Originally written in Food Technology Online on May 17, 2010
Obesity is now a national burden with two-thirds of American adults either overweight or obese. No regulatory measure or amount of consumer prodding has proven effective in addressing obesity. It’s time to change the playbook and look to food marketers as the best solution.
The debate around obesity has centered on food industry mouthpieces stating that consumers are offered plenty of healthy choices and should take personal responsibility for what they eat. Public health advocates and regulators counter that food marketers have acted irresponsibly by promoting foods and beverages that are inherently of poor nutritional quality and they must be held accountable.
Soda taxes offer a case in point. The argument for taxing sugared soft drinks and beverages is based on projections that a 10% tax would lower consumption by a corresponding 8–10% and generate $150 billion in government revenues over 10 years. Pretty compelling, except for one missing ingredient: there is scant evidence from academic studies that obesity rates would decline.
The real culprits, no matter what the source, are excess calories. Since 1970, the number of calories available for each of us to ingest has increased by a whopping 30%. What went up must now come down.
No one is better equipped to deal with depleting this overabundance of calories than companies like Coca-Cola, General Mills, and Kraft. Rather than taxing, a better approach is to offer them incentives to lower the calories they sell.
One initiative I am advancing is the “20 by ’20″ program, designed to reduce the supply of calories 20% by the year 2020. It offers all packaged foods marketers and restaurant chains a straightforward quid pro quo: keep your tax deductions for advertising in exchange for lowering the number of calories per serving you sell. Specifically, food manufacturers and restaurant chains must lower their calories sold by 2% each year for 10 years in order to retain their deductions for advertising.
So, if the makers of items like Pepsi, Lunchables, and Monster Thickburgers lower their calories by 2% per year, they get to keep their deductions. Lower them by 10% or more in a given year, they receive a 25% bonus on deductions. But, do less or spew more calories on the consuming public, and companies will see a reduction in their deductions.
From a corporate perspective, the flexibility to determine which products to change or promote offers a huge advantage over a government imposed one-size-fits-all tax mandate. And progress is easily tracked.
Why should food corporations go along with this? There are three good reasons:
- An opportunity to get ahead of regulators and avoid more draconian measures like soda and “fat” taxes.
- A demonstration to consumers who purchase on the basis of corporate responsibility that the marketer cares about their customer.
- An ability to improve bottom line profits.
It is time that food marketers recognize that becoming part of the solution to obesity presents them with one of the biggest opportunities in decades. It’s just good business.