May 1, 2004
by Nick Roskelly
People always snap and think they’re Jesus. How come no one ever snaps and thinks they’re Buddha? Particularly in America, where more people resemble Buddha than Jesus?” Comedian Bill Hicks made this observation more than a decade ago. And though the obesity problem in the United States is nothing to laugh about, it’s nothing new, either.
However, in the past couple of years, obesity issues have edged further into the public spotlight. Awareness of the nation’s health crisis has permeated the homes of America, with 93.8% of U.S. households indicating a concern with obesity, according to the American Obesity Association. Across the board, media outlets remind American consumers that they’re unhealthy. Reports and associated dialogue now extend beyond essential health problems caused by obesity into areas such as medical insurance costs and other financial challenges the obesity epidemic presents. The economics of obesity have played a role in launching American obesity toward the height of consumer awareness.
New research and reports are published nearly everyday concerning obesity. Researchers, scientists, doctors and personal trainers are among the hundreds of professionals attempting to answer or provide a means of responding to obesity issues. These groups of individuals are aware of the momentum behind American obesity and the super effort it will take to curb health problems associated with the disease.
The food and beverage industry initially felt pressure to answer all the problems associated with the disease. That pressure is beginning to wane, as many companies including Kraft Foods, Kellogg Co. and Sara Lee make adjustments to product lines to offer consumers healthier alternatives. Fast food and quick-service restaurants are also on board with healthier offerings. McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King and smaller operations like Baja Fresh are all appealing to consumers with healthier products. Blimpie has even placed nutritional information for food items directly on its menu. And restaurant chains like Applebee’s have indicated how many points particular menu items carry when measured by diet plans like Weight Watchers.
To a large degree, food and beverage companies within retail and foodservice arenas have responded to consumer demand for healthier new products and alternatives. One of the key opportunity areas manufacturers have pursued is the formulation of low-carbohydrate products. A slew of low-carb products across categories from ice cream to bread to beer to chips have entered the marketplace in the past year. Though some see low-carb products as short-term remedies for health issues in the United States, consumer interest generated by such products is undeniable.
Products bearing the Atkins label make up only a fraction of the number of new low-carb products entering the market. In addition, manufacturers are reformulating existing lines to reduce amounts of not only carbohydrates, but components such as trans fatty acids and high fructose corn syrup that can lead to health problems associated with obesity.
But despite efforts on the part of food manufacturers to introduce new, healthier products that meet consumer demand, the industry as a whole is still experiencing accusation. Recently, the federal government issued a response to research that absolved the food industry of sole responsibility for the obesity epidemic.
Last month, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a trade group representing food manufacturers, brought concerns about a recent World Health Organization (WHO) report to the federal government. President George W. Bush and his administration challenged the report, which outlined steps for the nation to take to reduce obesity.
Administration officials questioned the science behind some of the recommendations, such as limiting food advertising aimed at children and limiting fats, salt and sugary drinks.
Objections to the 160-page report were laid out in a letter sent to the United Nations agency by William Steiger, a special assistant for international affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Steiger said the WHO report did not adequately address an individual’s responsibility to balance one’s diet with physical activities, and objected to singling out specific types of foods, such as those high in fat and sugar.
He said the U.S. government “favors dietary guidance that focuses on the total diet, promotes the view that all foods can be part of a healthy and balanced diet, and supports personal responsibility to choose a diet conducive to individual energy balance, weight control and health.”
In the end, lifestyles play as significant a role as diet does in the overall health of individuals. The federal government adopts that perspective, which should allow food and beverage manufacturers the freedom to do their job — create new products that meet consumer demand. The government’s statement should give marketers reason to focus on lifestyle, physical activity and a holistic approach to health beyond diet.
The demand for healthier new products is larger than ever. The International Obesity Task Force estimates that 300 million people worldwide are obese and 750 million more are overweight, including 22 million children under the age of five. Approximately 127 million adults in the U.S. are overweight, 60 million obese, and 9 million severely obese.
The number of adults who are overweight or obese has continued to increase. Currently, 64.5% of U.S. adults, age 20 years and older, are overweight and 30.5% are obese. Severe obesity prevalence is now 4.7%, up from 2.9% reported in the 1988 - 1994 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In regard to children, the American Obesity Association reports that approximately 30.3% of children (ages 6 to 11) are overweight and 15.3% are obese. For adolescents (ages 12 to 19), 30.4% are overweight and 15.5% are obese.
According to the National Institutes of Health, one in seven adolescents is obese, and childhood obesity is a national “epidemic.” The agency also claims that diseases once only seen in adults — hypertension, arteriosclerosis, diabetes and high cholesterol — are now hitting children. Some research suggests that approximately one-third of children in the United States will develop diabetes. Though some studies yield slightly different figures in regard to child obesity, most concur that the increased weight of American children is edging toward epidemic proportions.
Editor’s Note: Nick Roskelly is the Managing Editor of Stagnito’s New Products magazine, a Stagnito Communications publication.