Are processed, junk foods losing the consumer vote?

The well-known advice from Michael Pollan, “you can vote with your fork, and you can do it three times a day” just might be helping to turn the tide on the dominance of the junk food industry.  Though the power of Big Food in the United States has often seemed indestructible, sales are declining for many of the biggest players, including the Campbell Soup Company, Kellogg’s and McDonald’s.  Increasing consumer interest in food with simpler ingredients has led sectors like natural and organic to outpace more processed categories.

Just this week, the New York Times reported on the major sales decline for ready-to-eat breakfast cereals:

The drop-off has accelerated lately, especially among those finicky millennials who tend to graze on healthy options.

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In August, McDonald’s reported it’s weakest monthly sales results in more than a decade. In this Nasdaq article, the author makes a hard-hitting point about American’s desire to eat healthier food:

Generations ago, Americans accepted the world they were given without much question.  It is hardly surprising that they put McDonalds food in their mouths, trusting it not to hurt them – they did the same thing with cigarettes – but times do change. Today’s consumer goes out to eat with an active desire to not contribute to his or her own death.

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Coca-cola sales have also been dropping. Food Navigator reports:

Concerns about sugar and calories have caused consumers to re-evaluate the amount of soda in their diet.

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Sales of frozen meals have also seen a noticeable decline.  Even brands such as Lean Cuisine, Healthy Choice, and Weight Watchers have all reported losses, despite their healthy sounding names.  Bloomberg reports:

Mothers are more concerned about the healthiness of frozen meals than any food item other than soda and sweet snacks.

Making things worse is the “long and scary” list of ingredients in frozen meals, which include preservatives like potassium sorbate, calcium propionate, sodium tripolyphosphate and sorbic acid

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Does this mean that consumers desire to eat healthy is the only reason these companies are losing sales? Definitely not. There are a multitude of issues each company is facing, but the desire for less processed, healthful foods is certainly an important factor affecting consumer decisions.

While McDonald’s sales are rapidly dropping, profits for companies like Chipotle, which focus on healthier, fresher and higher quality ingredients, are skyrocketing. And Big Food companies have been rapidly swooping up brands in the natural and organic food categories, as sales for these items have been growing rapidly over the last ten years.  This week, General Mills officials announced their acquisition of Annie’s Inc., a company devoted to organic and natural products. And upon slumping sales for the Campbell Soup company, CEO Denise Morrison, was quoted as saying, “the company will focus future acquisitions in North America on targets in the health and wellness category.”  Consumers are becoming more aware of the dangers of high-salt foods, and Campbell’s products have long been a major culprit.

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While it is impossible to predict whether or not these trends will continue, the power we have as health-conscious consumers is becoming more evident.  Michael Pollan is right. In addition to voting for sound food policies for an improved food environment, you can also vote with your fork!  Every time we spend money, the recipient of our dollars gets the message that we approve of their product and we want more of it, with the opposite also being true.

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The Trouble with Happiness

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Last month, a group of mom’s gathered at McDonald’s annual shareholder meeting demanding the company stop predatory marketing to kids.  While they don’t like to admit it, the company uses a variety of strategies to target young people.  In school, your child might receive a visit from Ronald McDonald to learn about bullying.  At home, your child might see a TV commercial about their favorite toys now available in Happy Meals.  And have you seen HappyMeal.com?

In the new documentary, Fed Up, the filmmakers show McDonald’s executive, Shelly Rosen, stating:

Ronald McDonald never sells to children — he informs and inspires through magic and fun.


Not surprisingly, this boldfaced lie has been getting roars of laughter from audiences across the country, but her statement illustrates an even bigger problem with the way McDonald’s and other junk food companies market to children.  As our country stands in the middle of an obesity crisis, isn’t teaching kids to associate unhealthy foods with happiness a bit dangerous to their health? Of course it is. But, it’s also profitable.


One of the moms standing at the doors of McDonald’s headquarters, was Leah Segedie, a health advocate and blogger, who once struggled with an eating disorder. When she told McDonald’s CEO, Don Thompson, that her childhood association of Happy Meal’s and happiness contributed to her disordered eating patterns, and subsequent weight gain, he laughed at her.

McDonald’s isn’t the only food company known for associating it’s products with happiness. This marketing strategy has also worked well for Coca-Cola.

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The soda giant claims they never target children with marketing, yet they ran this commercial during last year’s super bowl.


Not only does it convey the message that Coke equals happiness, but also that children should be rewarded with sugar.  Never mind that the little boy in the commercial would have to run for a full hour and 15 minutes before he would burn off the calories in just one 20 ounce Coke.

Junk food companies want you to think these “happiness” campaigns are just a harmless tactic for promoting products, but they may also teach kids to start associating unhealthy foods with certain moods.  When you are feeling down, for instance, it’s okay to reach for a cheeseburger to make you feel better.  When you are feeling proud of yourself for an accomplishment, go ahead and reward yourself with a sugary drink.  Just the name “Happy Meal” can easily convince a young child that burgers and fries will make them happy.

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With food companies spending nearly 2 billion per year targeting children, our nation’s kids are being bombarded with messages that encourage unhealthy habits. It’s bad enough that these messages have the power to impact children’s food preferences, but they can also influence lifelong eating behaviors, as was the case for Leah Segedie.

If Big Food was really interested in our happiness, they would stop putting profits ahead of children’s health.

Beware: ‘Simply’ is the new ‘Natural’

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Controversy has been building in recent years over the use of the word ‘natural’ on food packaging.  For health conscious consumers – this term is often interpreted as an indicator of minimally processed, healthful ingredients.  For food companies, the word just means dollar signs.

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A 2009 survey  found that while 35 percent of survey participants rated the label ‘organic’ as either important or very important to their purchasing decisions, ‘natural’ scored significantly higher, at 50 percent.  This is particularly alarming, considering the word ‘organic’ actually has a long list of legal definitions, while the word ‘natural’ essentially has none.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tried to develop a legal definition for ‘natural’ back in the 1990′s, but backed away from the issue after facing what I can only assume was a lot of contradictory advice from health advocates and Big Food. But, that hasn’t stopped the food industry from using the label on everything from sugary drinks to highly processed snack foods.  Why not? They know the word ‘natural’ misleads consumers into thinking they are making a better choice. Put simply, if you slap the word onto your product, you will sell more of it.

Just to prove how ridiculous the use of this word has become, non-profit, Organic Voice, took a satirical jab at the issue through this very humorous video:

While the FDA continues to refuse to act, consumer groups and other health advocates have been filing lawsuits to challenge the use of the word on products deemed anything but natural.  Ben and Jerry’s, Nature Valley Granola Bars, Breyer’s Ice Cream, and Goldfish Crackers are just a few examples of brands targeted for using the label on products containing ingredients that do not exist in nature, such as high-fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, and synthetic cocoa powder.

Not only are these lawsuits costly, but they create a lot of bad press for the companies, causing many manufacturers to pull the ‘natural’ label just to avoid the trouble.  While this might seem like great news, food companies aren’t ready to completely abandon the concept.  There has to be another word that implies health and wholesomeness, but has even less legal meaning in regards to food.

That word is ‘Simply.’

Next time you visit the grocery store, just take a look. It’s everywhere — cookies, ice cream, chips — highly processed foods that would seldom be deemed as a healthy choice are now carrying this word on their label.  According to reports from the Associated Press, PepsiCo has actually admitted to switching their line of ‘Simply Natural’ Frito-Lay chip products, to just ‘Simply.’  If the FDA hasn’t felt pressured enough to deal with the word ‘Natural’ they certainly won’t be touching any other vague, misleading labels anytime soon.

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Buyers beware!

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Junk Food Industry

When I first decided to become a Registered Dietitian, I was very excited about the opportunity to join the team of nutrition experts that represent the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).  I assumed that the credential (and the professional organization behind it) would provide me with the skills and education necessary to help improve the nation’s food environment through public policy and research. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.  Instead, I find myself struggling to defend my credential, and wanting to distance myself from the very organization I was supposed to be depending on for guidance.

For those who are unfamiliar, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly known as the American Dietetic Association) is the United States’ largest organization of food and nutrition professionals. Comprised primarily of Registered Dietitians, the organization is supposed to help advance the profession through research, advocacy and education.

However, last January, Michele Simon, author of Appetite for Profit and blogger for Eat Drink Politics, unveiled a report disclosing important details about the relationships between the AND and food companies like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Hershey’s. This report provided abundant evidence that partnerships with Big Food make it impossible for AND members to communicate clear and accurate nutrition messages.

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Americans are already bombarded with deceptive claims and misleading information regarding nutrition and health.  Most don’t realize that much of the advice they receive stems from the economic interests of food companies rather than actual nutrition science.   Big Food is not in business to protect or contribute to good health. These companies exist to make profits. Partnering with health organizations like the AND is just another means to put a health halo on products that are fundamentally unhealthful, and provides a false sense of trust to the public that the companies actually care about the health of their customers.

According to Simon’s report, the AND claims,

In its relations with corporate organizations, the Academy is mindful of the need to avoid a perception of conflict of interest and to act at all times in ways that will only enhance the credibility and professional recognition of the Academy and its members.

But, when food companies like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s (known for their junk food products) sponsor the Academy’s conferences and contribute continuing education to Registered Dietitians, it is impossible for the RD credential not to lose integrity in the eyes of the public.  Furthermore, it is hard to believe that there is no bias in the information and research that is presented. You can’t expect an organization accepting funding from fast food companies to tell the public to eat less fast food. Instead, they use messages like, ‘all foods fit’ or ‘everything in moderation’, that continue to confuse consumers.

It is truly unfortunate that the reputation of a credential we have worked so hard for (and deeply value) has become tarnished thanks to some measly monetary contributions by Big Food.  Thankfully, I discovered an organization a few months ago comprised of over 4,000 Registered Dietitians, health professionals and conscious consumers that not only feel as I do, but are striving for change. Dietitians for Professional Integrity was created by several RD’s, working hard to convince the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to cut ties with food companies that contribute to our nation’s poor health. In fact, just a few days ago, the organization released a petition, which will be formally presented to the Academy at their next Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo in October.

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Even if you are not a Registered Dietitian, please consider signing on to this petition. Nutrition professionals, the clients we serve, and the public deserve nutrition information and education free of bias and influence from junk food companies.