Healthier foods and healthy bottom line can both be had, former food executive says
A former food executive with Coca-Cola, General Mills and Cadbury-Schweppes, and the author of Stuffed:An Insider's Look at Who's (Really) Making America Fat, says that the nation’s food companies need to do more to fight the obesity epidemic, and that advocates for better foods need to embrace something other than perfection if we’re to come up with any practical solutions to obesity.
WellWise spoke with Hank Cardelloabout his self-imposed mission to help the United States reduce its calorie intake. After a frightening brush in 1995 with what was first thought to be leukemia, Cardello came to a realization that he wanted to dedicate himself to doing something about the obesity epidemic, which is now estimated to cost the U.S. $200 billion.
A self-proclaimed centrist, Cardello is working to find a way to marry profit with social responsibility, and actionable solutions that tread the no man’s land between food companies, that survive based on the bottom line, and dedicated advocates for healthier foods and eating habits.
WellWise – You have been quoted as saying that the food industry is supplying 30 percent more calories now than in the 1970s. What happened to create this situation, and does this give us any clues about how to slow or reverse the trend?
Cardello – There are two factors here. First, you don’t sell you don’t sell customers what they don’t want. Consumers have been demanding more value for their dollar. For instance, there’s the combo meal that restaurants found to be successful. Restaurants are accused of having an agenda to make people fat. But this really evolved because the combo meal was an easy, quick way to feed people during a busy lunch hour, instead of having them wait in line for a long time and then leave frustrated before getting served.
It was more efficient marketing. Adding another item to the convenient lunch cranked up the restaurant’s profits. The customer then looked at his tray and said ‘I’m getting a great deal here.’ Then, of course, he’s gotten more value for his dollar so he’s not going to walk away from the extra item in the combo meal, he’s going to eat it.
So the extra weight he’s putting on is the unintended consequence of smart marketing.
WellWise – So how do we go about fixing it?
Well, we’ve tried through nutrition labeling. We’ve improved the food pyramid, made it into My Plate. We’ve tried menu labeling at restaurants. We’ve tried more radical solutions, such as the one in South Los Angeles where there are very high rates of obesity, in which moratoriums were placed on opening new fast-food restaurants. We’ve looked at a tax on sodas, but four studies now show that though a soda tax would probably lower the consumption of Coke and Pepsi, it would have a negligible effect on obesity.
When the day is done, we haven’t seen the traction on these initiatives. Reports from some of the early pioneer locales of menu labeling are that is not translating to lower-calorie purchases. Same with beverages, although the amount of food is down a bit.
And we’ve talked and talked to consumers. Just about everyone now understands that we need to exercise more and eat less, but it’s not working.
WellWise – Why not, do you suppose?
Cardello – There is only a quarter of our population that walks their talk. That’s 80 to 100 million people managing things when it comes to their weight and health. About a third of us don’t want to be told what to eat and drink. Current policy solutions treat the population as if it were homogenous. It’s a blunt instrument approach. The smarter way would be to develop different policies for each group: those who get it; those who are confused; and those who don’t want to be told what to eat.
But if the regulatory approach hasn’t made a dent, and consumer education isn’t working, then let’s turn to business. We need to show companies that marketing healthier foods can work, and here’s why you must change.
WellWise – How do you do that?
Cardello – We’re quantifying this for the biz community now. We are conducting the first Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study that will demonstrate to businesses how they can make better profits by selling better-for-you foods and drinks -- showing them ‘here’s why you must change.’ We should be presenting it in about two months.
The purpose is to make the business case, based on hard numbers, for marketing lower-calorie, better-for-you foods.
WellWise – Can you give us some examples of what you mean?
Cardello – For instance, you can make some of the healthier drinks (those with fewer calories) a part of the combo meal. It needs to be demonstrated to businesses that they can make as much by doing this. Make products like Coke Zero, the less caloric brands, more visible or the drink of choice.
The beer business is a good example. I can remember when all beer was regular beer. Budweiser reigned supreme as the King of Beers. But Bud Light is now the number one brand, and four out of five of the top beer brands are ‘lite’ beers. Recently Diet Coke has supplanted Pepsi as the number-two-selling soft drink.
Also, supermarkets are the great equalizer. Product placement [eye-level and end-counter displays] is master merchandizing 101, and studies show that product sales go up 60 to 100 percent when consumers can see it. That’s why food manufacturers pay a premium for those placements in the store.
So why not put better-for-you foods in those visible areas, make it easier for the consumer to make the healthier choice? Then market yourself on this point of difference between you and your competitor.
This is what our mission is. If we can demonstrate that it is more profitable, it becomes an investor issue. Something to improve bottom line can be seen by investors and stockholders as a good thing.
WellWise – Some people don’t think one soda drink is better than another, that they are all bad. What would you say to them?
Cardello – I see obesity and healthier eating habits as separate issues. The key is moving in the right direction.
Food advocates and food corporations need to find a middle ground. Perfection is not the goal, reducing calories is. We need some pragmatism. We need to find the “unsweet spot,” so to speak, to get these guys together.
Look, the University of Colorado at Denver did a study a while back. They gave two groups of people packages of Oreos, but one group got 100-calorie packs and the other got the full pack. They told them to eat whatever they liked. At the end of the study they found that the group that got the 100-calorie packs consumed 120 calories less a day. There’s something actionable. It is moving in the right direction. No one is going to say Oreos are healthy food, but when you demonize individual products, out come the lobbyists and then you’ve got a food war.
We need to find the proper alchemy between the two. If we focus on the problem, as opposed to being right, we make more progress. When you lower calories – lower high fructose corn syrup and fats – all the other things start happening. It doesn’t convert it to broccoli, but it is going in the right direction.