Toops Scoops: When Oprah Speaks, Consumers Take Note

When she speaks, consumers take note, and so should you.

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

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You may or may not love watching her daily show (I do) and you may disagree with her views and those of her guests on many issues. But you have to admit Oprah Winfrey is one of the most stimulating, provocative and profoundly influential people on the planet and carries a lot of clout … even in the food world.

It's not surprising that the talk-show titan has banked $1.5 billion during her career and taken over the No. 1 position on Forbes.com's list of the "20 Richest Women in Entertainment." But hold on: Over the past 25 years, she has donated millions of dollars to charitable causes and been the gatekeeper for millions more donated by viewers. Oprah's Angel Network and her other foundations alone distributed more than $50 million to those in need.

Women (and men) relate to and trust Oprah, who represents "every woman" with her down-to-earth style and emotional response to women's problems: obesity, loneliness, body image, health and wellness and breaking the glass ceiling. Some of her viewers may be desperate housewives, but they are aware of the important issues of the day. Oprah has an uncanny ability to zero in on the same questions her viewers' want answered. They have shared her life-long weight challenges, cheered her dropped pounds and been inspired to get into shape themselves.

At times, Oprah's been a thorn in the side of the food industry. She successfully defended herself against a $10.3 million defamation lawsuit brought by Texas cattlemen after a segment on mad cow disease in 1996. Taking advantage of the new "agricultural product disparagement laws," some in the beef industry claimed her program "Dangerous Foods" caused beef prices to fall to 10-year lows within a week. With the two or three U.S. occurrences of mad cow apparently kept out of the food supply, beef sales have recovered.

Oprah drew attention to avian flu with a January 2006 telecast titled "Bird Flu: The Untold Story," enlisting Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and associate director of the Department of Homeland Security's National Center for Food Protection and Defense. He discussed the lethal danger of H5N1, a strain of the avian flu, and how the virus could evolve into a strain leading to the fourth pandemic in 100 years. He also suggested consumers stockpile, food, water and prescription drugs.

With 10 million viewers watching, Winfrey asked the question already on the minds of consumers: Should we not be eating chicken? The National Chicken Council was quick to respond that chickens raised in the U.S. are tested before they are processed. Initially, many Americans avoided chicken, fearing the U.S. was next. It wasn't. Our poultry avoided infection, and sales are super.

You must give credit where credit is due. A slimmer, trimmer Oprah recently and enthusiastically gave Bob Greene an opportunity to tout his venture with the food industry. Greene, the author of The Best Life Diet and Oprah's long-time personal trainer, partnered with General Mills, Unilever and Barilla brands for an on-pack logo effort, which identifies packaged foods that meet his criteria for healthy eating: whole grains, lean fats, low-sodium and portion control. It's a super marketing idea for the industry and focuses on the national anthem today: lack of time. Consumers want a simple way to identify healthy products for their families, not a confusing label and pyramid that boggles the mind.

Brands include specific varieties of: Green Giant vegetables, Yoplait yogurt, Progresso soup, 8th Continent soymilk, Muir Glen organic products, Cascadian Farm, Cheerios, Total Whole Grain, Wheaties, Fiber One cereals and chewy bars, Flatout Wraps, Hellmann's, Wasa Crispbreads, Wish-Bone Salad Spritzers, Barilla Plus pasta, Unilever's Slim-Fast, Lipton teas and Bertolli olive oil.

"When you see the seal on a product, it means I personally recommend it for anyone trying to lose weight and eat healthfully," says Greene.

Oprah rocks world opinion, so it's great to see her and Greene give high-fives to some healthy and great tasting products the food industry offers.

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