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Change In the Food Industry

Coca-cola Australia wants to be part of the fight against obesity, but if its products are part of the problem, is it possible to also be part of the solution? 

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Last night Coca-Cola Australia launched its new television commercial – a one-minute long clip focusing on their commitment to actively becoming part of the solution to the obesity epidemic. You can view the clip below.

Through innovation, information and choices, Coca-Cola Australia has committed to the following steps:

  1. Increasing the availability of smaller portion sizes such as their 200ml mini cans, which are currently available in 80 per cent of supermarkets. 
  2. Offer more low kilojoule beverage options and work with food scientists and nutritionists on including natural, low kilojoule sweeteners.
  3. Provide transparent nutritional information in more places such as on vending machines.
  4. Help the community get moving by supporting physical activity programs such as supplying bicycles to local communities.

But with their commitment now made public, along will come the criticism. Many may think this PR blitz is simply Coca-Cola Australia’s move to protect their market share and show self-regulation rather than wait for government driven legislation. Others may think this is a passive initiative when research has associated their products, namely sweetened beverages, with weight gain and obesity, as well as diabetes and tooth decay (check out the research in my older post Big Gulp No More). But, before you start to criticise the initiative, I want to draw your attention to a piece written by Michael Moss in the NY Times, which is an article adapted from his book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (published by Random House).

A Quick Overview

Salt, sugar fatMichael Moss’ article for the NY Times titled The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, actually forms the Prologue in his book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. In his piece, Moss discusses the gathering of eleven men – all the heads of America’s largest food companies – who on this day in 1999 were meeting to discuss the emerging epidemic of obesity and how to deal with it. This meeting was headed by food scientist James Behnke and a handful of other food-science experts who were worried about the rise in childhood obesity and the associated health concerns. According to Moss, Michael Mudd, a vice president of Kraft was the first speaker who presented over a hundred slides discussing the facts on obesity in America, the blame the food industry was facing for their contribution to the obesity epidemic and Mudd even went as far as comparing the food industry to the tobacco industry for mimicking their actions of advertising their products to children. Mudd then presented the solution – the use of food industry scientists to research and gain a better understanding of what drives us to overeat. They would then implement industry wide limits to reduce the use of salt, sugar and fat, and develop a “code to guide the nutritional aspects of food marketing, especially to children.” In summary, Mudd was proposing that the food industry as a whole make a collective decision to become part of the obesity solution, reformulating their products and regulating their advertisements. Starting to give the food industry a little bit of credit yet?

Well, what Moss reported next may have any affection you are beginning to show towards the food industry, start to melt away. According to Moss, the CEO of General Mills, Stephen Sanger, put a holt to any further discussions, as his company “had the most to lose when it came to dealing with obesity.” He felt it wasn’t about nutrition, only about taste and cutting out the salt, sugar and fat would lead to poor tasting products. Sanger would not make any changes to his products and according to Moss, he urged the other CEOs to do the same. The meeting ended there and then.

Back to Coca-Cola’s Journey

I’m sure after reading the above summary of Moss’ article you’re criticising the lack of corporate social responsibility shown by the American food industry in failing to initiate proactive steps towards becoming part of the solution for obesity. If actions had been taken back in 1999, we may already have started to see a reduction in obesity rates. While we can sit here now and criticise the American food industry’s lack of action, many of us are probably also criticising the Australian food industry for trying to show some initiative. Some of us may say if food industry really wanted to help they would stop making high fat, high sugar and high salt products altogether, but then the other critics would come out and say we’re being a “nanny state” or food choices are up to the individual. Criticism against change will always be there, but it shouldn’t stop us implementing initiatives to improve our health.

While Coca-Cola Australia’s commitment is a step in the right direction that will hopefully inspire other food companies to promote health and wellbeing, there is still a lot more that needs to be done to help combat the obesity epidemic. Coca-Cola Australia’s initiative does not change the fact that their products should be considered as discretionary items, which do not form part of our day-to-day food choices. While reductions in portion sizes is an important component for weight management, it still remains up to the individual to reduce the overall amount of food and drink they choice to put into their mouth. For the best success, the fight against the obesity epidemic needs to focus on a collaborative approach between food industry, government and health professionals to develop strategies that improve our food supply, promote physical activity, emphasis the importance of getting adequate sleep and reducing stress, and educate consumers on healthy eating options and making positive behaviour changes. Consumers need to be inspired to want to make the healthy choice, not just for weight management, but to improve their health and wellbeing on all levels.

 What do you think of Coca-Cola Australia’s commitment to being a part of the obesity solution?

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