Originally published in Forbes Magazine on February 26, 2013.

For the restaurant industry, like most others, moral arguments have little or no place in financial decisions. As a result, despite a decade of activists railing against half-pound cheeseburgers, accordion-size racks of ribs, haystacks of fries, and supersized Big Gulps that fuel obesity, restaurants haven’t changed much. Menus tout highly caloric food and plenty of it because restaurant chains feel that’s how they’ll lure customers. But a new study I led shows that that’s no longer true, and restaurants will miss out on a huge growth opportunity if they don’t rethink their strategy.

A Hudson Institute study released earlier this month on the performance of 21 U.S. restaurant chains that collectively generate $102 billion in revenue found a pocket of prosperity in a shrinking industry coming from an unlikely place, lower-calorie meals. Our research, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, found that although the total number of meals served fell 1.6% from 2006 to 2011, servings of lower-calorie items grew 2.5%, while the number of higher-calorie servings fell 4.2%. To put that in a bite-sized sentence, supersizing is out; health is in.

Chains that dished out a greater number of lower-calorie servings grew their same-store sales much faster from 2006 to 2011. Per-restaurant sales went down at chains whose servings of lower-calorie foods declined during that period. Another new study confirms our findings from the consumer end. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study this week that found that U.S. adults consumed 11.3% fewer calories in food from fast food restaurants in 2010 than in 2006. In other words, consumers want fewer calories on their plate, not more.

Both reports should convince the restaurant industry that bedazzling customers with calorie-laden fare no longer makes economic sense. It’s time for restaurateurs who have been timid about offering healthier fare or smaller portions to wake up to this fact.

In the past, menu changes have typically been forced from the outside, by local laws requiring that restaurants post calorie counts; embarrassing documentaries such as Supersize Me; activists who targeted partially hydrogenated frying oils (for French fries and other fried foods); trans fat bans in places like New York, Boston, and California. The restaurant industry’s typical reaction to such assaults has been to counterpunch. Consider its legal challenge to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Big Gulp ban.

But the Hudson study indicates that restaurants need to put down the gloves. Their top lines depend on it. Cutting calories in their menus is better for their business. Our research examined 21 of the nation’s largest restaurant chains, which together account for about half of the total sales of the top 100 chains. We looked at quick-service chains such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Chick-Fil-A, and Taco Bell, as well as sit-down restaurants such as Applebee’s, Outback Steakhouse, IHOP, and Olive Garden.

The nine chains that increased their servings of lower-calorie items not only had a 5.5% increase in same-store sales, they also increased their customer traffic 10.9%. Sales at the 12 chains with declining numbers of servings of lower-calorie offerings fell 5.5%, and traffic shrank 14.7%

The findings weren’t a total surprise to us. A year ago Hudson conducted a similar study of 15 of the largest retail food and beverage companies, including Nestle, Kraft, General Mills, and Coca-Cola. Products they marketed with reduced calories, smaller portion sizes, or whole grains or other ingredients generally recognized as more wholesome accounted for more than 70% of their U.S. dollar sales growth from 2006 to 2011. And yet these offerings constituted less than 40% of the companies’ product sales.

Natural Marketing Institute research has shown that 66% of American adults are choosing smaller portions at mealtime to help maintain or manage their weight. Restaurants that emphasize their high-calorie offerings or offer only a few uninspired lower-calorie choices will turn away those people.

So what can chains with years of high calorie-menu habits do? Before they do anything else, they must realize that their business will be at risk if they don’t act. The Hudson and CDC studies should be regarded as a health warning to the economic vitality of the restaurant industry.

This doesn’t mean chains should eliminate their popular high-calorie dishes. That, of course, would chase away the considerable percentage of customers who still enjoy those profitable items. Instead, they need to begin shifting their food portfolios toward the lower-calorie offerings that a growing number of customers now demand. There are four ways to do this:

  • Offer popular high-calorie items in smaller portion sizes, and price them to generate a comparable margin. The Cheesecake Factory’s “Skinnylicious” menu is a good example of this.
  • Accelerate servings of lower-calorie beverages, like Diet Coke, that a growing number of consumers prefer and that provide the same profit margins as higher-calorie ones.
  • Adopt healthier cooking oils like omega-9 sunflower blends that still yield tasty fried foods.
  • Promote the lower-calorie items more prominently, but don’t make them look like diet fare. Subway has taken such a stealth-health approach with its combo meals, which offer, for example, a sandwich, Coke Zero, and baked Lays potato chips.

For the first time, restaurants have a compelling business reason to change their dietary ways. The industry has plenty of room for revenue and profit growth, but only if it plays a role in keeping its patrons’ waistlines in check. Rather than “Supersize Me,” the new restaurant mantra needs to be “Downsize Me.”

Originally published in Forbes Magazine on January 4, 2013.

Congress’s “fiscal cliff” deal on New Year’s Day included a nine-month extension of the expiring U.S. farm bill, preventing retail milk prices from doubling to $7 or more in 2013. That’s a great relief for milk producers, but the last-minute reprieve shouldn’t blind them to the fact that they have already fallen off their own cliff.

Demand for milk has been in a free fall for decades. U.S. milk consumption has dropped 36% since the 1970s. The dairy industry’s plight is a cautionary tale for other industries whose core product falls out of favor or is under attack by activists. It illustrates the dangers of focusing on just one highly commoditized product, ignoring market trends, and trying valiantly to sell what you make rather than to make what people want.

All the milk mustaches in advertising history can’t disguise the fact that milk is no longer the drink of choice—not for teens and 20-somethings, or people with busy lifestyles, or aging baby boomers, or the elderly. With per-capita U.S. milk consumption down 36% between 1970 and 2011, an industry trade group spokesman recently admitted something everybody already knew: The dairy business is in trouble.

Yet the industry has nobody to blame but itself. It’s in trouble because it has focused on cows instead of consumers. For decades its strategy has been to make dairy operations more efficient. It has succeeded: From 1970 to 2006, as the number of cows declined 25%, output per cow more than doubled. But while dairy companies focused on squeezing more milk out of fewer cows, they largely ignored the fact that demand was getting squeezed as well. By the early 1980s, per capita consumption of soft drinks eclipsed that of milk. The kids who had enjoyed four-ounce cartons of milk with their school lunches became the Pepsi Generation who preferred more refreshing soft drinks; later generations discovered vitamin water and sports drinks. Rising milk prices, health advocates who questioned milk’s calories and nutritional value, and activists concerned about bovine hormones further soured sales.

Meanwhile over the past 40 years new milk-based or milk-like products such as yogurt, soy milk,muscle repair formulas, and meal replacements became wildly popular. The original 1963 members of the Pepsi Generation are now 60-somethings with fragile bones, who need calcium and vitamin D but don’t want milk. The 20-somethings who have graduated to Gatorade and bottled water also drink Muscle Milk after a workout and snack on Greek yogurt. Their frail octogenarian grandparents drink Ensure.

In their dogged focus on selling more milk, dairy companies largely overlooked these highly profitable markets, even though they had the lock on the basic ingredient for many of them. Instead, companies like General Mills(which owns Yoplait) are reaping riches from the $1.5 billion-a-year Greek yogurt craze. The $2 billion market for “meal replacements”—powered drink mixes, liquid shakes, edible bars that replace prepared meals and the like—belongs largely to Abbott and Mead-Johnson, both pharmaceutical and medical companies. CytoSport makes Muscle Milk, marketed to fitness enthusiasts to help repair muscles and recover from exercise.

Milk producers also failed to put milk in packages pleasing to on-the-go consumers. In fact, it took them decades to redesign and move away from those messy gable-topped cartons. Shapely one-serving milk bottles that consumers can easily pick up at a convenience store and drink from on the run are a relatively new offering.

In response to competitors that are draining away their business, milk producers have clung stubbornly to their “Got Milk?” campaign, a failed attempt to make milk drinking hip. They’ve clung to their “Real” badge while deriding highly popular soy milk and other milk-like products as “imitation milk.”

What should they have been doing all these years? First, they should have redefined themselves as a dairy-based nutrition provider rather than as a milk business. Other companies, such as United Parcel Services and IBM, successfully stepped back and redefined what businesses they were in to create value-added services that built on their core products. UPS is not just a package shipper; it’s a logistics manager. IBM doesn’t just sell computers and software; it helps companies make their businesses more competitive with consulting and information technology services.

Had it defined itself as a nutrition provider rather than a milk producer, the dairy industry could have shifted its focus from production to marketing. Milk companies could have been faster to recognize the opportunity to create milk-based beverages that met growing consumer demand for more refreshing drinks. They could have added popular, high-margin products such as yogurt and nutrition shakes to their portfolios, to insulate themselves from swings in the demand for milk, instead of letting companies like General Mills move in.

Milk producers also should have embraced grab-and-go packaging long ago, to move milk beyond the breakfast table. They should have formed strategic partnerships with other companies, as Campbell’s Soup did when it partnered with the Coca-Cola Company to distribute V8, and as Pepsi did with CytoSport to deliver Muscle Milk.

Can the industry turn over a new leaf? In a time when many are pondering resolutions for the new year, the milk business needs to do some serious soul-searching. Maybe its resolutions will be to listen more; to focus on others rather than on itself; to find new ways its products can help people improve their nutrition and live better lives.
But as long as it continues its narrow focus on cows and production, its outlook will continue to sour.

Originally published in Forbes Magazine on November 21, 2012.

With two-thirds of American adults tipping the scales these days as overweight or obese, the same lawyers and activists who took on Big Tobacco are now sharpening their knives for their next target: Big Food. A look at activist crusades against the automobile, tobacco, and other industries over the last century provides three lessons: The war will be long, both sides will dig in, and the losses will be unnecessarily heavy all around.

History shows there is a better way, but it will demand unusual cooperation by all, especially by the $1.2 trillion food industry, whose primary challenge is to recognize the attack not as a threat but rather as an incredible new profit opportunity. The activists, for their part, must engage the industry not with diatribe, which can lead to protracted legal battles, but by understanding the industry’s pressures and playing to its best interests. Common ground abounds for both sides. If the activists discover it, they will see that the industry’s marketing savvy and financial clout can be turned into instruments for benefiting consumers.

More than a dozen law firms that took on tobacco firms in the last decade now have filed suits against companies like ConAgra and PepsiCo, charging them with misleading labeling and health claims. In September, New York City’s Board of Health approved Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on sales of sodas bigger than 16 ounces at restaurants, movie theaters, and food carts. It will go into effect next March if the soda lobby fails to contest it successfully. And Bloomberg isn’t finished. He’s crusading against junk food in prisons and potato chips in Bronx bodegas. The Federal Trade Commission recently won a settlement against Dannon over claims about its products’ health benefits. In July, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued General Mills for allegedly putting artificial ingredients in Nature Valley products marketed as natural.

The history of activist movements against an industry’s controversial products and practices is a study of long, costly battles with little quick relief, especially to consumers. Consider that by the 1960s more than 50,000 people a year were dying in car crashes, despite the fact that crash experts had been sounding the alarm about safer car designs since as early as the 1930s. The alarm went unheeded by U.S. automakers for many more decades; they embraced safety only when they lost market share to more safety-conscious competitors. Consider, too, that more than 2.5 million lives could have been saved if everyone had quit smoking when the U.S. Surgeon General first unveiled tobacco’s dangers back in the 1960s. The tobacco industry fought for 50 years to stave off public health efforts to tax and ban smoking, and many lives were lost.

Well-meaning activists are dusting off their old strategies of research, regulation, and litigation to use against Big Food. Trying to force the risk-averse food industry to jettison time-proven brands and add healthier products will be a slow process. The industry has long memories of expensive, high-profile flops. Even countering the lawsuits will be less costly than risking another debacle such as New Coke or McDonald’s McLean Deluxe sandwich.

Yet both sides are overlooking a golden opportunity that could help everybody win, food companies and consumers alike. In fact, the obesity crisis may just be the food industry’s biggest market opportunity over the next 10 years.

Hard to swallow? Consider what might have happened if American automakers in the 1960s had begun designing and building safer and more fuel-efficient cars just after Ralph Nader first published his seminal book, Unsafe at Any Speed. Instead, their response to activists like Nader (whose book took the industry to task for resisting safety features) was to dig in their heels. They resisted adopting voluntary safety improvements because, they claimed, “safety doesn’t sell.”

So the U.S. auto industry let foreign competitors like Volvo and Mercedes-Benz take the lead in adding features such as three-point seat belts, crumple zones, and side air bags. It also allowed Japanese automakers to make strides in safety and fuel-efficiency and rapidly gain new U.S. customers. U.S. automakers found out the hard way that safety did indeed sell. By 2009, when two-thirds of the public said that safety was the most important factor in buying a new car, U.S. car manufacturers’ share of the American market had plunged by more than half since 1965, from 91% to 44%. Safety turned out to be a huge moneymaker for the auto industry, not an immense financial burden.

In contrast to automakers, look at how the beer industry responded to activist groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which began targeting the alcoholic beverage companies about three decades ago. Top brewing companies got ahead of the issue. They worked to lighten up both the alcohol content and the calories in their beer, and they began a campaign to encourage people to drink responsibly. Light beer now accounts for four of the top five best-selling beers. The top brewers have doubled their profit margins, even while losing market share to wine and liquor and spending $875 million over the past three decades—and while telling people not to drink too much.

The soft drink industry has been fighting activists who paint it as the bad guy in the obesity crisis. It should take a cue from its brethren in beer, and, indeed, from its own success in selling more water and fewer sugar-sweetened products. Consider that soft-drink makers today enjoy some of the highest operating profit margins in the food industry, even though some have reduced their calorie footprint (the average calories sold per capita) by a quarter over the last decade. Zero-calorie carbonated beverages and bottled water are now a bigger part of the mix, and consumers are clamoring for them. Instead of fighting the campaign against Big Gulps, the soft drink industry should be looking for the next big opportunity.

New research is already proving that the profit opportunities are there. One study by my organization, the Hudson Institute, has found that food companies with higher percentages of healthier food sales in their portfolios report healthier bottom lines. Hudson, an independent policy research organization, recently looked at 15 consumer goods companies that sold varying percentages of “better for you” products—ones with reduced calories, marketed in smaller portion sizes, or whole-grain and other foods generally recognized as more wholesome. These products accounted for less than 40% of the companies’ sales between 2007 and 2011 but drove more than 70% of their sales growth. Companies selling above-average levels of better-for-you foods and beverages enjoyed higher operating profits, larger returns to shareholders, and a better image among consumers, branding studies have shown.

In short, the food industry can still enjoy healthy profits while doing the right thing, urging restraint and selling products that deliver more nutrients or fewer calories.

What will it take to get the entire food industry to hear this message, instead of spending time and resources fending off its attackers? First, activists and the industry need to change the rules of engagement. When hardcore activists begin to oppose an industry, industry executives become defensive and competitive. Under attack, they grow even more opposed to change and dig in and fortify their positions. Message to activists: Pursuing harsh regulations and litigation only prolongs the time it takes to reach a solution.

Materials science provides the perfect analogy for this problem. When it is backed into a corner, the food industry, which is highly traditional, can become an immovable, impervious solid. The activists display combustible gas behaviors. They’re highly reactive, sometimes explosive, but unable to change the solid very much. Only a liquid state can get anything done, but neither side is willing to undergo a fundamental change.

The public health outcry over less nutritious food promises to be very combustible. Many have compared it to the fight against Big Tobacco, which is now paying a $206 billion settlement to states that claim that smoking-related illnesses increased their Medicare costs. Activists hope to paint food as, like tobacco, a highly addictive threat to public health.

The escalating war against Big Food has a key difference: Unlike tobacco, food companies manufacture a necessity to public health, and nobody can argue that it shouldn’t exist. Its antagonists need to approach this industry differently. Most of all, food executives need to look behind the vitriol and see a very real opportunity, to make more money and do good at the same time.

Written by By Don Sapatkin, an Inquirer Staff Writer at Philly.com/Health

Amy Jordan, a children’s media researcher at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, was walking down Walnut Street one day last summer when she overheard two teenagers talking as they passed a CVS/Pharmacy.

“The boy said to the girl, ‘Let’s stop here, I want to get a soda,’ ” she recalled. “And the girl said, ‘You want to get a soda? That stuff’s nasty!’ ”

Is this the future of soda?

Twenty years from now, will all the school bans and downsized portions and worries about obesity and heart disease mean that things will no longer go better with Coke?

Some things already don’t.

Per capita consumption of full-calorie soft drinks fell by more than 20 percent from 2000 to 2011, according to Beverage Digest. Diet Coke is now No. 2, ahead of Pepsi.

So how far can regular soda fall, and how fast?

Will it go back to being the treat that it was 50 years ago, when vending machines sold 6.5-ounce bottles? Will soda companies find their Holy Grail – a natural, no-calorie sweetener that tastes just like sugar, erasing the line between diet and regular?

“In the very long term, sugar-sweetened beverages, and probably juices, will be regulated in the U.S. just like cigarettes,” said Barry M. Popkin, an economist and nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He said rising health costs that hurt American competitiveness will be a factor.

Comparisons between soda and tobacco are imperfect. Even second-hand smoke is harmful, whereas soda is more a matter of too many calories coming in for the amount going out. But there are intriguing parallels.

Advertising played a big role in the rise of each – from the American Tobacco Co.’s “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet” campaign in the early 1930s to the airwaves-saturating battle between Coke and Pepsi a half-century later.

In both cases, education – the surgeon general’s report on smoking in 1964 and various health initiatives on obesity in recent years – coincided with the end of long-term trends.

“But it wasn’t until you saw the policy changes” – cigarette taxes, smoking bans, and advertising restrictions – “where you actually saw decreases” in smoking rates, said Mary Story, who studies obesity prevention at the University of Minnesota.

There has been no surgeon general’s report on soda, although nearly 100 health groups called for one in July.

So far, the scientific evidence linking soda and obesity falls into three categories:

For years, people drank more and more soda. Daily caloric intake of sugar-sweetened beverages nearly tripled between 1977 and 2001, Popkin found, roughly paralleling the surge in obesity. Teenage boys now get more calories from sugar-sweetened beverages than from any other food or drink.

Liquid calories don’t make you feel full in the way that solid food does, so the body doesn’t compensate for them by eating less, a growing body of research has found.

Emerging evidence suggests that high-fructose corn syrup, a mainstay of soda, might be metabolized differently from other substances.

If soda is on a tobacco trajectory, said Kelly D. Brownell, director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, then “everything is happening at a very accelerated rate.”

In less than a decade of scrutiny, sugar-sweetened beverages have been removed from most schools nationwide; portions are set to be cut by law in New York; calories are labeled by mandate in such cities as Philadelphia and will be voluntarily in Chicago and San Antonio, Pepsico and Coca-Cola said this month; and various soda taxes have been proposed, with two more on local ballots in California next month.

Even when the anti-soda lobby loses, as it has with every tax so far, more “information comes out. . . . Usually consumers only hear what the food and beverage companies say,” said Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.

The industry, which the Federal Trade Commission estimated spends nearly $500 million a year marketing sugary beverages to adolescents alone, is light years ahead of public health campaigns. But the public health advocates are improving.

The Real Bears, a cartoon video by the Center for Science in the Public Interest that went viral, shows a family of polar bears surrounded by soft-drink advertising as extra-large Baby Bear gets stuck in an ice fishing hole and Papa Bear experiences erectile dysfunction, a side effect of diabetes. They finally pour their sodas into the sea.

“We’re trying to figure out, what are the emotional factors. Does fear work? Does nurturance work? Does humor work?” said Jordan, the Annenberg researcher.

Her findings helped shape a 30-second TV commercial, which is posted at www.foodfitphilly.org, the city health department’s sugary drinks site.

The commercial, part of a $1.5 million ad campaign funded by federal stimulus money, shows a mother driving with her son, thinking about what his doctor said about diabetes. “We’ll fix this,” she says finally, shaking her head at their two big drinks and gazing at her son with concern. “Just wish I’d known sooner.”

No one expects soft-drink manufacturers to go under.

“I kind of view the obesity crisis as the indicator of the next big business opportunity for all these companies,” said Hank Cardello, a former beverage company CEO and author of Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat. Cardello said smaller portion sizes and “good for you” beverages tend to be more profitable.

The industry is responding to consumer demand, American Beverage Association spokeswoman Karen Hanretty said, by creating smaller containers and new products like vitamin water.

Some have caught on quickly. But diet sodas, while rising four percentage points in market share as full-calorie fell by four points, are not being consumed any more than in 2000. Hence the industry’s focus on new formulations.

Within two years, “you will see Pepsi and Coke and Dr Pepper coming up with a whole variety of no-calorie sweeteners,” said Harold Honickman, who chairs the region’s largest independent bottling group and worked on the beverage association’s campaigns that twice gutted Mayor Nutter’s proposed soda taxes.

Twenty years from now, Honickman said, “I honestly think you will find ‘regular’ Pepsi, ‘regular’ Coke with new kinds of sweeteners. They will be better-tasting drinks than we have today.”

And truly regular sodas?

“I personally think that soda will remain a large product category in the U.S. Responsibly consumed, it’s not just healthy and fine, it is also fun and tasty,” said John Sicher, publisher of the independent Beverage Digest. What that means differs from person to person, he said.

The American Heart Association recommends that most women consume no more than six teaspoons and men nine teaspoons a day of “added sugar” – the stuff added by manufacturers to cookies, ice cream, fruit-filled yogurt, soda, and anything you stir into your own coffee.

A 12-ounce can of Coke contains eight teaspoons of added sugar.

David B. Allison, director of the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has often played a contrarian role on the soda issue, and the industry refers reporters to him for an opposing scientific viewpoint. But he said that two studies published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine led him to conclude there is now sufficient evidence to show reducing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages will reduce obesity in certain people.

Eventually, he said, drinking a soda will be akin to smoking a cigar or not wearing a seat belt.

“What I say to my kids” – ages 7, 9 and 12 – “is whenever possible, do not have sugar-sweetened beverages,” Allison said. “If you are at a birthday party and the only beverage available is a sugar-sweetened beverage, and you want to be comfortable [in the group], if that happens once a month, it’s not a problem.”

Originally written in The Atlantic Online on August 12, 2010

This is the third in a series analyzing the psyches of those involved in the obesity debate. Last time, you met the restaurant operators and learned that keeping the kitchens running will always trump matters such as obesity. Today you get to meet their cousins, the grocers.

According to the Food Marketing Institute, there are more than 35,000 supermarkets in the U.S., and, last year, Americans spent $557 billion on groceries. But don’t be deceived by this huge number; their profits are pitifully low, at only 1 to 2 percent of sales. This forces them to live in the present, since it is a survival-of-the-fittest business.

Like their restaurant-industry relatives, grocers can best be described—to use the gas/liquid/solid metaphor I’ve borrowed from chemistry—as “solids.” By this I mean that they are traditionalists who defend the status quo and value protocol and structure. Logical, organized, and realistic, they are quick to make decisions and get things done. They are well suited to dealing with a taxing retail environment.

Shoppers select almost 60 percent of the brands they buy during the act of shopping itself.
This means that grocers have undue influence over what consumers buy.

Those entrusted with managing grocery departments are responsible for a whole host of tasks, including the purchasing of food items, managing inventory levels, identifying and adopting new products, product merchandising, employee scheduling, delivering excellent customer service, and setting prices.

Concerns about competition and labor costs (they know these to the penny) often consume them. And close attention is paid to same-store sales compared to last week. But perhaps the worst six-letter word for a grocer, according to former Harris Teeter President Bob Goodale, is “shrink,” the amount of money that walks out the door because of employee theft, shoplifting, and backdoor mistakes and dishonesty. With shrink over 2 percent and profits under 2 percent, this is a make-or-break matter that keeps grocers awake at night and forces them to be diligent about the details.

With this as background, it becomes obvious that attacking Big Picture issues such as obesity falls far down the priority list. Of higher import is the “now”: squeezing a profit out of every square inch of the store.

One way grocers use their practical thinking skills to generate profits is to use “power” items to drag the customer through the store. These are the staples consumers buy, like bread, milk, bananas, ground beef, chicken, and eggs. Grocers know you need them and place them in far away locations, like the back of the store, to expose you to more of their offerings. It’s very similar to finding your way through a maze.

Another way grocers “find” money is by getting food marketers to pony up in order to place their products in the best, most prominent locations in the stores. Bestselling national brands like Pepsi and Kellogg’s pay handsomely for the privilege of being up front or more visible on the shelf. But oftentimes these fast-selling items come with a high-calorie sticker price.

Is there anything grocers can do to help us check-out with fewer calories? The answer is “yes,” if they remember that shoppers select almost 60 percent of the brands they buy during the act of shopping itself. This means that grocers have undue influence over what consumers buy. It’s time for them to exercise this power.

That means they can set up special sections for healthy kid’s lunches, insist that certain display space be reserved solely for lower-calorie products, and add healthier snacks at the checkout line.

But are they likely to do this on their own?

Alas, like their restaurant kin, the “solid” grocers are unlikely to lead us out of the obesity mess. The business survives on razor-thin profit margins and those who toil there must simply attend to the day-to-day rigors of the grocery aisles. The grocer personality is not aligned with fixing a complex problem like obesity.

Only with pressure from the top will there be any meaningful change. Perhaps chains like Safeway, with their Healthy Measures program, or Walmart, which has taken a proactive role in forcing suppliers to be more environmentally responsible, can lead the way? The jury’s still out, so we’ll have to wait and see.

In our next feature, you will meet those sitting on the opposite side of the obesity table: the researchers, academics, and public health activists, otherwise known as the Food Police.

With two-thirds of American adults and one-third of our children either overweight or obese, it is clear that the regulations, strategies, and tactics deployed to reverse this albatross have been ineffective. What has dumbfounded me is that we rarely ask the following question: why has nothing worked?

So far, too much emphasis has been given to “being right” rather than fixing the problem. A “my way or the highway” mentality prevails. Many blame the food marketers for pushing junk foods. Others hold consumers responsible for not eating well or exercising. While each of these arguments has merit, neither camp has served up any lasting solutions.

We have spent countless years defending status quo positions or demonizing others for perpetuating obesity, but have overlooked the most basic aspect of the combatants—that is, their wiring. By this, I mean that we have not considered the core personality type of each entity that is a player in this ongoing obesity drama.

Why would this matter? Because each party involved in shaping America’s obesity problem views the situation through a different lens. This is why the one-size-fits-all approaches that have been prevalent fall flat. Once we finally unlock the psyches of grocers, restaurateurs, packaged goods marketers, health advocates and activists, nutritionists, and consumers, we become privy to their motivations and limitations. When we understand what makes each party tick, we gain the knowledge to effect real, constructive change.

A simple way of describing each actor’s behavior is by drawing a parallel to the elements: each player is either a solid, a liquid, or a gas.

Solids care about defending the status quo. They’re traditional, risk averse, dislike change, and take either/or positions. More often than not, they focus on short-term needs. However, when they do make up their minds, they are capable of sticking with the game plan and carrying through to the end.

Conversely, gases bring creativity and a forward-looking perspective to the dialogue. They openly embrace change. In fact, the process of change is often the goal. Gases typically chide solids for not seeing the future and are accused by their solid brethren of being impractical and ivory-towerish.

Liquids serve as the bridge between solids and gases in that they are more likely to see the big picture and think strategically. They bring more of a win-win mentality to situations and can serve as a conduit to lasting solutions.

In the ensuing weeks, I will dissect the personality of each of the key players in the obesity debate one at a time. You will be able to gain a better understanding of how food executives think; what grocers don’t want you to know; why restaurant chains promote combo meals and supersized beverages; why health advocates and activists push draconian solutions like soda taxes and ingredient bans; and why, with the exception of the most disciplined among us, consumers are doomed to fail with dieting and exercise.

More poignantly, you will see how barriers to progress have evolved when staunch solids like grocers and restaurant chains interact with the combustible food activist gases. I will also draw parallels to the behavior of political parties—care to guess which party is solid? Which one is more like gas? More importantly, at the end of this series of articles, you will understand how we got here and what viable solutions to the obesity epidemic can emerge that work for all invested parties.

Next time I will focus on the restaurant chains and provide a glimpse into who they are, how they think, and the real reasons behind larger portions.

Stay tuned.

The tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico offers a management lesson to food marketers on how not to deal with a crisis. Specifically, I refer to the obesity epidemic. Here’s what I mean.

First, there’s the blame game. No one is taking responsibility for the Gulf disaster. BP points its fingers at Transocean who throws a hot potato to Halliburton who points back to BP as having ultimate responsibility. A similar dynamic persists in the obesity debate. Activists blame corporations for spewing excessive fuel (i.e., calories) on the consuming public; food corporations counter that they offer healthy options and decry that regulators are unfairly trying to tax them; and all the while consumers continue to chomp away at anything put in front of them.

Then there’s this sticky matter of the unintended consequences of the spill on the health and wellbeing of all those affected: wildlife, the environment, the food supply, local economies, and laborers. It appears that none of the parties planned for this eventuality. So too with obesity. Food marketers did not intend that Americans get fat. Clever marketers simply discovered the formula for providing excellent value for their customers. And in turn consumers complied. Now two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese.

Finally, neither BP nor the food companies have put the genie back in the bottle. By this I mean that the causes for concern (oil and calories) still run rampant. For BP, this not only means a public relations nightmare but also likely criminal proceedings. It will also pave the way for new, more draconian regulations and a radical shift in energy policies, to the detriment of the petroleum companies. With minor exceptions, food marketers also have not put the lid on calories and will continue to feel the heat of regulators, activists, and consumers until they do.

So what can food marketers do?

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