The Obesity Epidemic in America and the Responsibility of Big Food Manufacturers
Millions of people in the United States are considered obese. As waistlines continue to increase, people are asking the question: Who is to blame? Is it because American’s have become lazy and are more irresponsible with their food choices? Are fast food chains the “bad guys”? Are we all genetically pre-disposed to be “fat” or “skinny”? Or, is there another factor contributing to the widespread obesity problem? We are exposed on a daily basis to hundreds of advertisements, many promoting specific foods that are supposed to be convenient and nutritious. The food industry, miraculously, has escaped taking the brunt of the blame for years, using fast food as a scapegoat. Fast food, while a major contributor, is not the primary cause of the obesity epidemic in America. Numerous studies have proven that personal food choices, lack of exercise, and genetic disposition all play a role in a person’s weight; however, there are other elements that influence our weight. In particular, food producers that supply the high calorie, minimally nutritious, and highly processed foods that dominate our market must be examined.
Deborah Cohen for the Washington Post wrote in one article, “The food industry spends billions of dollars each year to develop products, packaging, advertising and marketing techniques that entice us to buy more food because selling more food means making more profits” (Cohen). If you think about it, we are constantly being enticed to purchase things we don’t need, and that includes food. Big companies like Coca Cola and General Mills make millions of dollars every year using researched methods of advertising similar to McDonald’s and Burger King. While McDonald’s has been accused of drawing in children with their signature play places and happy meals, nobody is talking about the 3 billion bags of potato chips sold in the U.S. annually. The slogan, “You Can’t Eat Just One,” used by Frito Lay to advertise their chips, appears to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Other food companies are using similar strategies, attaching promises of satisfaction paired with happy-go-lucky phrases sure to melt your grandma’s heart. The Blue Bell ice cream company claims their employees “Eat all they can, and sell the rest,” and Little Debbie says you will “Unwrap a Smile” when you open one of their cakes.
Consequently, there is far less time invested in advertising foods that are actually good for us. “Advertising of fruits and vegetables is almost non-existent,” says Frances M. Berg in his book “Underage and Overweight” (Burg 97). The truth of Berg’s statement was validated in a study released March 2007 by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. This study found that most of the food ads children and teens see on television are for foods that nutritionists and government agencies argue should be consumed either in moderation, occasionally, or in small portions. Out of the 8,854 food ads reviewed in the study, there were no ads for fruits and vegetables targeted at children or teens (Brody). Is it a coincidence that according to the Federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) approximately 18 percent of adolescents are considered obese?
Bill Whitaker, a CBS News correspondent conducted a similar study of TV ads on kids. The results showed that American children are bombarded with commercials for unhealthy foods that contain a lot of salt, fat, and sugars (Huff). When kids see commercials displaying Banana Sundae Pop Tarts and Chocolate Chip Cookie cereal, they think, “That’s what I want for breakfast!” Children are an easy target for the food industry. Young and impressionable, children are eager to eat whatever looks and tastes good.
This is where the food industry begins throwing around the term “personal responsibility.” Big companies and corporations are quick to defend their position, asking questions like “Are we to blame for merely providing people with what they want?” Food advertisers believe that since they are not forcing anyone to purchase what they offer; they are not responsible for the consequences. While I recognize that people are accountable for what they eat, it is increasingly difficult to control eating habits due to what is readily available to us. Many American’s live active lifestyles, some working one or two jobs with a family, or going to college full time. With little time to evaluate the truthfulness of advertising labels, it’s easy to succumb to the falsities that are fed to us. In February of 2010, The Center for Science in the Public Interest put together a lengthy report for the Food and Drug Administration. According to Ethan A. Huff, the report contains detailed information about food manufacturers making false or misleading health claims about their products. Kellogg’s, like many other food companies, has been hit with lawsuits for false advertising. Just this year, Kellogg’s was sued in the U.S. District Court of Southern California for their unreliable representation of Nutri-Grain bars, one of its leading breakfast cereal products (Brody). The advertisement features their yogurt bar in front of glasses of water, salads, and people exercising, suggestion that their product is somehow related to a healthy lifestyle. They used the slogan, “Eat Better All Day,” because of the calcium and whole grains contained in the bar. But the plaintiffs of this case argue that those claims are invalid, due to the existence of trans-fat which contribute to diabetes and heart disease. Although Kellogg’s has dismissed this case as, “Having no merit,” it reveals much about what is going on underneath the surface of many food manufacturers.
In her book “Fed Up! Winning the War Against Childhood Obesity,” Susan Okie states that in the Fall of 2003, the director of the CDC declared obesity the number one health threat in the United States (Okie). If obesity is the greatest threat facing our country today, the food industry must start acting more responsibly. More action should be taken to stop the obesity epidemic. In response to overwhelming scrutiny over misleading labels, big cereal companies like Kelloggs, General Mills, and Post Foods have begun making small changes to their products. The Kellogg Company reformulated many of their original recipes, including Fruit Loops, Apples Jacks, and Corn Pops. The sugar has been reduced by 1-3 grams of sugar, and they’ve added fiber to many of their other cereals. Post Cereal has also adjusted some of their classic cereals, reducing sugar in Fruity Pebbles and Cocoa Puffs by about twenty percent (Skidmore). While these are small victories, greater change could take place if other food companies began making additional changes.
While there are many contributing factors to obesity, such as over-eating, poor food choices, genetic disposition, and lack of exercise, the problem goes far beyond individual behavior. We cannot focus on fast food alone; we must look at the food industry as a whole. The food industry can make a significant contribution to reduce obesity by cutting back on sugary or fattening products, offering healthier choices, becoming more transparent with nutritional information, and ending false or misleading advertising. Perhaps then we can move towards being a healthier nation.
Brody, Jane E. "Risks for Youths Who Eat What They Watch." New York Times. New York, 19 April 2010.
Burg, Frances M. Underage and Overweight. Hatherleigh Press, 2004.
Byrne, Jane. "Nutri-Grain legal challenge has ‘no merit’, says Kellogg." Food Navigator-USA. 4 February 2010.
Cohen, Deborah. "A Desired Epidemic: Obesity and the Food Industry." Washington Post. 20 February 2007.
Huff, Ethan A. Big Food’ Manufacturers Being Called Out for False Nutritional Claims. Article, 2004.
Okie, Susan. Fed Up! Winning the War Against Childhood Obesity. Joseph Henry Press, 2005.
Skidmore, Sarah. "Cereal Giant General Mills To Cut Back On Sugar." Hartford Courant. 10 December 2009.