A compelling concept about how the industry can prevail over the obesity problem was broached at last week's Food Marketing Institute Midwinter Executive Conference by Indra K. Nooyi, chairman and chief executive officer, PepsiCo.
She called for the industry to mount a campaign that would change lifestyles in such a way that exercising becomes the norm and inactivity the exception. Let's see if there are any hazards connected to that concept.
We'll start with a rough analogy she offered herself: the campaign of a generation ago intended to encourage seat belt use in autos. At first there was much resistance to the idea. Silly objections to belt use were voiced, such as the idea that it's better to be flung from a car in a collision than to be confined inside the wreckage. Additionally, the use of seat belts wasn't at first particularly favored by the automobile industry for fear belts would constantly underscore how dangerous it is to ride in a car.
Yet, over time, behavior changed, and now most people strap in without a thought, and even feel odd without a seat belt.
The auto industry also got used to the idea, and it benefited: It could project that it was concerned about safety; belts provided some insulation against litigation; and, best of all, as fewer lives were lost on the road, more people were around to buy cars.
Similarly, Nooyi said, the food distribution industry should endeavor to change lifestyles in ways that would lessen the incidence of obesity. She asserted the real problem isn't that too many calories are consumed, since people don't typically consume too many more calories than they ever did.
The problem is that as the population becomes more and more sedentary, fewer calories are expended. Of course that's not just correct, but that has been the case at least since the Second World War.
She called for a conference of industry leaders to be seated, during which methods might be found to create lifestyle attitudes that would make exercising the life mode of preference. Should the industry be able to accomplish that, it would be all to the good. Each of the benefits the auto industry realized through seat belt use would accrue to the food distribution industry: The industry would win the gratitude of the consuming public; it would be provided some protection against litigation; and more consumers would be around to buy product.
The possible pitfall to this concept is that it will take a fine hand to sell the concept that caloric intake isn't the real villain, but that lack of exercise is. After all, it's obvious that weight reduction can happen in the reverse way, by eschewing exercise and consuming little.
What's needed is a campaign that focuses on exercise, to be sure, but one that also points out all the consumer packaged goods industry, often in partnership with retailers, has accomplished by reducing products' content of calories, trans fat, sodium and so on. The resulting campaign should pledge that these accomplishments will go forward, while at the same time pointing out that everyone has the responsibility to exercise, just as everyone has a responsibility to put on a seat belt.