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Our Obesity Epidemic Requires Cold War Tactics Image

The debate over obesity policy rages on between public health advocates and food marketers. Vitriolic missiles are systematically hurled and mistrust prevails with little tangible results. It’s time to change the rules of engagement and adopt Cold War tactics.

Today’s battle against obesity is waged in a piecemeal, World War I trench-warfare fashion. Research studies covering topics ranging from the dangers of sugars and fats to the need for listing calories on menus serve as weapons launched from individual silos to attack food products and industry practices. Regulations are subsequently proposed to tax, ban or limit perceived Weapons of Mass Consumption without considering all scenarios. For example, while taxes on sugared sodas would reduce consumption, several studies have indicated that the impact on obesity rates would be negligible.

The food industry response to these “eat your peas” frontal assaults is predictable: Challenge the findings, unleash the lobbyists and wheel out new marketing campaigns in support of current practices.

This endless cycle of attack and defend has failed to reverse America’s obesity burden. There is too much emphasis on the trees — salt, sugar, fats — and not enough on the forest: reducing calories. The issue isn’t salt, sugar, etc., it’s over-consumption. To solve the $147 billion-a-year epidemic of obesity confronting a new generation of children, we have to focus on solutions rather than just being “right.”

The Cold War provides an effective blueprint to tackle obesity. Important lessons include:

1. Focus on winning the war, not individual battles. Herman Kahn, architect of U.S. nuclear deterrence strategy and founder of the Hudson Institute, a think-tank and public policy research organization, once said: “The objective of nuclear-weapons policy should not be solely to decrease the number of weapons in the world, but to make the world safer — which is not necessarily the same thing.” Kahn, the real-life prototype for Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” recognized that the proposed means to deal with a potential nuclear holocaust oftentimes get confused with the desired outcome.

Similarly, the Great Food Debate places excessive emphasis on which “weapons” should be banned, eliminated or limited (i.e., sugars, saturated fats and salt). So we lose sight of the ultimate goal — longer, healthier lives for our children and their families. This can be accomplished more readily by focusing on the primary factor affecting obesity: eliminating calories. Doing so automatically reduces such offenders as sugars and fats.

2. There is no “nuclear zero.” Many absolutists argue that foods such as sodas, cookies and French fries serve no purpose and should be bid adieu. Food companies are confronted with two issues: satisfying customers’ demand for such items and meeting their financial commitments to Wall Street. According to the Hudson Institute’s landmark study “Better-for-You Foods: Its Just Good Business,” more than 60 percent of packaged food and beverage sales come from traditional higher-calorie products — potato chips, Cheetos, cookies, sugared soft drinks, mayonnaise, baked goods, pre-sweetened cereals. The CEO who moves to eradicate these icon brands is a short-timer, and it’s impractical to expect consumers to switch their taste preferences overnight.

A case in point is PepsiCo. In 2010, CEO Indra Nooyi vowed to grow Pepsi’s “nutrition” business (fruit juices, oatmeal, nuts and seeds, dairy products, sports drinks) from $10 billion to $30 billion by the end of the decade. But when Beverage Digest in March 2011 announced that Pepsi had slipped to the No. 3 soft drink behind Coca-Cola and Diet Coke, shock waves reverberated throughout the company. Resources were diverted to buttress the sagging Pepsi, resources that could have gone to building their “nutrition” business. Changing over to better-for-you products requires a balanced transition, one that improves nutrition without sacrificing market share, cash flow and profits.

3. Place a moratorium on name-calling. The Cold War was known for incendiary dialogue and events such as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s U.N. shoe-pounding incident, the building of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis. These brought us to the brink of Armageddon. The War on Obesity suffers from the same dynamics. We’re stuck in a repetitive “Do loop” with health advocates derided as food nazis, leftists and socialists by industry mouthpieces such as the Center for Consumer Freedom while food marketers are portrayed as irresponsible capitalists and Republican righties by many academic researchers and public health activists. It’s time to end this corrosive behavior and focus on solutions rather than who is to blame.

4. Commit to non-proliferation. While food marketers are loathe to admit that any of their products are “bad,” there is an opportunity for them to reduce their “calorie footprints” in a way that benefits companies and their consumers. The Hudson report again reinforces this notion that companies selling larger percentages of better-for-you products, including no- , low- and reduced-calorie versions, enjoy bigger sales gains, higher operating profits, better returns to shareholders and stronger reputations. Pledging to pull out even more calories is good for bottom lines and shareholders.

5. Trust, but verify. A favorite of President Ronald Reagan when posturing with the Soviet Union, this phrase applies as much today to the obesity debate. One way to circumvent the air of mistrust between many in the public health community and the food industry is to track headway in improving the nutrition of food products. This can be done by quantitatively reporting a company’s reduction in its calorie footprint and increases in its sales of better-for-you foods, similar to how corporations track their environmental impact.

It’s time to take the obesity debate to the next level; the lack of tangible progress demands it. Without changing the rules of engagement between food companies and the public health community, we are doomed to nutritional failure. Our children’s health depends on it.

Hank Cardello is a Senior Fellow and Director, Obesity Solutions Initiative at the Hudson Institute. A former food industry executive, he is the author of “Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat.” He is a frequent contributor to the Atlantic and has a website,


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Unleash the Marketers to Fix Obesity Image

A new round of reports recently rehashed Americans’ weight problem. F as in Fat: 2010, published by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, put it this way: “Obesity remains one of the biggest public health challenges the country has ever faced.” Echoing that conclusion was a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report finding that a whopping 72.5 million American adults are now considered obese.

Despite the proliferation of programs prodding us to eat less and move more, nothing has worked. Calls for individual responsibility permeate the debate as do charges that food corporations overfill our plates. This makes for good theater, but isn’t budging the needle on the scale.

The players in this obesity drama — researchers and activists, food corporations and consumers — are at cross purposes. For instance, researchers and activists insist we must change the nation’s diet, but few if any of them have ever dealt with quarterly earnings or irate shareholders. They typically call for some punitive tax on sugary, fatty, salty foods. This approach runs completely counter to food corporation business models and guarantees a backlash. Food companies, on the other hand, offer up the defense that healthy options like salad bars and low-calorie beverages are abundant; it’s the consumers who must take responsibility for the way they eat. Certainly a rational position, but one that has undeniably done nothing to eradicate the problem.

Finally, there’s the consumer. Despite oft-cited studies that claim consumers are clamoring for healthier food, flavor prevails as the No. 1 reason for purchasing foods, followed closely by value and convenience. With the exception of those most disciplined among us, Americans take a pass on eating healthier.

Speaking as a former food industry executive, I believe the solution is staring us in the face. Instead of attacking food company practices and profits, it makes much more sense to use their strengths. By this I mean cranking up their marketing machines to serve their bottom lines and public health.

Food marketers could make a significant difference in two areas.

First, calorie reduction. The U.S Department of Agriculture tracks how many calories are available per capita in the nation’s food supply. In 1970, that was 2,057 per day. By 2008, that figure had climbed to 2,674 calories — a 30 percent increase.

What went up must now come down. While companies are gradually reducing the caloric content of their products, it can be an arduous and costly process. Taste cannot be compromised (or they will lose consumers) and new ingredient supplies must be secured. Nothing is worse than reformulating a flagship product into a flop. Remember New Coke?

The public would be better served if, instead of adopting business-alienating soda and “fat” taxes, corporations were given incentives to speed up calorie reduction in their products. One way might be to align their tax deductions for advertising with the calorie drop. Specifically, food companies would be allowed to keep their substantial tax deductions for advertising expenses if they reduced their calorie output by 10 percent by the end of the decade. That would cut an average of 267 calories per person per day, or 28 pounds per year.

On the other hand, if a marketer continues to spew excess calories on the American consumer, their tax advantages should get docked. This better aligns the industry’s bottom line to the public good.

Second, educating children and adults about proper nutrition. Budgets for government campaigns promoting nutrition and healthy eating messages pale in comparison to the more than $15 billion spent annually on food advertising. So instead of eliminating advertising to children or cutting out all tax deductions for advertising “foods of poor nutritional quality,” as proposed by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) in House Bill H.R. 4310, why not piggyback that marketing muscle to tout portion control and proper nutrition messages? If only 10 percent of ads carried such messages, $1.5 billion in ad impressions will be generated. Again, incentives could be used to turn marketer’s attention to incorporating these messages into their advertisements. The benefits would certainly outweigh the $147 billion public health cost of obesity.

Why would food corporations go along with this? Because they know this may be their best chance to get ahead of draconian regulatory measures like “fat” taxes and advertising bans. At the same time, such moves would demonstrate to their customers that they are acting responsibly and are worthy of continued loyalty.

To date, no one has proven effective in reversing the scourge of obesity — not doctors, not food activists and not government regulators. It’s time to look to food marketers. They may, in fact, be our last, best hope for fighting obesity.


Hank Cardello is the author of “Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat. He is a former food executive with Coca-Cola, General Mills, RJRNabisco and Cadbury-Schweppes and now serves as a Visiting Fellow with the Hudson Institute. He is a regular contributor on food policy to the Atlantic magazines Food Channel.

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