The Politics of Obesity

This year's report on the obesity crisis focuses on what's driving processors in their efforts to make the next generation of food and drink products designed to help weight-management.

By Jennifer LeClaire

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Con Agra Foods Inc.'s Healthy Choice (www.healthychoice.com), Omaha, Neb., is trying to figure it out with its frozen dinners and canned goods. Its product line is convenient and admittedly less fattening than some of the other options on the grocery store shelves, but at the end of the long day of work -- or even in the middle of a hectic day on the home front - the meal also has to taste good. Anna Miskovsky, director of research and development for Healthy Choice, says her team works closely with the ConAgra family chefs to incorporate new ingredients and flavor profiles into the product line that boost flavor.

"We pay attention to what is popular in restaurants and foodservice offerings, as well as working with our internal consumer insights team to stay on trend and to continue to meet the ever changing tastes of our consumers," Miskovsky says, noting that today's consumers are more sophisticated, with an understanding that they don't have to compromise taste or convenience to eat healthier.

Healthy Choice chefs are tasked with maintaining U.S. government nutritional criteria for "healthy" by balancing nutrients, including fat and sodium, while keeping the product line fresh for long-term consumers. Miskovsky and her team focus on ingredients that add flavor without relying on salt or fat, such as wines and other spirits, herbs and spices and flavored vinegars.

"Our product line includes the Grilled Whiskey Steak and the Roasted Chicken Chardonnay -- two preparations that feature innovative ingredients not typically found in a frozen meal.  This helps us to maintain the nutritional values of our products, while offering great tasting meals," Miskovsky explains. Healthy Choice chefs also use alternative cooking methods -- grilling, roasting and marinating -- to boost flavor without adding additional sodium, calories or fat.

Weight Watchers Foods, LLC. (www.eatyourbest.com) are also developing new meals for the SmartOnes line, made by Pittsburgh-based H. J. Heinz Co. Sometimes reducing caloric intake means a different cut of meat, other times it means reduced sugar condiments or how a vegetable is presented. "We recently switched to a supplier that provides us all broccoli florets instead of stems," says Robin Teets, a spokesperson for SmartOnes. "That doesn't necessarily impact the taste. Those types of changes don't change the nutritional profile or the taste but they do make a positive impact on perception."

Sensibly seasoned

Glory Foods (www.gloryfoods.com), Columbus, Ohio, is working to meet the demands of its health-conscious customers without sacrificing taste. The company's primary target audience is African Americans who have fond memories of grandma's rich southern cooking but don't necessarily have the time to recreate the dishes on a daily basis. Glory Foods is attempting to help its customers tackle diabetes, weight management and hypertension with its Sensibly Seasoned line of Southern-style foods.

The recently-introduce line of heat-and-serve vegetables reduces sodium by as much as 50 percent, removes almost all the fat and cholesterol, and maintains the southern taste, says Jeff Hollenback, director of research and development for Glory Foods.

The secret is in the preparation, which meets the dietary needs of vegetarian cooking. That means no ham hock or bacon in the collard greens. Glory engineered a natural pork flavoring with soybeans. When mixed with water, the specially formulated powder tastes like ham hocks, but contains no fat. Replicating the flavor-enhancing impacts of salt was a separate challenge.

"We couldn't get the same savory flavor with less than 140mg of sodium per serving, so we inched it up a bit and settled for lower sodium," Hollenback explains. "Our Sensibly Seasoned line is now 100-percent vegetarian with only naturally occurring fats and much lower sodium. Our customers are eating it up."

While the ultimate choice to exercise, eat nutrient-rich foods, and maintain appropriate caloric intake still remains with consumers, Best says. Food processors can't change people's lifestyles, but they can offer more options -- and they are. "People are wrong to put too many expectations on the food processing industry," Best insists. "We'll keep trying to offer reduced calorie products that taste better, are better for you and satisfy your hunger. But if people don't change the way they live, food products will only have a limited impact."

 

Regulatory Issues
The regulation of food advertising to children remains a controversial issue. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has joined legislators, health experts, consumer advocacy groups and industry representatives in forming the Task Force on Media and Childhood Obesity to assess the influence of media on obesity rates, and recommend voluntary solutions. Some FCC commissioners believe food advertising to children should be further restricted unless the Task Force agrees on sufficient self-regulation.
Counter arguments rely on information suggesting ad restrictions may not be effective, including a Swedish study showing a significant increase in childhood obesity there, despite a ban on children's advertising. At this date, no conclusions have been reached. However, the Task Force will meet throughout 2007 in an effort to build consensus regarding voluntary steps and goals both the public and private sectors can take to combat childhood obesity.
For more information check out the FCC website at www.fcc.gov/obesity and watch this space for a full report upon conclusion of the the task force's assessment.
--Leslie Krasny

 

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