Friday, April 23, 2010

Big Food, Big Fat, Big Trouble

Alarm bells are finally ringing over the rising rates of childhood obesity in America. There has been a lot of buzz and a lot of ideas about promoting healthy eating and active lifestyles to combat this problem, not just for children but for all Americans. Someone in corporate America is saying: "Is this a marketing opportunity?" Big companies, especially ones that have products offering questionable social goods, have long looked for a “halo” effect that will counterbalance negative images that their customers might have of their products or business activities. Target gives out community grants for education and schools, as does General Mills through its cereal box-tops program. Big Food now wants to contribute to the fight against "Big Fat" in America.

This is a little more troubling scenario for PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, who have tasty "refreshing" drinks with no nutritional value. For years, their marketing campaigns have centered on being the drink of young, cool kids, and no one in the commercials looks overweight. It’s a hard sell to promote soda as “healthy.” Thus, many beverage companies have been expanding out into alternative beverages, like juice or sports/energy drinks, even flavored water, which has the same amount of sugar and empty calories, but can cop the appearance of being more healthful.

Nonetheless, the beverage companies must realize that they have to be in front of this issue, lest they are caught dealing with the consequences of looking like the bad guys. If "soda becomes the new tobacco," Coke and Pepsi will not be in a happy place. Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, summed it up.

“While visionary CEOs and enlightened food company cultures may exist, society cannot depend on them to address obesity voluntarily, any more than it can base national strategies to reduce highway fatalities and global warming solely on the goodwill of the automobile industry.”
On the other hand, big corporate dollars and their skilled marketing experience could be used to great public benefit in the fight against obesity. Still, healthy skepticism is needed if public health advocates decide to dance with Big Food on this issue.

More reading:

Can Big Food Fight Fat? NYT, Bitman Blog, 4.23.10

Soda: A Sin We Sip Instead of Smoke? NYT, Bittman, 2.12.10

Can Pepsico help alleviate world hunger? Marion Nestle,, 4.16.10

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