Observations From the Great Food Nutrition Debate

The battle over wellness and food nutrition shows no sign of abating as a public policy, regulatory, and marketing issue.

Last year, nearly two-thirds of Americans reported that they made changes in an effort to improve the healthfulness of their diet (International Food Information Council).  And various legislative efforts to tax sweetened beverages continue in a misguided attempt to reduce excess sugar consumption.  Advertising Age posed this question in a recent online poll:  Will taxes on soda and other sweet beverages have an impact on obesity rates?  The answer was 83% no.

The dialogue continues and there are implications to be gleaned.  Savvy operators throughout the food and beverage supply chain can seize opportunities to create points-of-difference  and achieve sales, marketing and commercial success.  Just in March alone, I noticed four intriguing events pertaining to the great food nutrition debate.

Supermarkets Solidify Nutrition Adviser Role

Hy-Vee, a 228 store Midwest food retailer,  believes influencing and impacting consumers on vital health and wellness matters can be a point of competitive differentiation.  The chain is working to ensure each store has access to a registered dietitian.  President and COO Randy Edeker spoke recently at a SymphonyIRI industry summit, which was reported by Supermarket News:  “If we sell pork and beans for 25 cents and we’re five cents cheaper than our closest competitor this week, then we’ve gained their loyalty until next week.  But if we save a loved one’s life or helped them change their life, we’ll have their loyalty forever.”

Basha’s Supermarkets, an Arizona chain, hosted a two-day summit for supermarket registered dietitians and food manufacturers.  Barbara Ruhs, an RD with the retailer, organized “The Future of Food Nutrition” event.  She told Supermarket News:  “It’s important that we share what we know.  We need to develop relationships with our vendors and everyone we can who can help us expand our efforts.  Working together, we have the potential to influence the health of our whole nation.”

First Lady Exhorts the Food Industry to Change

Michelle Obama,who is promoting healthier eating and leading efforts against childhood obesity, took her message directly to the industry with a keynote address at the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA).  She emphasized “I’m here today to urge all of you to move faster and to go farther . . .”

Here are several of her most pertinent comments:

  • “But here’s the thing –- we can build shiny new supermarkets on every block, but we need those supermarkets to actually provide healthy options at prices people can afford.  And we can insist that our schools serve better food, but we need to actually produce that food.  And we can give parents all the information in the world, but they still won’t have time to untangle labels filled with 10-syllable words or do long division with these portion sizes.”
  • “And that’s really where all of you come in.  As you know, you all produce much of the food that our children eat –- and have marketed to them — each day.  The decisions you make determine what’s in our grocery store shelves, what’s in our school lunches, and what’s in the thousands of advertisements our kids are exposed to each year.  And I know that many of you are undertaking efforts to significantly reformulate your products -– and I hope that the time will come when all of you are.”
  • “And we need you not just to tweak around the edges, but to entirely rethink the products that you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children.”
  • “That starts with revamping or ramping up your efforts to reformulate your products, particularly those aimed at kids, so that they have less fat, salt, and sugar, and more of the nutrients that our kids need.”

Mandatory Calorie Counts at Restaurants

The healthcare reform legislation just enacted contains a provision mandating restaurant chains with more than 20 locations to post calorie counts for all their food products.  The FDA has one year to prepare implementation guidelines, and it could take up to three or four years for the actual practice to take effect.  Similar legislation took effect in New York City in 2008.  According to PBS NEWSHOUR, “the goal, of course, is to reduce obesity by giving people more knowledge about the food they’re eating — in the hopes that they might choose to trade a supersize meal or large frappuccino for a smaller or healthier snack.”

British Chef to the Rescue?

Jamie Oliver, the outspoken, well-known British chef and crusader for healthier food in the UK, has now turned his attention to childhood obesity and better nutrition for US kids.

In his new ABC reality television show, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, he works with elementary school children in Huntington, WV to improve their eating habits in school and at home.  The location was picked because its high obesity level (45.5% of adults age 20 and older were considered obese per a 2008 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report of a 2006 study) led MSNBC.com to label it America’s unhealthiest city.

During the first episode, Oliver noticed that pizza was served for breakfast one day at a local elementary school.  He then visited a Mom and her four children for some in-home cooking lessons.  After discovering a diet filled with fried and frozen food heavy in fat, he remarked to Mom Stacie Edwards:  “This is going to kill your children early.”  Explaining to his audience, he continued:  “She’s not a bad Mom.  She just needs help.  And that’s what I’m here for.”

Now What?

Despite fickle American consumers who say one thing and do another, food nutrition continues to be a big deal with implications for food and beverage marketers.

But here’s the rub:  it’s a super challenge to unlock the key to commercial success.  Figuring out the right combination and balance between packaging, formulation and messaging, and overcoming fixed consumer habits, has been difficult and elusive for many in the industry.

I know this firsthand.  When I headed marketing for a major ingredients supplier to food and beverage manufacturers, Tate & Lyle, we conducted extensive consumer research on health, wellness and nutrition; and interacted with technical and marketing leaders throughout the industry.

Although Michelle Obama advocated major industry transformation in her GMA speech, the fact is that consumers can buy and eat healthy products today, in part due to industry changes.  Of course, the industry can do more, but let’s remember that personal responsibility, moderation and physical activity are major factors that can make an immediate difference if implemented.  As Jamie Oliver’s new show graphically illustrates, families cannot eat corn dogs, chicken nuggets, frozen pizza and the like every day and expect to be healthy.

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There’s a real opportunity for food and beverage marketers to stand out during the great food nutrition debate.  First, make sure you have access to nutrition and diet experts within your company.  In fact, maybe you should have an RD on your brand marketing team.  Second, stimulate your entire cross-functional team with thought-provoking ideas from the industry and beyond.  Third, be courageous and willing to innovate and move first because there are ways to make “better-for-us,” great-tasting food that consumers will buy and enjoy, and which will deliver appropriate profits.

Harvey Chimoff is a hands-on marketing leader and business-wide collaborator who builds marketing capabilities in B2B/B2C organizations that drive customer success.

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