First Lady Michelle Obama gave some tough love to the food industry last week.
In her remarks at the Grocery Manufacturers Association meeting in Washington D.C. last week Mrs. Obama was tactful, diplomatic and generous with praise for the advances already made by food makers.
Yet, she didn’t shy away from criticism, and explicitly described some of food makers’ obesogenic practices.
I’m going to peel away the praise, and serve just her between-the-lines reprimands, since I think that’s where we’ll find the bigger and most important messages.
You put stuff in our food that helps your sales yet undermines our health
• “We all know that human beings—I, for one, know—are hard-wired to crave sugary, fatty, salty foods. And it is tempting to take advantage of that—to create products that are sweeter, richer, and saltier than ever before."
• “But doing so doesn’t just respond to people’s natural inclinations—it also actually helps to shape them. And this can be particularly dangerous when it comes to our kids, because as all of you know, as parents, the more of these products they have in their diets, the more accustomed they become to those tastes, and then the more deeply embedded these foods become in their eating habits.”
You’re bombarding our kids with ads and marketing that shapes bad choices and eating habits
• “Our kids didn’t learn about the latest sweets and snack foods on their own. They hear about these products from advertisements on TV, the Internet, video games, schools, many other places. And any parent knows, this marketing is really effective. We’ve all had to endure those impassioned pleas in the grocery store for one product or another. Some of us have been treated to full-scale reenactments of TV commercials and jingles, word for word, right on key.”
• “More than 70 percent of foods marketed to kids were still among the least healthy, with less than 1 percent being among the most healthy.”
• “What does it mean when so many parents are finding that their best efforts are undermined by an avalanche of advertisements aimed at their kids? And what are these ads teaching kids about food and nutrition? That it’s good to have salty, sugary food and snacks every day—breakfast, lunch, and dinner? That dessert is an everyday food? That it’s okay to eat unhealthy foods because they’re endorsed by the cartoon characters our children love and the celebrities our teenagers look up to?”
You manipulate the food label to confuse us into buying your food
• “We can give parents all the information in the world, but they still won’t have time to untangle labels filled with 10-syllable words or do long division with these portion sizes.”
• “But we know those labels aren’t always as helpful as they could be. And it’s hard enough to figure out whether any one food item is healthy. It’s even harder to compare items. And folks just don’t have the time to line products up side by side and figure out whether these compare or not. And they shouldn’t have to. Parents shouldn’t need a magnifying glass and a calculator to make healthy choices for their kids.”
You’ve convinced us to eat more, when we need to eat less
• “While kids 30 years ago ate just one snack a day, we’re now trending toward three—so our kids are taking in an additional 200 calories a day just from snacks alone. And one in five school-age kids has up to six snacks a day.”
• “In the mid-1970s, the average sweetened drink portions were about 13.6 ounces. And today, our kids think nothing of drinking 20 ounces of soda at a time.”
• “All told, we’re eating 31 percent more calories than we were just 40 years ago—and that’s including 56 percent more fats and oil and 14 percent more sugars and sweeteners. In fact, we now add sweeteners to all kinds of products in amounts unimaginable just a generation ago.”
You’re very creative reformulating products that can be marketed as healthy without making them any healthier
• “But what it doesn’t mean is taking out one problematic ingredient, only to replace it with another. While decreasing fat is certainly a good thing, replacing it with sugar and salt isn’t. And it doesn’t mean compensating for high amounts of problematic ingredients with small amounts of beneficial ones — for example, adding a little bit of Vitamin C to a product with lots of sugar, or a gram of fiber to a product with tons of fat doesn’t suddenly make those products good for our kids.“
Finding common ground
Food makers are important and powerful players in shaping our food environment, and bringing them on board in the “Let’s Move” effort is really critical to its success. While fighting obesity will have to involve some “eat less” commitment—a message that clearly conflicts with food makers’ bottom line—Mrs. Obama’s focus is on finding common ground.
Her encouragement to food makers to join the healthy food movement is something that’s a win-win for all. Mrs. Obama pointed at the growing interest and demand for healthier foods—a trend she believes is here to stay and will only expand—and promises to food makers that if they make it healthy, consumers will come.
Speaking of demand: Food makers’ repeated lame excuse for the junk they make is that they only make what consumers want. And that’s why I especially love Mrs. Obama’s call to enlist the extraordinary marketing talent—which helped get us to our staggering obesity rates—for some good:
“If there is anyone here who can sell food to our kids, it’s you. You know what gets their attention. You know what makes that lasting impression. You know what gets them to drive their parents crazy in the grocery store. And I’m here today to ask you to use that knowledge and that power to our kids’ advantage. I’m asking you to actively promote healthy foods and healthy habits to our kids.”Brilliant speech! I hope Mrs. Obama inspires some meaningful changes in the food industry that are indeed more than just tweaking and lip service—deep changes that would actually help kids and parents eat better and promote health.
Full disclosure: I’m vice president of product development for Herbal Water, where we make organic herb-infused waters that have zero calories and no sugar or artificial ingredients. I’m also a pediatrician and have been promoting good nutrition and healthy lifestyle for many years.