Mass-market confusion: Now fat is good for you

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It turns out the obesity panic was all just a big, fat misunderstanding.

And that's bad news for confused consumers-who no longer know what to believe about their eating habits-as well as food and beverage marketers that spent the past year proclaiming their newfound religion on healthful eating.

A study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control contradicts last year's CDC research showing that obesity causes 400,000 premature deaths annually and was close to overtaking tobacco as the grim reaper's favorite helper. The CDC said in a widely quoted article in the Journal of the American Medical Association last week that people who are overweight but not extremely obese have lower risk of death than those of normal weight.

CONFLICTED

The research is the latest in more than a decade of conflicting pronouncements from the government and other researchers regarding obesity, alcohol, carbohydrates, exercise and health.

"The level of dissonance created by conflicting reports has created almost a complex among consumers," said Tom Pirko, president of beverage consultancy Bevmark. "They don't know who to believe. They don't know what to believe. It breeds cynicism, and that's a breeding ground for charlatans and others to take advantage. ... It's a giant mess."

Coming less than two weeks before the food industry's biggest show of the year, the Food Marketing Institute convention in Chicago, the news calls into question the rationale underpinning health-oriented marketing and PR initiatives that the likes of Kraft Foods, General Mills and PepsiCo spent millions developing.

"We plan to stay the course on our health and wellness initiatives," said a spokeswoman for Kraft. "There's still a substantial amount of other research saying that obesity is an issue." Representatives for General Mills and PepsiCo did not return calls.

hedging bets

To be sure, marketers were already hedging their bets on obesity. Kraft on April 19 reported first-quarter net revenue up a stronger-than-usual 6.4% on the strength of Nabisco 100-Calorie Packs-along with DiGiorno microwaveable pizzas and new ads for Miracle Whip.

"As a consumer, I get confused," said Tanios Viviani, VP-fresh-cut fruit for Chiquita Brands International, which is making an even bigger bet on more healthful eating with its pending acquisition of Fresh Express packaged salads. "So many opinions are coming from so many sides."

For its part, Chiquita still supports the government's Five-a-Day marketing program, despite U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines this year recommending nine daily servings of vegetables and fruits and other medical research suggesting that eating more fruits and vegetables doesn't really cut cancer risk.

"We think the trends still are toward reducing the caloric content in sodas, which is what we want to do," said Peter Van Stolk, Chairman-CEO of Jones Soda Co. The first time a research finding gets reported, he said, "I think it gets lost. You have to see it three, four, five times. Before that, I think consumers just block it out."

The latest CDC research, by looking at death rates rather than chronic disease, is "really very deceiving," said Jeff Dufresne, president of Brandstorm, a unit of Northlich, Cincinnati, that does new-product consulting for several clients in food, beverage and health care. Many older people lose significant weight before they die, which he believes affected the study, but he said improving quality of life requires preventing such obesity-related conditions as diabetes and hypertension well before people reach that point.

"This kind of study is just dangerous for consumers, because at best they get confused, and at worst they say this is one more reason to have an extra bag of chips or not work out," Mr. Dufresne said.

Come again?

Headlines like these contribute to media and consumer confusion

On exercise:

Can exercise kill? The answer: Yes, and more often than you think

--Wall Street Journal, Oct. 11, 2004

Brain dead from sports drinks

--New York Times, April 14, 2005

On drinking:

Red wine may have potential as potion for the blood’s ills

--New York Times , Aug. 14, 1991

Less illness found in beer drinkers

--New York Times, Dec. 18, 1985

On low-carb:

New research lends weight to the effect of low-carb diet in the short term

--Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2004

Low-carb diets aggravate U.S.’s fiber deficit

--Wall Street Journal, Sept. 8, 2004

On obesity:

Death rate from obesity gains fast on smoking

--New York Times, March 10, 2004

New study further downplays obesity’s deadliness

--Wall Street Journal, April 20, 2005

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