We are all familiar by now with the food industry’s tribulations during the coronavirus crisis. Restaurants are shut down except for drive-thru windows and pickup/delivery service; grocery stores still have empty shelves; fresh milk and vegetables meant for restaurants, school cafeterias, and other dining establishments are being tossed away; and several meat plants have shut down due to workers infected with the COVID-19 virus.
But pull the curtain back further and the real tragedy reveals itself: The obese are suffering from the virus at a disproportionately high rate. This pandemic has laid bare the inequities not only in our nation’s health care system, but also in its people’s access to healthy food. The food industry’s supply chain problems are not its only woes. Food companies have not fully embraced healthier products and now must commit to making them their priority.
In the largest study to date, researchers identified obesity as the biggest risk factor for people admitted to hospitals with COVID-19, along with age (being over 65). Research conducted in Shenzhen, China and reported in the health journal The Lancet showed that obesity significantly increased the risk of patients developing severe pneumonia while afflicted with the novel coronavirus. And per capita death rates from COVID-19 in New Orleans, whose population suffers from high levels of obesity and related ailments such as diabetes, have been reported at twice the rate of New York City. Given that the United States ranks first among OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) nations and has an adult obesity rate of 42.4%, this is alarming.
While obesity is a complex issue, rigorous studies have linked it to a diet of less healthy foods and beverages. A Hudson Institute study showed that those with obesity purchase significantly more packaged snacks and chips, pastries and sweet baked goods, ice cream, cookies and soda than consumers with healthier weights. A recent George Washington University project found that the rising U.S. obesity epidemic and related chronic diseases are correlated with a rise in ultra-processed food consumption. And a study released this year by Dartmouth College showed that fast food alone contributed to weight gains in preschoolers.
While some food companies have made progress in improving product nutrition (mostly by packaged goods companies such as Unilever, Nestle and Danone), other industry sectors are lagging. Restaurants in particular have been slow to add healthier meals onto their menus. And supermarkets have stuck to tried-and-true promotions of less healthy offerings.
The coronavirus outbreak is likely to boost unhealthy eating habits in the near term. Even typically healthy consumers have been stress-eating the wrong things. Nobody is hoarding broccoli right now. The pandemic has taught us that much needs to be done to make healthy foods more flavorful and convenient, especially as consumers are clamoring for these items. According to the 2019 Food & Health Survey, 75% of consumer diets have trended healthier over the past 10 years, with lower sugar intake and eating more fruits and vegetables as the biggest changes. Even in restaurants, 63% of customers want healthier menu items and 55% want smaller portions.
Industry is now facing its perfect storm: real-life health tragedies tied to food; public health pressure to reduce sugar and beef consumption by 50% and to increase fruit, vegetable, nut and legume consumption by 100% by 2050; and accelerated consumer demand for healthier foods that give them more control over their lives. Not answering these challenges will leave food companies behind.
Food makers, food retailers and restaurant chains need to step up quickly, and in three ways:
- Own the health of your consumers and customers. They are the reason for your existence and they are clamoring to eat better. Treat their well-being as part of your business models.
- Stop treating healthier products like second-class citizens. Years ago the soft drink business never imagined the viability and rapid growth of bottled water. Today, waters outsell soda. Industry must not miss the bus on the broad movement to better-for-you foods. Give consumers what they want: more plant-based proteins, less sugar, fewer calories, and more fiber.
- Change your mindset from operational to long term. While their supply chains and facilities must operate efficiently, food companies need to reconsider what they are delivering through their supply lines. A large and fast-growing number of consumers have embraced healthier food that is sustainably sourced. The coronavirus crisis has amplified this trend. Food companies that capitalize on it will come out of the tunnel stronger.
It’s time for the industry to finally step up and own its customers’ health problems: poor diets that have led to greater obesity, illness and death. Their future (and yours) will depend on it, long after the coronavirus crisis is over.
Read in Forbes