Commentary

Are We Ready To Confront The Reality Of Obesity?

No matter where I went this weekend, I could not avoid food. I'm not talking about eating it -- though that was an issue, too. It was impossible to avoid thinking about it.

Were you as surprised as I was to learn that Del Monte Foods, which was by taken over by private equity firms led by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, has nothing to do with fresh fruit and produce (that's a company called Fresh Del Monte)? KKR, which is as savvy as they come when it comes to cash flow, is putting its $4 billion bet on canned and processed foods for man and beast.

In fact, Del Monte Foods derives more than 50% of its revenue from the booming business of what can only be described as junk food for pets -- Milk Bone dog biscuits, Meow Mix, something called Snausages. If you don't want to know what goes into a sausage, I'm betting you really don't want to know what goes into a Snausage.

Then I passed a TV that was running a repeat episode of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." A defense attorney grilled a morbidly obese African American teenager about how and what he ate growing up. I bet you can predict the responses: Sugary cereal in boxes made enticing by the toys inside. Fast food because mom, exhausted from working two jobs, didn't have time to cook. Soda pop. Pizza. The teenager's murder charge may or may not have been ripped from the headlines, but the larger crime was. We are eating and drinking ourselves to debilitating diseases and early deaths.

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A study released earlier in the week finds that about 27 million people in the U.S. -- about 8% of the population -- have diabetes. It projects that more than 50% of all Americans will have diabetes or pre-diabetes by 2020 if we don't radically alter the way we eat and exercise. About 95% of the cases will be Type 2 diabetes, which can be prevented by what we eat and how we live, according to the report prepared by the UnitedHealth Center for Health Reform and Modernization. The cost to society is estimated to be $3.35 trillion over the next decade.

I was soon heartened by a story about the ascendancy of the nutritious sweet potato in the New York Times. But my good feeling that consumers were driving the likes of ConAgra to ramp up yam production was mitigated somewhat when I read that sweet potato fries were driving most of the demand. Any joint that's cooking sweet potatoes in a deep fryer isn't doing any favors for its customers' arteries. Let's hope that someone out there starts spreading a "roasted not fried" message with the same zeal usually devoted to how much ground meat is stuffed between two white-bread buns.

On Saturday, a copy of Mizzou, the alumni magazine for the University of Missouri, where my wife went to journalism school, arrived. On the cover is an old-fashioned milk bottle that reeks of wholesomeness simply because, I'm thinking, glass had mostly given way to waxed-paper cartons by the time the phrase bovine somatotrophin (bST) started getting kicked around. A headline where the label for Elsie the Cow might have gone promotes a package on "The Future of Food."

The first story, "Pasture-izing Milk," profiles a recent Mizzou grad who is building a daily operation the old-fashioned way. He's feeding his cows primarily by moving them from pasture to pasture rather than serving up some grain cocktail no bovine has ever encountered in nature.

"Tackling Obesity" is a moving tale about an overweight 15-year-old's determined battle to avoid the fates of her father, who died of a heart attack at 46, or older sister, who had gastric bypass surgery when she approached 400 pounds. With humor and grit, Teyonna Ruppert stays away from favorites like pepperoni pizza rolls and sugar-laden ice cream and instead eats healthy foods like whole-wheat pasta, which she nonetheless describes as tasting like "rocks inside a noodle."

Which takes us to the "Healthy Ice Cream" story. Missouri University food chemist Ingolf Gruen and his colleague are trying to add things that are good for us -- such as probiotics -- to the foods that we already crave. As James Thurber would aver, you can add all the good stuff you want to something like broccoli or spinach, but what good does it do if nobody eats it?

Missouri scientists warn that consumers must beware of marketers' slogans that just make things sound good, however, like Activia's Bifidus regularis. No doubt, the Wonder Bread School of Inflated Promises is alive and well and somewhat working.

But I wonder if marketers can just sprinkle crackers with olive oil and sea salt and tell us the trans fats are gone for much longer. Truth is, for the past 150 years, the big marketing bucks have disproportionately gone to products that haven't proved to be very good for our bodies or our planet in the long run, however much they gratify in the short term. Tobacco. Beer and booze. Fast and prepared food. Cars and planes running on internal combustion.

I think the days of that kind of advertising is headed to a rapid decline. Not because it's not still very enticing, clever and effective. Not because digital media are stealing eyeballs from mass media. But because we're finally facing the reality, to riff on Neal Postman, that we're abusing ourselves to death. Teenagers should be worrying about what to wear to the prom, not about whether they'll need gastric bypass surgery.

What do you think?

6 comments about "Are We Ready To Confront The Reality Of Obesity? ".
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  1. Tanya Gazdik from MediaPost, November 29, 2010 at 8:25 a.m.

    California's moves at outlawing happy meal toys is just the beginning, I predict. Some might think it's over the line, but the stats that you give pretty much say it all. We apparently need to be protected from ourselves.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 29, 2010 at 8:39 a.m.

    There is so much food - except for those people most people who read MediaPost never see - and not all just processed garbage. It's called fat and dangerous, not fat and happy. The costs to cover the medical crisis of obesity could more than feed the hungry in the U.S. So those folk who think people can control themselves are fools. Freedom to choose is not free. Fat is very expensive from all sides. Come January, we will be less ready.

  3. len stein, November 29, 2010 at 9:48 a.m.

    Food, finance, energy, education, foreign relations... where shall we start when All must be reinvented in the USA

  4. David Aaker from www.davidaaker.com, November 29, 2010 at 2:30 p.m.

    There is a rather powerful trend toward healthy eating supported by the publicity around unhealthy foods that has stimulated a remarkable response by the leading food firms that somewhat balance the negative stories. Look at Whole Foods Market, Congra's Healthy Choice, Campbell's decision to reduce sodium content, General Mills' Fiber One, the fresh juices, McDonald's salads and heathy deserts, etc. These efforts and other in the face of issues that are complex and a moving target are impressive and are making a difference. davidaaker.com

  5. Thom Forbes from T.H. Forbes Co., November 29, 2010 at 5:45 p.m.

    Thanks for the feedback, folks. I agree that the leading companies are responding -- do they have a choice? -- but I wonder if the incremental changes will make a difference on what has clearly reached crises proportions, David.

    I don't want anybody telling me I can't eat Hostess Cup Cakes myself, Tanya, but I agree with Lisa that there's an awful lot of duplicity out there masquerading as a healthy choice.

    Paula and Len, you are certainly right about the larger issues. But please whack me upside head when I start to talk about foreign relations. Onward!

  6. Jerry Foster from Energraphics, November 30, 2010 at 3:44 a.m.

    What's been going on since 1910 is that, in order to achieve the economies of scale that allow a company to grow and sell a piece of food outside a limited geographical area (food was never meant to be distributed that way as humans should only eat what they could have picked or milked or slaughtered themselves), its become necessary to add poison to "preserve" it and to use the advertising industry heavily to convince idiots that "Really, you want a nationally advertised brand of something with enough preservatives to be distributed and stocked on shelves nationally...rather than a local brand that spoils quickly because there are no preservatives in it".

    You in the advertising industry might want to start getting ethical about whether ads should tell people the product your pitching is full of trans fats or not.

    Another unethical thing readers of Media Post can do is to just allow the new Tea Party Republicans to foolishly shoot themselves in the foot on this issue as a way of saying that people should vote Democrat anyway (I'm part of the Tea Party but I won't allow myself to be led around by the nose by corporations claiming "liberty" as an excuse to deliberately poison people).

    What I mean by that is we should all be working hard to make sure that Republicans internally exorcise the pro-poison elements from their midst so the members of both political parties in the US are against the sale of blatantly unhealthy food.

    However, since I don't see too many people about to try to stop "Tea Partiers" from protecting poisonous industries, at best (and if they are smart) I see the Democratic Party using this issue to keep Obama in the White House in 2012. It would be smart for them to trip up, for instance, Sarah Palin by forcing her to take the idiotic position that its OK to bribe + serve kids hamburgers that even maggots won't go near if it was left on a sidewalk outside for 6 months.

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