our schools by the USDA

Thankfully, some measures have been passed recently that are making a positive impact on the crisis. Not only have there been a few promising policy shifts in food systems, but certain non-profits are also doing laudable work.

Each contributing factor, along with the policy shifts and non-profit work, merits its own post. Check back frequently for each part!

Food Companies and Their Business Models

Americans’ demand engendered the business models on which present-day food companies thrive. Wait, we demanded unhealthy food? To be convenient and easy to buy? Yes we did, as it turns out.

Hank Cardello, author of Stuffed, gives his readers a captivating history lesson on how current food business models were born in his chapter titled “A Boxcar Full of Turkeys.” His thoughts on the early shift in America’s food systems business model centers on (can you believe it?!) Swanson.

When Swanson’s employee, Gerry Thomas, proposed the idea in 1954, Swanson actually wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea in the least. They only made 5,000 of the meals! Surprisingly, and almost instantly, demand far outweighed the supply. Millions wanted to eat Swanson’s meals. “The company was blindsided by the fact that Americans seemed fascinated by the prospect of eating this new, convenient meal in front of their televisions” (2). It was the demand that dictated the supply. The American public’s demand in response to Swanson’s marketing is the reason TV dinners were mass produced. Otherwise, the concept would have been scrapped.

Although Swanson didn’t invent the TV dinner, it was the first company to market the product with wild success. Like many modern day food products, Swanson made a fortune not on taste, but on an idea. The idea? Convenience trumps taste. As Cardello put it, “Swanson TV dinner was a turning point, not so much because of what it was, but because of what it represented: Our expectations for food were lowered. It proved that convenience was king” (4).

The thought process that lead to convenience’s priority over taste goes something like this: Less time preparing food means my life will become easier, and I have more time for things I want to do. Sadly, this is the concept that led to people becoming obese, unable to do most of the things the extra time could have afforded them. 

Why didn’t companies think of this before? …they didn’t realize this type of business model could be profitable.

Food companies endure and their shareholders invest because of the bottom line: money. TV dinners sold. They improved Swanson’s bottom line, and so the product was made. Now TV dinners and frozen meals in general are as common as it gets.

Fact: The Swanson turkey TV dinner in 1954 was 250 calories. Now their “Hungry Man” version? 650. Sounds about proportionate with our increasing waistlines. (Check out the Hungry Man commercial with the tag line “It’s good to be full.”)

Companies like Swanson, and now their parent conglomerates like General Mills, didn’t start out to make America unhealthy. The companies merely acted as businesses. They answered consumer demand with apposite products. Bigger portions? Use lower grade ingredients and adjust flavorings accordingly. Mmm. Fillers. Bet McDonalds didn’t realize it would make their hamburger meat nearly indestructible. Their meat doesn’t decompose! Ever. Neat!

The lunch kids beg for. Has an appalling long list of ingredients, especially in the "turkey." Click to see for yourself.

“If you manage to make it taste good in the process, great. If not, leave it to the marketing department. It’s their job to come up with a way to make it sell,” muses Cardello (6). The truth is, the industry is so profitable, companies can’t stop themselves from selling their products, no matter what the cost to our health. When I say can’t, they literally can’t. Change isn’t profitable. The products that make us the most unhealthy are most often top sellers, aka the bread and butter of any food company. Example? General Mills depends on the money generated from Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Kix, Trix, and many more. These guarantee the stability of their stock and the loyalty of their investors. It’s easier to promote “brand extensions” (bite-sized Oreos, Double Stuffed Oreos, Oreo Cakesters, Inside Out Oreos…) than introduce a new one at a possible colossal loss. On and on it goes. Think about it, you almost never hear of Coca Cola or Hershey introducing a completely new product. Instead, you have Coke Lime, Vanilla Coke, Diet Coke, Cherry Coke, etc. Hershey milk chocolate kisses, dark chocolate kisses, kisses filled with irish cream, kisses filled with caramel, you get the idea.

The food industry holds the power to determine what products are available and convenient to us. It comes as no surprise that change can only happen if the food industry lends a hand. But first, we have to influence the food industry. I agree with Hank Cardello, “It’s my contention that the real solution must come from the food industry. They hold all the cards. The food business ultimately will change because it will serve them well to change–on their bottom lines” (12).

Can and will food companies find a way to produce cheap, convenient, and

Don't fall for this one. Artificial coloring and aspartame much? Click to read about "vitamin enriched" products.

healthy foods? Only if we demand it. Then they’ll supply it. This is one way to combat obesity: change the food that is convenient to healthy foods. Contribute to the buyer shift. You can make a statement to these companies by choosing to buy healthier products and encouraging others to do the same. (And please don’t be fooled by “fortified” white flours, “vitamin enriched” sodas, “made with whole grain” sugary cereals, “low fat,” “non-fat,” and “sugar free” gimmicks. This is only food companies pretending to make their products healthier. They are just as unhealthy or even more taxing to your health.)

Which food product do you want off the market and replaced by a healthier yet still convenient counterpart? Post back!

Stay tuned for Part 2, Incessant Marketing.

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3 responses

  1. Pingback: Don’t feed the models: Obesity, Part 1 « advocatetaste

  2. For me, sodas are the first thing to go. Artificial food coloring, high fructose corn syrup, sugar… They can be replaced with natural coloring (or none, for clear soda), natural flavor, and a natural sweetener like stevia. A brand that already does this deliciously is called Zevia. They’ve proved its possible to create a healthier product without sacrificing taste.

  3. It is worth looking at the culture of the times in the mid-1950s.

    The young and the old were still reeling from the experience of World War 2, and for some, the Great Depression.

    Our society marched into the 50’s with excitement for new opportunities. Technology began to untie men and women from daily, menial tasks. People were happy and enjoying the newness of “plenty” of everything.

    TV dinners were easily accepted as the next new item that families could enjoy together, on their TV trays, while watching the adventure of television. No one questioned nutritional value or the value of most new gadgets. The lean years were gone. Hello to good, plenty and cheap.

    Life was great! Real challenges to authority, questioning and debating issues percolated through schools, families, religious groups and government in the 60’s. Nutrition was on the back burner.

    Ironically, big businesses and pharmas found their bottom lines could profit from the excesses of the good life. Until business figures out how it can make lots of profit by curing problems, societies’ ills will continue.

    I was recently at the USA Finals of the Imagine Cup 2011 at Microsoft’s corporate headquarters. One competition was in designing video/digital games that could reshape the world. The winning team from a school of graphic design in Chicago, designed an environmentally aimmed at teaching elementary school aged children the why’s and how’s of saving our environment. The game is so popular in schools in Chicago that the winning team is expanding it’s reach. Demand created supply.

    One way to change attitudes and teach good nutritional understanding, might be through gaming.

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