When his son questions why the overweight cop in the conspicuously tight uniform is eating a certain “healthy” breakfast cereal, Dad replies in a weary, hopelessly resigned voice, “Gotta do something.”
I don’t remember the cereal this commercial was advertising. It ran so long ago, it pre-dated the deluge of “healthy food” products and marketing that bombards us today. But ironically, the commercial is an accurate depiction of current health attitudes in America. Overweight people are buying processed food, marketed as “healthy,” and they tell themselves they are “doing something” about their health and their weight problem.
Food processors are working to redefine what’s considered “healthy” eating with more processed food, more frozen food, more “healthy” versions of foods perceived as indulgent. Walmart is doing this with its line of “Great for You” branded products and a partnership with Humana that will offer a 5% discount on the product line. The Humana discount promotion extends to fresh items from the produce department at select Walmarts.
Will anything like this really make a measurable impact? Walmart’s advertising campaign targets “busy moms” to “instantly identify healthier choices.” The reality is we’ve always been able to “instantly identify healthier choices” by simply walking directly to the produce department of any store and limiting most food shopping to the outer perimeter of the store. But food marketing is keeping a huge secret. Fresh fruit and vegetables are at the lower end of the profit margin in food retailing. Grocery stores would much rather sell you processed packaged foods. Food marketing aggressively works to convince you that “healthier choices” are so difficult, you need to look for a label to figure out what to buy.
If a “busy mom” has a choice between 5% off a packaged “Great for You” product or 5% off anything in the produce department, is she more likely to fill her cart with fresh food or will she buy the packaged food? Will she be so excited with a 5% discount on produce that she’ll decide to reduce her reliance on packaged food and cook more from scratch? I think we all know the answer.
Ostensibly “healthy” products are a dominant force in food marketing. Will the trend lower the number on America’s scale? I think it might. A little bit. But I do not think it will put a significant dent in the greater obesity pandemic. Persisting in consuming certain types of foods will maintain the behavior patterns that maintain higher weight. We live in the world’s most obesogenic environment and I don’t see that changing much in coming years.
Yesterday I discussed accepting the full price of real change. That full price may include a transition to a largely whole foods diet and turning away from aggressive marketing and advertising claims that can obscure the true nutritional value of a processed food product. There always has been and always will be a simple way to identify healthier food. Buy food that does not come in a package.
How much of your diet is packaged, processed food? Do you believe that whole food is more expensive or less convenient to eat daily? Do you believe you are making positive nutritional choices when you buy processed foods that are marketed as “healthy”?