Nutrition in the New Year: How food manufacturers are cashing in

January 25th, 2012

The following opinion piece was written by Roberta Clarke, associate professor of marketing and an expert in healthcare marketing.

Fat-free? Gluten-free? Trans-fat free? Salt-free? Organic? Lactose-free?

The one-size-fits-all diet no longer sells well. Varying demands by consumers who want to avoid certain ingredients or include others have prodded the food industry into serving the market with products that match their particular preferences. As these demands (gluten/no gluten, salt or not) grow in complexity, they create greater numbers of smaller market segments whose members may have no interest in eating what the customer in the adjacent market segment wants to eat. Rudi’s low-salt, organic, gluten-free, multi-grain bread has a very loyal but limited following; it’s unlikely that most of you are buying it. Once one food manufacturer establishes itself as “the” brand for that segment, as Rudi’s has, other food manufacturers find the segment less attractive and look to other criteria – and ingredients –by which they can differentiate their products.

Much of this consumer behavior is fueled by our pursuit of good health. This is not necessarily the goal of the food companies however. Their goal is to keep their shareholders happy, that is, to sell, whether the product is inherently healthy or not. They combine the whole grain you want for health purposes with other less healthy ingredients to which you aren’t paying attention. Take Lucky Charms, the breakfast cereal produced by General Mills, a company that has chosen to make whole grain its claim to fame in the cereal category. Like more than 50 other General Mills cereals, Lucky Charms has more whole grain than any other single ingredient. That sounds healthy, but in spite of its tagline of “goodness in Frosted Oat Cereal with Marshmallow Bits,” it also has 11 grams of sugar per ¾ cup (that’s not very much) serving. That’s equal to ½ the sugar in a Hershey’s Mr. Goodbar. Is it really healthy to feed your child the equivalent of half a candy bar for breakfast?

Consumers clearly have the right to demand foods that they believe will make them healthier and the food companies are working furiously to address these demands. They make items like high trans-fat, high salt, high sugar, whole grain bars because we, the consumer, ask for them on an ingredient-specific basis, in this case for whole grains. The problem is that we don’t buy ingredients; we buy the whole food. It is not the food companies’ obligation to ensure that what we eat is healthy. That responsibility is ours.

Contact Clarke at 617-353-4600 or rclarke@bu.edu.

Previous posts in the series:
Nutrition in the New Year: Gluten-free and vegetarian
Nutrition in the New Year: Dairy-free and raw diets

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