The obesity epidemic is so profound that over 65% of Americans now range from overweight to morbidly obese. As a result, weight problems threaten to overtake tobacco as the number one preventable cause of death and chronic disease. One common response to this epidemic has been to reflexively point fingers at the food industry for producing unhealthy foods in the first place.
The argument goes that the food industry is much more concerned with profits than people. As a result they load our foods with high-fructose corn syrup (which may contribute to obesity), hydrogenated oil (which may contribute to heart disease), nitrates and other preservatives (which may contribute to cancer and stroke), and synthetic colors, fat, and sweeteners.
This portrayal casts the food industry as a dietary Darth Vader that targets children with sly cartoon advertising, lures dieters in with low fat labels on high sugar products, and promotes “all natural” products loaded with excessive amounts of sodium.
While the facts are all true, the caricature is just not.
Our confusion centers around the thinking that food companies are moral entities who have some civic responsibility to better the common good. They’re not, and they don’t.
A better way to think about a food manufacturer is as any animal in nature. Like any animal, in order to survive it must consume and keep consuming. That kind of drive to survive doesn’t make them bad or wrong, it makes them successful. If you know sharks are swimming in the water and you jump right on in without protection, we can’t blame sharks for doing what successful sharks do.
In the same way, we can’t blame food manufacturers for positioning sugary breakfast cereals on the bottom shelf so kids can better see the cartoon advertisements; nor because they lace their products with the preservatives that extend the shelf life. It is the very nature of this beast for it to act in this way. We can’t blame companies for doing what successful companies do.
By the way, even though their prey is us and the market share we represent, their success at it makes us very happy when we look at our 401(k)s.
Now, do food companies have to follow food safety laws? Of course. Can they promote products with blatant falsehoods? Of course not. But between those two extremes is an ocean of marketing potential for them to hunt you in.
If we want to assign blame for the unhealthy products that fill our shelves, we might start closer to home. Our gripe is that we only buy bad products because they fill the shelves. But the opposite turns out to be the truth. Food products with excess sugar, salt, preservatives only exist there for one simple reason: because we buy them. If we didn’t, there would be no market for them, and the manufacturer would stop producing them.
The perfect case in point is the recent push by many major food and beverage companies, like Pepsi, to eliminate high-fructose corn syrup from some of their products. It wasn’t removed because the manufacturer “did the right thing” for our obesity epidemic. It’s gone because people stopped buying them. The same thing happened with low-carb food products. Right after they stopped being purchased, they stopped being manufactured. The food industry groused, but changed their products nonetheless.
The bottom line is that there’s bad news and there’s good news. The bad news is that the unhealthy food supply we complain about is ultimately our responsibility. The good news that we can vastly improve those choices with just a little twist on the words of Gandhi: be the change you want to see in the grocery store.