It took me a while, but I now realize that a small plastic bag labeled Men’s Health symbolizes a lot about how we Americans are struggling with a devastating obesity epidemic even when we try to eat healthier.
Immediately when I saw the bag I figured it was my kind of snack. Men’s Health was in big red letters. Manly! Healthy! In smaller red letters, it offered “9 grams of PROTEIN.” Hey, great! Not some effete veggie snack. Plus 9 vitamins and minerals. A “good source” of fiber. And since the bag was small, it couldn’t be many calories, right?
I tried a pack. Loved ‘em. Tasty, nutritious. Why? They’re nuts, pure and simple: almonds, peanuts and pistachios. But I felt a lot better about them since they were packaged as healthy.
So it goes. As we Americans continue to get fatter, we turn toward healthy foods. Or rather, foods labeled healthy. The average American consumes daily 2.6 items that are labeled healthy, says Harry Balzer, a longtime food industry analyst who creates the annual report Eating Patterns in America.
Note he didn’t say healthy foods. Raw fruits and vegetables don’t count. The 2.6 are items branded healthy: Low-fat, low-sodium, heart-friendly, low-cholesterol, “high in antioxidants” or best of all “diet.”
So why aren’t Americans getting skinnier? For one thing, we don’t get too carried away. But we don’t get too carried away. Lisa Katic, a food industry consultant, said last spring at a University of Colorado obesity conference that Kraft tried marketing “low-sodium” Triscuits. Didn’t sell well. Now Kraft sells “Triscuits with a Hint of Salt.” They sell much better, though they contain the same amount of salt as the “low-sodium” crackers.
“This has been an issue for 20 years,” Katic told me last month. “The industry wants to make changes to make food healthier, but they don’t want customers saying, ‘Oh oh, it’s not going to taste good.’ The number one reason they buy food is taste.”
Many consumers see low-something and think “you’re taking away something from me. That’s why a ‘hint of salt’ sounds more positive,” said Katic. “With some nutrients, lower is good. I don’t think ‘hint of fat’ would work.”
For all the attention we pay to healthy foods, our waistlines keep expanding. More than a third of Americans are now obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and the trend continues upward.
In some ways, we’re getting better, says Balzar, the analyst. Consumption of some sugar-laden offerings, such as carbonated drinks, has declined in recent years. Cookies are also trending down.
Katic credits Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign with helping trigger Americans into eating better. “The industry has been working on this for 10 years before she came in, but she was able to kind of step in and move the needle a little bit further.”
But only a bit. Balzer says sales of “reduced fat” products have been declining in recent years. Americans instead rush toward “what’s new. The big issue today is the growing sales of ‘gluten-free.’”