The Big Mac attack is back again, casting its shadow over the food industry.
The return to court of the well-publicized lawsuit against McDonald's by two obese teens raises a familiar question about the food industry's responsibility for America's overweight children.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported that approximately 15% of children and adolescents, ages 6 to 19, are obese. This figure is nearly double the rate of two decades ago. The American Obesity Association measures obesity in children by the 95th percentile of Body Mass Index, which corresponds to a BMI of 30, the marker for obesity in adults.
The three-year-old McDonald's case filed by seriously overweight adolescents who regularly eat hamburgers and french fries at the fast-food chain was reinstated earlier this year by the federal appeals court after being dismissed by a U.S. district judge in 2003 due to lack of evidence. The plaintiffs are charging McDonald's with deceptive advertising.
According to Washington-based AOA, overexposure to advertising that promotes high-calorie foods is just one of the possible causes of childhood obesity.
This isn't the first time the food industry has come under attack from anti-fat lawyers and activist groups. A rash of lawsuits began soon after U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher announced an "obesity epidemic" in December 2001. Since then, a handful of "fat" lawsuits have challenged the food industry to consider nutritional value, labeling of fat and calorie content, and marketing of more healthy foods.
Kraft Foods was sued in 2003 for not disclosing the amount of trans fatty acids in its Oreo cookies, produced by the company's Nabisco division. While the lawsuit was quickly dropped, soon afterwards the Northfield, Ill.-based company came out with a reduced-fat version of the cookie with zero trans fats. The Food and Drug Administration defines zero trans fat as less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. The agency is ordering the industry to list trans fats on food labels by January 2006, saying that trans fat, like saturated fat, increases the risk of heart disease.
Such lawsuits have prompted other companies to jump into action as well. Frito Lay, Plano, Texas, proactively removed trans fatty acids from its snacks. McDonald's, Oak Brook, Ill., began adding healthier choices to its menu, such as apple slices in Happy Meals as a substitute for french fries. Supermarket chains across the country began offering creative health and wellness programs for school children and their parents.
"At the end of the day, the food business in total has some responsibility for the health issues centered around childhood obesity, but it's not accurate to lay all of the blame on them," said Bill Bishop, president, Willard Bishop Consulting, Barrington, Ill.
"Food businesses have certainly put more emphasis on flavor and emotion, and less emphasis on the functional values of food or health and wellness. But consumers have expressed a strong interest in the brand experience, which is what they've received," he said.
Some companies have stepped up to the dinner plate and made healthy changes to their product lines, only to discover their efforts were in vain, noted Jack Gordon, chief executive officer of Cincinnati-based AcuPOLL Research. AcuPOLL Research is an international market research firm focused on kids' nutrition and marketing.
"Kraft was going to revolutionize the marketplace with its healthier, low-carb alternative products a year ago, only to see that consumers still wanted their Oreos," said Gordon.
Companies manufacture and sell what consumers want, he said. "It's not a matter of making a product like Oreos -- which you have to admit are sinfully good -- and forcing consumers to buy them," he said. "If consumers quit buying Oreos, Kraft would make something else to meet the consumer demand."
Alison Kretser, director of scientific and nutrition policy for Grocery Manufacturers of America, Washington, said the food industry plays a major role in combating obesity "because we manufacture the foods consumers eat. Manufacturers are now introducing kid-friendly sizes, providing products that young consumers enjoy, but that are in more appropriate serving sizes, helping parents better manage the caloric intake of their children."
Yogurt now comes in eight-ounce sizes for older kids and adults, and four-ounce sizes for youngsters. Juice packs come in many different sizes. Even frozen novelties like ice cream sandwiches and popsicles are available in kid-sized portions, said Kretser.
This year, Kraft announced several new initiatives to increase the visibility -- among both adults and children -- of many of the more nutritious products in its portfolio through a Sensible Solution label. The label identifies Kraft's "better-for-you" foods and beverages. "We want to provide a range of options that help people make more informed decisions about the foods and beverages they buy for themselves and their families," said Lance Friedmann, Kraft's senior vice president, Global Health & Wellness, in a prepared statement. In addition, Kraft announced it would shift its advertising on items labeled Sensible Solution in its television, radio and print media viewed principally by children ages 6 to 11.
Kretser said it's the retailer's responsibility to make sure it carries healthier food choices. "Retailers really need to make sure these new products like 100-calorie snack packs that moms love to throw in their kids' lunches get onto their shelves," she said. "These also include other items like fruit cups; individual, one-ounce packages of nuts; and single-serving baked chip packages."
Last year, Food Marketing Institute, Washington, launched a consumer Web site to address weight management issues for overweight shoppers and their families, and build awareness of the supermarket as a community resource for healthy living (see sidebar, page 16).
Dagmar Farr, group vice president of legislative and consumer affairs, FMI, told SN nutrition has been a priority for FMI's members for years. She said providing information on the group's Web site was a natural progression. "Our FMI committee met over a year and a half ago, and we decided that we should provide as many resources as possible for supermarkets across the country," Farr said. "The site compiles a lot of obesity resources at one location, and promotes FMI programs that have been developed in the past, as well as our FMI Trends Survey and other studies related to health and wellness."
Susan Finn, chairwoman for the American Council for Fitness and Nutrition, Washington, said having the right products on the shelf is only a partial solution to help shoppers control their weight. "It's also the job of the food industry to help get people moving," she said. "Food companies are focusing on hitting people in the marketplace, workplace and in the communities where they live and work, offering nutritional and fitness programs that help them fight obesity."
Among retailers with proactive consumer programs for weight control are: Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colo., which hosted an in-store obesity program in which the chain handed shopping lists to consumers filled with items deemed "Superfoods," or foods that help stave off obesity; and Fresh Encounter, Findlay, Ohio, which has been working with local health departments to educate children in its stores and in schools, donating fresh produce and healthy snacks as hand-on educational tools. (See "Eat Smart, Play Hard," Page 15, and "Superfoods for Health," this page.)
Also, Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Meijer regularly promotes health and wellness in its weekly ads, dedicating entire pages to nutritional items, healthy recipes and informational columns written by its in-house nutritionist. The chain provides shoppers with distance information between its parking spaces and stores, and measurements for various pathways throughout its stores as incentives to get moving, said Finn.
FDA is concerned with involving food industry members in the fight against obesity. The organization is currently working on a number of initiatives that could eventually change the way food makers label their products.
"We're in the early stages of the rule-making process regarding how to give more prominence to calories on food labels by increasing font size or possibly eliminating calories from the fat listing, which often de-emphasizes the calorie level," said Sebastian Cianci, an FDA spokesman.
"We're also working on whether companies should be able to put health claims on certain foods that meet reduced- or low-calorie criteria." Such subtle changes would enable parents to easily select healthy choices for their families, including lower-calorie snacks with high nutritional value, said Cianci.
Other possible changes on FDA's regulation table include requiring companies to change the nutrition label on any food item that can be "reasonably consumed" in one sitting. This would provide a true assessment of calories. For example, instead of listing a 20-ounce serving of soda as two and a half servings, a label could list nutritional information for the product as a single serving, said Cianci. The difference in calories when the entire container is labeled as one serving shows dramatically more calories: 275, vs. 110 when the calculation is made by counting the serving size at eight ounces with two and a half servings per container.
PREVALENCE OF OBESITY
About 15.5% of adolescents (ages 12 to 19) and 15.3% of children (ages 6 to 11) are obese. The increase in obesity among American youth over the past two decades is dramatic.
Children (6 to 11); Adolescents (12 to 19)
1999-2000: 15.3%; 15.5%
1988-1994: 11%; 11%
1976-1980: 7%; 5%
A measurement called percentile of Body Mass Index is used to identify overweight and obesity in children and adolescents. The above data were compiled using the 95th percentile of BMI.