I spoke on the recent BBC series “The Men Who Made Us Fat”. Around the world, obesity levels are rising. More people are now overweight than undernourished according to the documentary. My appearance times are noted below.

The Men Who Made Us Fat Part 2 of 12 (The Beginning)

The Men Who Made Us Fat Part 4 of 12 (11:00)
 
The Men Who Made Us Fat Part 6 of 12 (7:55)

Despite skepticism surrounding the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation pledge that its food industry members will sell 1.5 trillion fewer calories in the next five years, there is an emerging track record that suggests that food marketers are recognizing that they must deal with the spiraling-out-of-control obesity crisis … or else. Witness the recent announcement by the American Heart Association- and Clinton Foundation-run Alliance for a Healthier Generation that soft drink giants Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Dr Pepper Snapple Group have reduced the number of calories shipped to schools by 88 percent since 2004. PepsiCo has gone one step further by unilaterally declaring that it will halt the sale of full-sugar soft drinks in primary and secondary schools globally.

With companies like Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, and Campbell Soup participating in the Foundation’s pledge, here’s a preview of what’s coming on grocery shelves. Don’t expect traditional Coca-Cola to change (again), but readers are likely to see more visible displays of lower-calorie beverages like Coca-Cola Zero and Vitaminwater. Kraft will pull even more calories out of its Lunchables or reduce the size of Kraft cheese slices. And those Milano cookies from Pepperidge Farm may be just a wee bit less fatty. Anticipate that a plethora of packages will be “downsized,” with a whole array of smaller portioned boxes, mini-packs, cans, and bottles to choose from. Even the food inside will be smaller.

More enlightened food marketers are getting the message that doing the right thing is in their best interests. Why are they lowering calories, fats, and sodium? The simple answer is: impending regulations. Smart packaged goods firms have taken a lesson from their restaurant brethren after watching how the restaurant lobby resisted the move to place calories on menu boards. Once the light bulb went off that several states and multiple municipalities beyond New York City might pass legislation requiring different formats for listing calories, agreement to a national standard as proposed by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) became a no-brainer. And it has not been lost on marketers that health advocates and activists are reading from a new playbook published by the Urban Institute titled “Reducing Obesity: Policy Strategies from the Tobacco Wars” (PDF).

So is a 1.5 trillion calorie reduction over five years enough to make a difference? Clearly, focusing on lowering calories to deal with the obesity problem is the right call, and the Foundation should be applauded for taking a stand, but this is a drop in the bucket and represents only a 0.5 percent reduction in the 300 trillion calories available for Americans to consume each year. That translates to less than 1.5 pounds of added weight per person. Hardly enough to resolve an obesity crisis.

To fix obesity, we must reverse what got us here in the first place. Daily calories supplied are up 30 percent per person since 1970, and returning to that “pre-obesity” level requires a discharge of 69 trillion calories.

It’s time to be bold. REALLY BOLD. “Put a man on the moon” bold.

With all the tools available to food marketers to lower the calories they sell while maintaining profits—introducing low-calorie alternatives and high-profit-margin 100-calorie portion packages, and putting marketing support behind lower-calorie brands—it is time to step up and “tear down this wall” of obesity by committing to eliminating those excess 69 trillion calories. This 20-percent or more reduction in calories is what’s really needed to take back American’s health and waistlines. So declare this goal for the end of the decade and we’ll all be better for it … consumers as well as corporate bottom lines.

Or else?

I applaud Michelle Obama for targeting childhood obesity as a priority and advocating for programs that improve the well-being of our youth. But I challenge her approach as it does not go far enough.

While efforts to increase the number of “healthy schools,” encourage more exercise, and improve the availability of more nutritious food in low-income neighborhoods are noble, they do not attack the real enemy in the battle of the bulge: the number of excess calories available to eat. This is the missing link.

Rather than looking at the food industry as a pariah, it’s time to reach out to them.

Putting into effect tax incentives that entice food companies to sell fewer calories will yield more tangible results than pushing for more consumer behavioral change. These incentives can be structured to reward companies that cut their calories. Conversely, if marketers continue to spew excess calories on the public, they would risk losing favorable tax treatments.

An Obama program fueled by an energized food industry would be a strong one-two punch to knockout obesity. Our children’s health depends on it.

Today it was revealed that a number of food companies have been quietly lowering the amount of salt in their products over the past few years. Icon brands such as V8 vegetable juice, Chef Boyardee canned pasta and Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn have each shed more than 30% of their sodium content.  They got caught doing the right thing.

This Stealth Health approach offers a more enlightened way to ensure that consumers really do stick with changes intended to improve the nutrition of packaged foods and beverages. This is in contrast to the “stick” approach of taxing consumers or banning favorite ingredients to force changes in eating habits which rarely are adhered.

Why do I like Stealth Health? For one, food corporations have been deploying “stealth” tactics for many years to reduce costs.  Little by little, tweak by tweak, the iconic brands that we enjoy have all been tinkered with over the decades – all without us knowing so that we don’t abandon ship.

Stealth Health also avoids overtly depriving the public of the foods and beverages they enjoy. This is why diets fail. Instead of expecting consumers to abandon their favorite foods, improving the nutrition and/or reducing calories below the radar does not upset this delicate balance.

And, it sidesteps consumer suspicions that if a food is “healthy” it can’t taste good (witness cereals that have tasted like cardboard or the first soy hot dogs). Virtually every piece of research I have encountered confirms that, for foods that are typically more indulgent, the consumer believes that making these foods more healthy results in poorer taste.

For a half century, the food industry has quietly produced 29% more calories per person to eat every day.  It’s time to reverse that trend in the same way – quietly. Obesity will not be solved overnight, but by taking cues from the Salt Wars, food companies now have the blueprint on how to secretly perform nutritional surgery on their brands and go about taking the calories out without compromising their profits.