(March 4) WASHINGTON, D.C. — An apt illustration of the realities of food marketing in the U.S. is a comparison of the advertising budgets for the breath mint Altoids and the 5 a Day for Better Health campaign.

That contrast was drawn by Marion Nestle, author and chairwoman of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University and panelist at the Feb. 20 Agricultural Outlook conference workshop “Forces Shaping America’s Eating Habits.”

Noting that $10 million is spent each year to promote the “curiously strong” mint, she said that was five times the highest amount the produce industry has in a peak year to promote the national 5 a Day program.

The influence of food marketers is a significant part of the problem with the way Americans overeat, she said. The “weapons of mass expansion” are cheap junk food and pervasive advertising.

SIMPLE TRUTH

Nestle, author of the book “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health,” took aim at the culpability of food advertising in the obesity problem in the U.S. and the lack of government clarity in dietary advice.

The simple truth is that Americans need to eat less, and that’s one message the government isn’t giving, she said.

“If you are going to do something about obesity, people have to eat less,” she said.

Nestle said the business press has already highlighted the fact that fat is the next tobacco in public health. She said the business interests of the food industry would oppose efforts to curb consumption.

To its credit, the much-maligned Food Guide Pyramid does tell people to eat some foods more than others, Nestle said.

“It makes it clear that consumers should eat more fruits and vegetables and grains.”

WHY NO DIFFERENCE?

Despite the nutrition advice, she said consumer education isn’t working. Why not?

Nestle said the reasons people make food choices are related to convenience, personal preference and — perhaps most importantly — the marketing efforts of food companies.

The bottom line is that food is overproduced in the U.S., she said. That overproduction makes food cheap. Food represents 10% of American consumer spending, with each American having access to 3,800 calories per day.

“(Overproduction) is the big dark secret of American agriculture,” she said. “What that means is that if you are somebody that sells food products, you have to get people to eat your food or get people to eat more food ingredients.”

Indeed, she said the food industry has become adept at getting more Americans to eat more.

Leading food advertisers in 2001 were Nestle USA Inc., buying media placements worth $1.79 billion, McDonald’s Corp. at $1.4 billion in ads and PepsiCo. Inc., spending $1.13 billion.

Clearly, she said Americans are being “educated” about food from big food marketers, and not the government dietary recommendations. That has created a nearly inverted food pyramid, with heavy consumption of foods heavy with corn sweetener or high in fat.

She said health organizations and nutritionists can cloud the mind of consumers when they compromise standards to endorse unhealthy products. She noted the American Heart Association’ symbol and logo on boxes of Fruit Loops and Count Chocula cereal.

Large portions also weigh down consumers, she said. For example, a 64-ounce fountain soft drink at a well-known convenience store packs 800 calories. “The larger portion you put in front of somebody, the more people will eat,” she said.

To change dietary behavior, Nestle said, the government may have to impose more restrictions on how food advertising is used.
She said the government should state nutrition messages explicitly and advertise to consumers. Nestle advocates regulation of food marketing commercials to children, higher taxes on junk food and stricter regulation of junk food in schools.