‘Stuffed’ Suggests How the Food Industry Can Battle Obesity

Former food exec Hank Cardello says it’s possible for companies to make money and promote health.

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In more than 30 years of working in the food industry, Hank Cardello didn't think much about the health consequences of the products he promoted, whether Betty Crocker cake mixes, a proposed new malt liquor, or Diet Coke. He thinks about them plenty now, though. After a cancer scare in 1995, Cardello switched gears and started to look more critically at how his industry might help combat obesity. He's now CEO of 27 Degrees North, a consulting firm that helps companies marry profit and social responsibility. In Stuffed: An Insider's Look at Who's (Really) Making America Fat (Ecco), just released in paperback, Cardello lays out his views on why consumers are not entirely to blame for their own girth, why well-meaning government regulations often fail, and how the food industry might put its marketing oomph behind better alternatives to some of the high-calorie packaged foods that Americans snarf down. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation: 

You say the obesity problem is not simply a matter of personal responsibility and that the food industry bears some blame because "too much high-calorie food [is] marketed too effectively to too many who can't resist."

The food industry's historical posture was always this: We provide healthy options, and you're big boys and girls, so be responsible and choose them. Then there's CSPI [the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group], which has never run a company and seemed to have the message that the industry should just take its cough medicine and behave. They really speak different languages. It's like right vs. left. When the "left" says the food industry should change because it's the right thing to do, it isn't getting inside the industry's head. My philosophy is: Let's turn the industry's marketing prowess to the good. We can show them how to make more money and to do the right thing at the same time. Can't government policy, such as a tax on soda or calorie counts on a menu, push consumers in the right direction?

The basis for a soft-drink tax was that if you institute a 10 percent tax, you'll lower consumption by between 8 and 10 percent. But as I've looked at the literature, I haven't seen an impact on obesity rates. What good does it do if we have lower soft-drink consumption but we aren't solving the obesity issue? It hurts the consumer and the corporation. The food industry is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. We can engage them in a way so that they don't have to put up their Star Trek deflector shields. I'm for a free-market solution to obesity. Tax deductions for advertising [as a business expense], for example, are a privilege. Let the companies earn them. Tell them they can keep their deductions if they cut calories from their products by 5 or 10 percent a year. If they exceed a 10 percent reduction, they could get a bonus, but they also start getting docked for going in the wrong direction. [Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio recently introduced a bill that would knock out deductions for advertising of fast food or non-nutritious food.]  Can we trust food companies to be partners in this? The CSPI has knocked Coke's new 7.5-ounce cans as well as food companies' 100-calorie packs as "fleecing" us by charging more per ounce of product.

I'm a proponent of those smaller packages. I saw research showing that if you give one panel of people 100-calorie packs and another panel a regular box of food, the groups eating the packs took in 120 fewer calories per day. Yes, corporations get higher margins. But let them make money if it's better for the population!  Why would a company use "stealth health"—making their products more healthful without big marketing campaigns touting the change?

There are two kinds of products: those with a healthy halo, like yogurt, and indulgent products like cookies and fries. When you try to label an indulgent product as healthy, eyebrows go up—remember the McLean Deluxe? People get skeptical and wonder if it will taste good. Those are the best candidates for "stealth health." Now, if you have yogurt you're adding omega-3 fatty acids to, I say tout that fact all day long. People already expect it to be healthy. But if you wanted to put omega-3s into a burger, you have a conundrum because that's intrinsically perceived as a less healthy product. But that doesn't mean that food companies don't have a whole portfolio of opportunities to promote more healthful products. Coca-Cola could put more ad dollars behind Coke Zero or VitaminWater [rather than full-sugar colas]. That won't hurt the bottom line, and it sends a signal. It's a business opportunity to do the right thing.  [Read Can Americans Change Their Taste for the Sweet and Salty?

Doesn't the government need to do something about confusing food labels? The Smart Choices program, a front-of-package labeling program that was supposed to guide consumers to healthier options, crashed and burned last year amid criticism that it endorsed things such as sugary cereals.

My principle is: Keep it simple. That was the problem with the Smart Choices program. Trying to describe what a healthy food is gets us in trouble, because it means different things to different people. Where it's gravitating to is to put total calories, as well as calories per serving, on a label so people know exactly how many calories are in this entire box or bottle. When you get into the details of saturated fat, etc., people's eyes are glazing over.  [Read Is a Traffic Light Coming to Food Labels?

What do you think of Michelle Obama's anti-child-obesity proposals, which include tax breaks for grocery stores that move into areas with no sources of nutritious foods and healthier school lunches?

I like that there's such a visible face attached to these issues, so I give her kudos for that. Some of these proposals, such as making healthier meals for families and getting more exercise, are to be expected. And making healthier foods available in food "deserts" is giving voice to an idea that makes sense. But there's a missing link: fully igniting and [giving incentives to] the food industry to jump in with both feet.  [Read 3 Ways Parents Can Use Michelle Obama's Experience to Fight Child Obesity.] 

How in the world did cupcakes become so controversial? Some schools are banning them; the backlash to that sentiment included a proposed law to make them the official snack of New York State.

It's amazing! It started because in schools where students celebrate birthdays, out come the cupcakes. And these aren't little rinky-dinky things anymore—they get elaborate. The debate ran in parallel with discussions about vending machines in schools, i.e., "Look what we're doing with our kids! We're fattening them up!" But it became a dichotomous either-or thing; there was a loss of perspective and a purist mentality. "All the food has to be perfect all the time" is a draconian viewpoint. So cut kids a break, if it's just a few times a month. Food ought to be fun, but there's a portion of the population that's very extreme on this; food is either 100 percent good or it's poison. There's no common sense or middle ground. The cupcake became a symbol of this debate. [Slide Show: 10 Fiber-Friendly Food Swaps From the Full Plate Diet]