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Erin Steuber/ MEDILL

A quick look at American obesity

Healthy Oreos, Snickers and Ball Park hot dogs?

by Erin Steuber
May 06, 2010

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Corporate Members of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation

Brookshire Grocery Co.
Bumble Bee Foods, LLC.
Campbell Soup Co.
ConAgra Foods
Faribault Foods Inc.
Fesitval Foods
General Mills Inc.
Gonzalez Northgate
MarketHarris Teeter Inc.
Hy-Vee Inc.
IGA Inc.
Jax Markets
Kellogg Co.
Kraft Foods Inc.
Mars Inc.
Martin's Supermarkets
McCormick & Co. Inc.
Nestle USA
PepsiCo Foundation
PepsiCo Inc.
Price Chopper
PureCircle Ltd.
Palston Foods/ Post Foods, LLC
Redner's Markets Inc.
Safeway Inc.
Sara Lee Corp.
Schnuck Markets Inc.
Shop Rite of Hunterdon Co. Inc.
Skogen's Festival Foods
The Coca-Cola Co.
The Hershey Co.
The J.M. Smucker Co.
The Sports Authority
TriWest Healthcare Alliance
Unilever United Supermarkets Ltd.
Wakenfern Food Corp.

Websites co-sponsored by the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation with the National Business Group on Health with Discovery Education Corp. with Meredith Corp.

Major food processors such as Kraft Foods Inc., Sara Lee Corp. and Mars Inc. are used to being painted as villains in the fight against U.S. obesity.

But these giants and other processors popped up this week up as sponsors of a new health initiative that launched three websites to promote healthy lifestyles in the home and workplace.

The problem is very real: nearly one-third of U.S. adults, or 72 million people, and 16 percent of U.S. children are obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

First lady Michelle Obama brought renewed attention to Americans' unsatisfactory health when in February she launched an anti-obesity campaign, and that appears to have stimulated or accelerated corporate wellness programs.

However, the recent moves by food processors to join health advocacy groups are attracting skepticism as well praise.

The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, which is responsible for launching the new websites, has 38 corporate food and beverage company members that are pledged to reduce obesity by 2015.

One of the sites,, provides resources and support for small and mid-sized companies seeking to promote healthy workplace cultures, like a checklist to measure workplace program success.

“We are united in a collaborative and focused effort to help children and adults achieve better energy balance between calories in and calories out,” stated Kellogg Co. CEO David Mackay, in a press release.

Mackay is also chairman of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation.

But the fact that the makers of products like Chips Ahoy and Mars bars have signed on strikes some as ironic.

“They are trying to get the benefits of a different market without paying the price for it,” said Jaybee Hanson, senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety. “If they are going to stick ‘natural’ on the front of their packages, but hide in small print on the back that it's three times as fatty, that’s not good.”

Not surprisingly, the companies insist they are sincere in their efforts.

“Our participation in the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation further demonstrates our commitment to health and wellness,” said Valerie Moens, senior manager of corporate affairs at Kraft. “From advertising only better-for-you products to children, to pioneering the concept of the 100-calorie packs, we know we have a role to play in helping consumers make healthy lifestyle choices.” The 100-calorie packs are available for a variety of Kraft cookies and snacks.

Similarly, a Sara Lee spokesman declared the company “has many products in our portfolio that satisfy the demand for improved nutrition, and will continue to increase these offerings under all of our major brands.”

That these companies would make such a move is “not totally surprising,” said Edward Jones Co. analyst Matt Arnold, suggesting that their strategies could boost sales.  

“It could help them to improve their credibility on that front,” said Arnold in an interview. The companies “are being proactive by staying ahead of the scrutiny that could emerge because of their products.”

All of the big food and beverage companies are joining the trend to create a healthier image, confirmed Dr. Donna Ryan, associate executive director for clinical research at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, in Baton Rouge, La.

“The problem of obesity is such a large one,” said Ryan. “It is going to take partnerships of public and private entities to make an impact.” She believes “it is necessary to raise awareness in companies and engage them as part as the solution.”

But can the makers of Oreos, Capri Sun, Ball Park, Sara Lee, Snickers and M&M’s really make their products healthier? The companies don't necessarily promise across-the-board alterations of all products, but, for instance, Sara Lee is already marketing Ball Park "Lite Franks."

Oreos contain seven grams of fat and 160 calories per serving, which equals three cookies; one regular size Snickers bar contains 14 grams of fat and 280 calories; and one Ball Park hotdog contains 16 grams of fat and 180 calories.

Companies tinker with popular products at their own risk, marketing experts say.

Food processors and other businesses feeling pressure to adjust their products must “find a balance between satisfying public interest and satisfying an individual consumer’s taste,” said marketing professor Kent Grayson at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Some consumers like sweet foods, Grayson went on, and some like foods with lots of fat, and some like healthy foods, but he pointed to the potential downside of offering the choice:  the right of consumers to choose what they do and do not eat.

“I am sure that any food company can be an extremely healthy company with no salt, no fat and products which no one will buy," he commented.

Still, food makers such as Kraft say they’re trying to reformulate products in order to make them healthier.

“Wellness is a high priority at Kraft Foods,” said Moens. “We’ve recently announced our plan to reduce sodium by 10 percent across our North American portfolio over the next two years; we have reduced the sugar content in our Capri Sun kids beverage; and we’ve also increased whole grain content in our line of Wheat Thin Crackers.”

The reduction of sugar, alone, will remove “100 billion calories” from kids’ diets each year, according to Kraft. This number reflects the U.S. progress that has been made since the sugar reduction effort began in 2008, said Moens.

The White House press office stated that Michelle Obama's “Let’s Move” campaign, with the cooperation of the food industry, will reduce sugar and salt and improve the labeling of food products.

But is the move towards healthier products too little, too late?

Obesity-related health care costs- diabetes, heart disease, etc.- are more than $117 billion, and medical expenditures for obese workers are double the cost of those with normal weight, according to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.  

A study published by Health Affairs magazine shows a direct correlation between increasing costs for employers and increased employee absenteeism at corporations that do not actively promote wellness opportunities within the work environment.

“Wellness initiatives make sense for businesses of all sizes,” said Helen Darling, president of the National Business Group on Health, in a press release. “Good health is good business.”

Michael Preis, assistant professor of business administration at the College of Business of the University of Illinois, predicted that food businesses will continue participating in the growing trend to involve themselves in the promotion of health and wellness.

His colleague at the University of Illinois, Eric Fang, agreed. “They will benefit in the long run, but not the short run. . . It is a smart move.”