Up and Down the Street

Seeking Solutions for Health and Nutrition Concerns
by Ann Przybyla Wilkes
V.P. of CommunicationsSnack Food Association
An interdisciplinary approach is needed to find solutions to the rising levels of obesity, said Nancy M. Childs, professor of food marketing, Saint Joseph’s University, as she opened a seminar on, “Obesity: Understanding Issues, Seeking Solutions.” The seminar, held June 4, was sponsored by the Saint Joseph’s University’s Haub School of Business.
Suggesting that quick fixes won’t work, Edwin Slaughter, director of advertising and trends research, Rodale Inc., questioned why sweetened cereal, foodservice and others in the food industry are being blamed. They were around in 1968 when obesity levels were much lower than today, he noted.
Slaughter added that we need to think carefully about what the solution is, including looking at family and social structures. Reporting on research concerning obesity in kids, aged 10 to 17, that was conducted for Prevention magazine (published by Rodale), he explained that while the statement, “inactivity and poor diet leads to obesity,” is true with adults, it is not as true with kids. The telephone survey included interviews with 372 kids ages 10-17 and 700 parents of kids ages 10-17. Interviewing took place from April 19 to May 26, 2004, and was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates.
The survey found that the quality or type of diet eaten did not have a significant impact on obesity levels. However, the prevalence of exercise is related to obesity. Slaughter expressed concern that few kids have a genuinely good/healthy diet. Yet, he stressed the need to not use food as a scapegoat. The survey noted that 15% of these children who do not eat snacks from vending machines are obese versus 13% who have two or more snacks a day from vending machines, showing that snacks from vending machines are not affecting obesity levels.
The good news, according to Slaughter, is that 71% of kids, aged 10-17, are not overweight despite the increasing prevalence of obesity. One of the best ways to reduce the chance of obesity in children is to have dinner at home, he said. The type of food served does not affect obesity levels. In homes where dinner is prepared everyday, 21% of kids, aged 10-17, are obese, compared to 37% where dinner is not prepared at home everyday. Eating breakfast was also found to be important in reducing obesity levels. According to the survey, 40% of 10 to 17 year olds who do not eat breakfast are obese compared to 25% of those who do.
Another important finding, said Slaughter, was that 76% of the kids in the survey want to exercise and/or play with their parents, while only 69% of kids’ parents actually do play/exercise with them.
Yet, kids whose parents exercise with them are much more likely to have healthy weights.
Communicating With Consumers
If you’re going to communicate with consumers about obesity, you need to understand their language, said Harvey Hartman, president of The Hartman Group, Inc. Food is overwhelming to consumers, he explained, adding that consumers want to improve their health but they want a simple way to accomplish this.
Last December, The Hartman Group conducted a survey over the Internet on consumers’ view of obesity. The survey included 5,000 respondents. Among the findings was that consumers do not blame manufacturers and retailers for the “obesity problem,” rather they see it entirely as an issue of personal responsibility. Although most consumers understand obesity as the natural consequence of everyday food consumption and lack of physical activity, they do see the correlation between obesity and disease. Most consumers are motivated to lose weight by the desire “to look better” than by health concerns.
The survey also found that consumers place a premium on having choices. They want healthy food options, but they also want indulgent options.
Hartman recommended that companies assist consumers in the understanding of portion sizes. Potential options include offering pre-divided portions within each package or offering individually wrapped portions, he suggested. Because many of the barriers to effective portion size control lie well beyond the domain of food manufactures, companies should position themselves as sympathetic to portion size issues.
Whether or not increases in snacking have played a major role in the rise of obesity, snacking behavior is largely “invisible” to consumers, noted Hartman. For this reason, he said, it will be difficult to appeal to consumers concerned about weight by marketing snacks that rely solely or primarily on low-fat, low-carb or low-calorie attributes. He concluded by suggesting that most consumers trying to manage their weight are seeking “healthy” options, and for consumers, that means fresh, balanced, authentic, and “homemade”, as well as convenient and easy to prepare.
Editor’s Note: This column shows that the pulse of the industry is felt “up and down the street,” where sales and marketing efforts influence consumers in a variety of retail venues — from “mom and pop” stores to warehouse clubs — snack products return profits for manufacturers and retailers alike.
As always, the SFA welcomes your comments and ideas for future “Up and Down the Street” columns. Please send them to SFA’s Vice President of Communications Ann Wilkes at awilkes@sfa.org or call her at 703.836.4500 ext. 204.