Editor's Plate: There’s profit in battling obesity

"Every 1 percent change in what America eats represents a $1.5 billion market.”

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Lest anyone think that obesity is solely a liability for the food industry, an assortment of food industry experts, including one Wall Street food analyst, said there’s big money to be made in helping Americans fight the battle of the bulge.

"Everyone knows fat's bad. The problem's been identified since 1955. It's time we did something about it," G. Leonard Teitelbaum, a managing director and food analyst at Merrill Lynch, said during a panel discussion at July's IFT meeting and expo in Las Vegas. "Obesity and the food manufacturer" was the title of the session, and the panel included representatives from Atkins Nutritionals, McDonald’s Corp., Irwin Broh & Associates, Pepsico/Tropicana and our own Market View columnist Professor John Stanton.

Teitelbaum said food companies that have made healthy eating a part of their strategy have done well in the stock market. He singled out Campbell Soup, ConAgra, Dean Foods, General Mills, Heinz and Kellogg. Teitelbaum also noted there's a huge opportunity in changing consumption patterns. “Every 1 percent change in what America eats represents a $1.5 billion market,” he said.

While he didn't seem overly impressed by the low-carb craze, he did acknowledge that he had lost weight on such a diet.

Stanton said he expects Atkins to fade as a craze, but to be replaced with a greater consciousness of healthy eating, keyed by foods that are lower in fats and calories.

Nancy Green has the interesting title of vice president of nutrition technology at Pepsico/Tropicana. She noted that obesity is a problem throughout the world, not just in America, and predicted, "Wellness will be the single largest growth driver in the food industry. The challenge is making it easier and more rewarding."

Indeed, Pepsico has numerous initiatives and product developments under way. In his introductory letter to the company’s annual report, Chairman/CEO Steven Reinemund noted, “We started balancing PepsiCo’s portfolio in the 1990s by adding some of the world’s most recognizable better-for-you brands,” such as Tropicana, Quaker Oats and Gatorade. The strategy, he says, already is paying off and moreover positions the company well for the future.

Cathy Kapica, director of worldwide nutrition at McDonald's, said her company is responding with more salads, adult “happy meals” that are carb- and calorie-conscious, apple slices as a dessert option and 1 percent milk in resealable plastic bottles. She also promised a slimmer Ronald McDonald and said McDonald's is stepping up efforts to print nutritional information, largely on tray liners.

Obesity is a problem and a challenge, to be sure. But some food processors are seeing the silver lining and turning this problem into opportunity.

Heads Up: Readers Choice Awards

I wanted to give you readers advance warning and an early plea for help on our annual Readers Choice Awards. The electronic ballots should be coming your way in the next month or two, at least to those of you who have given us your e-mail addresses. If you haven’t given us your address and you want to participate solely in this balloting, send a note to me – via e-mail, fax or postal service – and I’ll get you a ballot in whatever form you like.

This awards program is unique in the food publishing arena in that the winners are chosen directly by our readers. Even the ballot is an unaided recall survey, which means you can write in whomever you like.

This has become a very big deal to both equipment and ingredient suppliers to the food processing industry. It sends a message to them all: that good suppliers get rewarded and lesser ones need to improve. In the end, that kind of motivation serves you and your companies well.

E-mail Dave at dfusaro@putman.net.

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