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Today's Food Companies: The Quick and the Dead

Hank Cardello

Despite skepticism surrounding the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation pledge that its food industry members will sell 1.5 trillion fewer calories in the next five years, there is an emerging track record that suggests that food marketers are recognizing that they must deal with the spiraling-out-of-control obesity crisis … or else. Witness the recent announcement by the American Heart Association- and Clinton Foundation-run Alliance for a Healthier Generation that soft drink giants Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Dr Pepper Snapple Group have reduced the number of calories shipped to schools by 88 percent since 2004. PepsiCo has gone one step further by unilaterally declaring that it will halt the sale of full-sugar soft drinks in primary and secondary schools globally. 

With companies like Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, and Campbell Soup participating in the Foundation’s pledge, here’s a preview of what’s coming on grocery shelves. Don’t expect traditional Coca-Cola to change (again), but readers are likely to see more visible displays of lower-calorie beverages like Coca-Cola Zero and Vitaminwater. Kraft will pull even more calories out of its Lunchables or reduce the size of Kraft cheese slices. And those Milano cookies from Pepperidge Farm may be just a wee bit less fatty. Anticipate that a plethora of packages will be “downsized,” with a whole array of smaller portioned boxes, mini-packs, cans, and bottles to choose from. Even the food inside will be smaller. 

More enlightened food marketers are getting the message that doing the right thing is in their best interests. Why are they lowering calories, fats, and sodium? The simple answer is: impending regulations. Smart packaged goods firms have taken a lesson from their restaurant brethren after watching how the restaurant lobby resisted the move to place calories on menu boards. Once the light bulb went off that several states and multiple municipalities beyond New York City might pass legislation requiring different formats for listing calories, agreement to a national standard as proposed by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) became a no-brainer. And it has not been lost on marketers that health advocates and activists are reading from a new playbook published by the Urban Institute titled “Reducing Obesity: Policy Strategies from the Tobacco Wars” (PDF). 

So is a 1.5 trillion calorie reduction over five years enough to make a difference? Clearly, focusing on lowering calories to deal with the obesity problem is the right call, and the Foundation should be applauded for taking a stand, but this is a drop in the bucket and represents only a 0.5 percent reduction in the 300 trillion calories available for Americans to consume each year. That translates to less than 1.5 pounds of added weight per person. Hardly enough to resolve an obesity crisis. 

To fix obesity, we must reverse what got us here in the first place. Daily calories supplied are up 30 percent per person since 1970, and returning to that “pre-obesity” level requires a discharge of 69 trillion calories. 

It’s time to be bold. REALLY BOLD. “Put a man on the moon” bold. 

With all the tools available to food marketers to lower the calories they sell while maintaining profitsintroducing low-calorie alternatives and high-profit-margin 100-calorie portion packages, and putting marketing support behind lower-calorie brandsit is time to step up and “tear down this wall” of obesity by committing to eliminating those excess 69 trillion calories. This 20-percent or more reduction in calories is what’s really needed to take back American’s health and waistlines. So declare this goal for the end of the decade and we’ll all be better for it … consumers as well as corporate bottom lines. 

Or else?

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