Simplistic solutions will not curb the incidence of obesity

by Keith Nunes
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That public entities such as the state of California and the cities of Los Angeles and New York have taken steps meant to curb consumption of certain food ingredients at restaurants and have mandated areas where fast-food companies may not establish new outlets portray a disturbing trend for food service operators and food manufacturers. Rather than seeking purportedly to improve public health by mandating product formulation alterations and by what amounts to new zoning, concerned public officials would benefit from attempting to understand the complexity of the obesity problem. Simplistic remedies like these have little or no chance of working.

The banning of trans fatty acids, the inclusion of calorie counts on food service menus, or limiting where fast-food companies may open outlets will not curb the incidence of obesity. These are nothing but symbolic efforts that will be forgotten well before the incidence rate of obesity begins and continues to decline.

What makes these initiatives all the more disturbing is how they are perceived as successes simply because they were enacted and will spawn similar initiatives throughout the country. Despite the total absence of any evidence such initiatives work, other cities, counties and states are considering various options. In Los Angeles, shortly after the city council voted to ban new fast-food outlets in certain parts of the city for one year, the county board of supervisors proposed adding calorie counts to menus. In other parts of the country, counties such as Santa Clara, Calif., and Multnomah, Ore., are considering similar bans.

For an industry in the process of improving efficiencies in order to better manage costs, the establishment of local ordinances throughout the country has the potential of being extremely disruptive. This is especially so at a time when cost control is critical for the viability of more than a few companies.

Of even greater concern to food manufacturers are calls by consumer groups and others to regulate or even ban ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup or the amount of sodium allowed in individual products. It is not a stretch of the imagination to believe a local public health authority would call for a similar trans fat-style ban against HFCS in a misguided attempt to address obesity.

If only obesity and the subsequent impact on health it creates for both individuals and the public at large were so easily solved. Unfortunately, obesity is a complex problem brought on not by the food service sector or food manufacturers, but by societal changes that have evolved during the past half century. It is hoped that reversing the current situation may require less time, but there are no quick solutions.

For food manufacturers, much work is being done in an effort to address obesity. The evolution of the health and wellness trend has been embraced by a significant portion of the industry and proven to be very lucrative. Companies such as Nestle S.A. and Groupe Danone have focused their future strategies around nutrition and health. Others, such as Kraft Foods Inc. and PepsiCo, Inc., have balanced their product portfolios to offer a range of items, many of which are highlighted through labeling to have health attributes either through reduction or enhancement.

The demonizing of businesses like fast-food chains or ingredients that lead to the development of trans fats rarely, if ever, achieves the intended results. Changing consumer behavior is an evolutionary process and no amount of government regulation will speed the transition. The incidence of obesity will eventually decline, but it will not be because trans fats were eliminated or numbers appeared on menus; it will occur because consumers choose to change their eating habits.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, August 19, 2008, starting on Page 7. Click
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