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.

A Lesson in Farmwashing from the Golden Arches

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farm·wash·ing (noun): A marketing technique used by some industrial food producers in which idyllic images of farming are deployed to create misleading messages about how their products are made.

Some call it farmwashing, others just call it BS, either way, McDonald’s recent approach to improve their image is cheapening the entire concept of farm to fork.

First came the television commercials.

In 2012, McDonalds released three commercials highlighting American farmers who are producing the raw ingredients (beef, lettuce and potatoes) for their menu.  Clearly trying to cash-in on increasing consumer awareness of the benefits of eating locally and naturally, the commercials undermine and offend educated consumers, activists, and most of all, the farmers.  The same farmers who are trying desperately to stay in business because of the dysfunctional corporate farm infrastructure that McDonald’s has helped create.

I don’t think McDonald’s is outright lying with these commercials.  They are merely highlighting the kinder, prettier parts of the story and ignoring the rest of the steps it takes to get McDonald’s food into their paper bags.  For instance, there is a good chance that after this rancher’s cattle reach a certain size, they are sent off to a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) that looks more like this:

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Or how about the story of the McDonald’s potato farmer?

McDonald’s conveniently leaves out the part where they add beef flavor and deep fry those potatoes in a combination of GMO laden and trans-fatty oils.  Where is that part of the “farm-to-table” story?

Trying to position McDonald’s as an advocate of local farming seems laughable, and I would think that most consumers aren’t buying it.

But, just in case, McDonald’s has also created commercials for one of our most vulnerable, and easily manipulated populations: children.

With an iconic clown like Ronald McDonald, it is no secret that McDonald’s has a long standing tradition of peddling their products to children.  Focusing on apples and milk, arguably two of the most unpopular products sold at McDonald’s, and convincing kids that McDonald’s is the place to go for a nutritious meal is downright shameful.

And, did you catch this scene?

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Where can you find carrots, a chicken leg, and bread sliced from a loaf on McDonald’s menu? That’s right. You can’t.  For adults, I would call this deceptive.  For children, it’s just dishonest.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, now McDonald’s is reaching out to Registered Dietitians to try and continue to solicit the idea that they sell “quality, fresh” products right from the farm.

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In this flyer, the company invites dietitians to a ‘field-to-restaurant’ tour which according to the accompanying email only includes one farm stop: a lettuce farm.  Other than that, dietitians and other guests will only have access to a panel of dairy, beef, and produce suppliers to answer their questions.  Could you imagine if McDonald’s actually gave folks access to a CAFO?  Or why not give consumers a lesson in the process of making a Chicken McNugget?  Farm-to-restaurant? More like, farm-to-factory-to-restaurant.

McDonald’s is undermining a legitimate and necessary revolution, where we focus less on speed and convenience,  and more on local sourcing, health, seasonality, and sustainability.   If the company was really interested in the movement, they would take the millions spent on this farmwashing campaign and use it to start making real changes in the way their food is produced. I’m not lovin’ it, McDonald’s.

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.

McWeight-Loss: Oh, Please.

At it’s most recent annual shareholders meeting, McDonald’s was once again faced with criticism that it is a purveyor of junk food that markets to children.  Speakers from the advocacy group, Corporate Accountability International, health professionals, parents and 9-year-old Hannah Robertson used the meeting as a means to confront CEO, Don Thompson about the companies poor practices.  Thompson went to great lengths to defend the company, mostly with outright lies about how the company sells ‘high-quality’ products and doesn’t market to children.

Michele Simon, public health lawyer and the author of the book Appetite for Profit countered his arguments in this outstanding blog post titled,  Top 10 lies told by McDonald’s CEO at annual shareholders’ meeting. It is a must read.

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Riding on the heels of this altercation, I was shocked and disgusted to discover Thompson’s latest attempt to protect McDonald’s image.  Over the last few days, several media outlets have been reporting news of the CEO’s alleged  ’20 pound weight loss’ which he claims included daily consumption of McDonald’s food.

As you might have noticed from my previous post on Coca-Cola, when the junk food industry starts handing out diet advice and weight loss tips, it really gets my blood boiling.  All they are doing is making attempts to clean up their image, sell more products, and distract the public from the fact that the products they create, by-and-large, are detrimental to our health.

How can Thompson, in good conscience, talk about eating McDonald’s and losing weight while simultaneously introducing products like the Mega Potato in Japan? This ‘side item’ is the equivalent of two large fries stuffed into one container and packs 1,142 calories (the largest amount of calories any single McDonald’s item has contained in the company’s history.)

The fact is, the majority of the food in McDonald’s product portfolio contains ingredients that are high in fat, sugar and salt, and low in fiber and vitamins. McDonald’s food also contains many chemical additives, including propylene glycol (a less toxic version of anti-freeze), and azodicarbonamide (most commonly used in the production of foamed plastics.)

Losing weight isn’t easy, especially when we are constantly being handed conflicting advice about how to do it.  Maybe Thompson did lose some weight; he is not the first person to claim that it can be done while eating fast food.  But, weight loss is not equivalent to being healthy.  If he ate less calories and exercised (as he claims), then yes, weight-loss is possible even when you are eating a lousy diet.  But, that doesn’t mean you should do it.