Food veteran turned author chats with managing editor, Marina Mayer, and explains what’s really making Americans fat.

Hank Cardello has been an executive and adviser to some of the largest food and beverage companies in the world. For years, he watched food manufacturers ignore healthy product ideas just to boost the bottom line. He witnessed restaurants and grocery stores transform into “supersize” outlets by offering larger and larger portions with multiple sides. 

And he thinks food companies are not all to blame.

More than three decades later, Cardello wroteStuffed, An Insider’s Look at Who’s {Really} Making America Fat.Throughout this 243-page book, he chronicles how Americans became fat and offers suggestions and advice to food manufacturers, restaurant and grocery store managers, schools, parents and the media on how to curtail this nation’s obesity dilemma.

He also is the founder and CEO of 27° North, a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based advisory firm that helps corporations identify profit and market opportunities while solving social issues.

Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery’s managing editor, Marina Mayer, corresponded with Cardello to discuss food trends, the future of America’s health and to understand who really is to blame.

Here’s what he had to say:

Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery:You mention how the USDA Food Guide Pyramid is undergoing some enhancements. What kinds of changes do you foresee? How are these changes impacted by a raised awareness of food allergies, i.e., celiac disease?

Hank Cardello:While improvements have been made to the original Food Pyramid Guidelines (i.e., it no longer uses the metric measurement system), I remain skeptical of its effectiveness for several reasons:

a. The Pyramid focuses on individual ingredients or foodstuffs. In reality, consumers purchase combinations of foods, such as a cheeseburger, medium fries and a large soft drink. It would be a more useful tool if it provided those kinds of examples for better comprehension.

b. The model is predicated that consumers will voluntarily visit the site and change their dietary habits. Historically, this has not proven true. Modifying behavior is a long-term adjustment, if ever. 

c. It doesn’t deal with calories, the No. 1 contributing factor to America’s overweight and obesity epidemic.

I anticipate that the pyramid will incorporate more “need states,” such as senior nutrition and allergens. This remains to be seen. Acquiring information on food allergens and special condition diets will benefit more from new labeling initiatives and special condition Web sites than they will from the pyramid.

SF&WB:The chapter that really hit home for me was about the cupcake controversy – how some parents want to ban the snack in schools. To your knowledge, what are schools doing what to meet parents’ demands? How do you see bakeries and sweet good producers responding to this trend?

Cardello:Childhood obesity is finally a hot button. Some in the medical field have stated that our children will not live as long as we do because they are suffering earlier from obesity and diabetes. This is tragic and unacceptable. To that end, beverage vending machines in schools are being converted to contain lower calorie drinks and water. The program is in its third year and 80% of schools have already changed over.

Looking more broadly to snacks and other foods in schools, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Nutrition and Forestry Committee, anticipates working on legislation later this fall to give the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] the authority to oversee all food in schools, so nutrition programs are not undermined by poor nutrition foods in vending machines.

The smart baked goods producers will understand that they have an opportunity to market lower calorie, portion-control snacks, cupcakes, etc. for schools. This is not only better for our children, but also better for their profit margins. It also serves as a defensive measure in anticipation of regulatory action to limit or ban high-calorie baked goods in schools.

SF&WB:Some say childhood obesity starts at home. What advice do you have for parents when it comes to snacking and indulging on sweets and baked goods? What is your take on the government wanting to impose an obesity tax? How are schools and restaurants responding to this discussion?

Cardello:Obesity is not limited to any particular food category. It stems from a combination of ineffective government educational programs, our inability as consumers to stick with diets or exercise regimens and the food industry providing oversized portions. From a parent’s perspective, one key way to start containing calorie consumption is to purchase smaller portion sizes of the family’s favorite foods and snacks. I am a big fan of 100-calorie packs since they work. A University of Colorado at Denver study demonstrated that those eating only from 100-calorie packs consumed an average of 120 less calories a day when compared to those eating out of the large box. Even if not offering 100-calorie versions, most baked goods such as muffins now come in sizes/portions that deliver significantly lower calories. This is a trend that not only is good for the consumer’s waistline, but also the manufacturer’s bottom line. 

I am NOT in favor of a government-mandated obesity or “fat” tax. Proposals to tax sodas and candy do not solve the problem for several reasons:

a. Excess calories from any source are the issue. The goal should be to reduce calories wherever we can: smaller serving sizes, marketing budgets skewed to lower calorie products, etc. Taxing particular categories misses the boat. Portion sizes are the issue, not specific products.

b. Studies have shown that “fat” taxes will not make much of a dent in changing consumer consumption of the targeted products.

c. Taxes hurt consumers in their wallets, which is difficult to take in a recessionary environment.

As expected, restaurants and the food industry in general are against taxes. The response is more mixed from schools, since they need the revenue provided from these products, but have come to realize that something must be done to address the health needs of their students.

SF&WB:Today’s food trends revolve around terms such as low fat, 100 calorie, gluten free, all natural, and more. What do you see for the future in terms of Americans’ eating habits?

Cardello: It’s clear that more and more consumers are demanding wholesome, natural, organic and locally sourced products, including a description of origin, ingredient content and processing method. Just like the trend towards more environmental awareness and sustainability, the next wave for the food industry is “consumer sustainability.” It will no longer be enough to simply sell products without taking custodianship over your customer’s health. The Millennials, heavy consumers of baked goods and snacks, demand more social accountability. Those companies that step up on this measure will be the winners and secure their audience’s loyalty for the long term.

One outcome of this trend is the emergence of “micro marketing” activity targeting heretofore unattractive small categories. The reason is that social networks permit reaching a very tight audience with minimal marketing dollars. This is why products such as Betty Crocker gluten-free mixes can now make a handsome profit with modest sales. 

SF&WB:What aspects of dieting and healthy eating should consumers, manufacturers and the media pay more attention to?

Cardello: My philosophy on this issue runs contrarian to conventional wisdom. Every January, new diet books emerge and the media hypes these breakthroughs along with gym memberships, etc. This approach has proven ineffective for decades. Most consumers will continue to struggle with diets because they are deprived and are asked to change who they are, along with their adopted lifestyle. If someone is as regimented as a Navy Seal, dieting is no problem. But for the rest of us, how many will continue following a diet laid out minute-by-minute consisting of unpronounceable foods? Too much is required for change to stick.

Emphasis should be placed on marketing smaller portions of consumer’s favorite foods. This way there is no depravity and lower calories are consumed. This is how we will lose weight as a nation.

SF&WB: In your book, you discuss the “guiding star” system. Please explain what this system is about. What impact do you foresee this system having on the way Americans’ eat?

Cardello: “Guiding Stars” is a labeling system introduced by [Scarborough, Maine-based] Hannaford Brothers grocery chain. Its purpose is to make it easier for shoppers to quickly determine which products are more nutritious based on criteria developed by a panel of expert nutritionists. Similar programs like Smart Choices, Healthy Ideas and Nutrition iQ have popped up to steer consumers toward healthier foods. With the exception of Smart Choices, the major downside of these initiatives is that they do not focus prominently on calories. My preference is to keep things simple for the consumer – not load them up with too much information. That has been the problem with nutritional labeling and the Food Pyramid Guidelines. Rather, a simple banner declaring the calories inside a package – total and per serving – is all that is needed. If the calories are reduced, sugars and fats are sure to follow.

Bottom line, I believe that labeling information will be useful to consumers in choosing healthier foods provided the focus is on calories. Otherwise, confusion will remain.

Editor's Note: Look for this Q&A in the Snack Food Today section of our August 2009 issue.