Commentary: Needed: More Bite To Fight Fat

Without stronger federal guidelines, foodmakers will keep pushing junk

Forget the Atkins Diet, the South Beach Diet, and other low-carb regimens. The latest thing in food is simply eating less. Says who? No less than the federal government, which told the public in its new dietary guideline that the secret to better health is to count calories and exercise. The Jan. 12 advice easily made its way into newscasts and the nation's newspapers. "Do you want to look better? Do you want to feel better?" asked outgoing Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. "You lower your calorie intake, you lower your fats, your carbs, you eat more fruits and vegetables."

So what's the food industry's response? Yawn. While some giants already have begun improving the quality of processed foods -- PepsiCo Inc. (PEP ) got rid of unhealthy trans fats in its Frito Lay snacks in 2003 -- most will pretty much continue pushing the same old stuff. Little wonder. These foods may be bad for you, but many people like to eat them. The new guidelines are unlikely to change that, if the past is any guide. "People simply don't pay any attention to them," says Kelly D. Brownell, director of Yale University's Center for Eating & Weight Disorders and author of Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America's Obesity Crisis, and What We Can Do About It.

In large part that's because the suggestions are only that -- suggestions. Moreover, the industry makes most of its money selling products packed with fat or sugar, or both, so it has little incentive to initiate changes that consumers aren't clamoring for. The government has done little to single out foods that consumers should shun, and it isn't spending much to get the word out. "The real nutritional education in this country comes from the food industry," says Brownell. "And nearly every one of their lessons is bad."

Because they're so vague, the eating recommendations aren't likely to help class-action lawyers looking to hold the food industry responsible for America's rise in obesity, either. Many attorneys who helped bring cigarette makers to their knees boasted that they would do the same thing to food companies. But ever since an obesity suit against McDonald's Corp. (MCD ) was tossed out in 2003, plaintiffs' lawyers have been quiet. Bringing a class action today requires serious venue shopping. The industry has won immunity or reduced liability from obesity suits in 14 states, including Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Washington. "It would take some real fast footwork on the part of attorneys to use these guidelines in their favor," says Dr. David L. Katz, director of Yale's Prevention Research Center and author of The Way to Eat.

Of course, some food companies see a payoff from better-for-you products. Food is a notoriously slow-growth business, with sales increasing only about as fast as the population, or a few percentage points a year. To achieve better-than-ordinary results, companies need breakout products -- and no category is hotter today than health foods. Sales of organic products, for instance, have been rising by almost 20% a year since 1997, to an estimated $12.25 billion in 2004. To be sure, that's a sliver of the total market. But as some consumers turn away from foods with trans fats -- the partially hydrogenated oils that can lead to clogged arteries -- there's clearly money in catering to that niche.

Much of the industry's health initiative appears cosmetic, however. While McDonald's markets veggies to diet-conscious moms, its restaurants still make fries in vats of trans fats, despite a promise in 2002 to switch to a healthier substitute. Likewise, Kraft Foods Inc. (KFT ) won public-relations points by announcing it would quit hawking junk food on TV to kids under 12, just as the government issued its dietary guidelines. But Kraft is still slapping SpongeBob SquarePants and other characters on everything from macaroni and cheese to fruit snacks. The government can set recommendations, but unless they have real bite, foodmakers will continue to help Americans stuff their faces.

By Michael Arndt with Adrienne Carter in Chicago, Catherine Arnst in New York, and bureau reports

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