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The soft sell: how the food industry shapes our diets.

Which foods go into your shopping cart? What do you order when you eat out? How much do you eat? You make those decisions without outside pressure, right?

Don't be so sure. As food manufacturers and restaurants compete for "share of stomach," their strategies may push you to eat more processed foods, more high-profit foods, and more food, period. Here's how to spot--and outsmart--some of their ploys

Q: How do food companies entice us to buy junky foods?

A: First, they supply an enormous variety of packaged foods--an estimated 320,000 at last count. The average number of products carried by a typical supermarket has more than tripled since 1980, from 15,000 to 50,000. In 1998 alone, manufacturers introduced more than 11,000 new foods. More than two-thirds of them were condiments, candy and snacks, baked goods, soft drinks, cheese products, and ice cream novelties--much of it loaded with empty calories.

Second, companies keep making food more convenient, which is the single most important factor that sells food these days. The products that do well are often the ones we can eat on the run--in the car without getting the seat messy. That's why PowerBars and Big Macs are so popular.

Q: How does the food industry push us to overeat?

A: I eat out a lot, and portions are so huge that I can barely get through the appetizer. I certainly don't want an entree after that. Yet studies show that if a large portion is put in front of us, we'll eat more than if we were served a smaller portion. It's tough to say: "I'm not going to eat that much." And things are no better at fast-food restaurants, where the words "Would you like to supersize that?" must be in every chain's training manual.

Q: Why do we like big portions?

A: Because they're a great value. You don't have to be a math whiz to figure out that a large drink costs only a few cents more than a smaller one. Yet if they don't have too much ice, Double-Gulp-size drinks can deliver as many as 800 calories--at least a third of a day's quota for most people.

Q: What can we do about large portions?

A: We need to make it socially acceptable to eat less. Instead of making plates larger, restaurants could offer half-portions at, say, two-thirds the price. And waiters and waitresses could be told not to make patrons feel uneasy if they order just an appetizer or ask for water instead of a soft drink.

Q: Doesn't the government encourage people to eat healthy foods?

A: Yes, but the message gets lost in all the noise of the $30 billion a year that food companies spend on advertising and marketing. For example, in its peak year, the 5-a-Day campaign, which is sponsored by the National Cancer Institute and the produce industry to encourage people to eat fruits and vegetables, had all of $2 million for public advertising.

Stack that up against the $10 million annual budget for Altoid mints or the $50 million spent on any nationally advertised candy bar. Or the more than $100 million budget for a nationally advertised soft drink. Or the $1 billion McDonald's spends every year for marketing.

Q: What affects what we buy at the supermarket?

A: Placement of foods on the shelves has an enormous impact. There's huge competition for shelf space. That's why supermarkets can charge food companies slotting fees to get their products into the store. And it's why some healthful foods made by small companies never make it into the supermarket.

Companies pay a premium to put their foods at the end of an aisle, because shoppers spend more time going past them. And it's no accident that the dairy case is generally in the back or on a far side, so you have to pass the chips and other processed foods on your way to pick up your milk.

Q: Aren't people free to buy healthful foods if they want?

A: It always comes down to personal choice. But let's make it an informed choice. Once you understand how companies pressure you to buy processed foods instead of fruits and vegetables, or why the cashier asks if you want a large instead of a medium, you'll have a better shot at picking more healthful foods. And wouldn't it be easier not to overeat if restaurant menus divulged the calories in each dish?

The idea is to give people enough information so that they can vote with their wallets ... and their forks.

Marion Nestle is Professor and Chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University. She was managing editor of the 1988 Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health. Nestle is the author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (University of California Press, 2002). She spoke with NAH's Bonnie Liebman by telephone.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Center for Science in the Public Interest
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Author:Nestle, Marion
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2002
Words:823
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