(Nov. 18) SALINAS, Calif. — Well-funded food marketing campaigns by major companies are dwarfing efforts to get Americans to eat healthier and leading consumers to eat bigger and more frequent servings of unhealthy foods.

That’s the word from Marion Nestle, chairman of the department of nutrition and food studies at New York University, author of the book “Weighing in on the Politics of Food and Nutrition” and persona non grata of Restaurant Business magazine.

Nestle, whose name appeared with Osama bin Laden’s in a Restaurant Business “dishonor roll” of people who hurt foodservice after her book was published in 2002, spoke to an appreciative crowd of produce grower-shippers and nutrition experts Nov. 12 at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas.

EAT-MORE SOCIETY

Through big-dollar marketing, the U.S. has become an “eat-more society” in which food is cheap, varied, convenient and available everywhere and at any time, Nestle said. That means Americans — who eat more than half of their meals away from home — eat out more, eat more often and consume larger amounts, she said.

“Consciously or not, people who are following these practices are eating more than those who don’t,” Nestle said.

Even the recent additions of healthier fare such as salads to fast-food menus appear to be less of a sincere effort to get people to eat better than a way to offset potential lawsuits claiming quick-serve restaurants make people fat, Nestle said.

She pointed out that consumers can get a hamburger for a dollar or less at McDonald’s but that salads cost about $5.

Perhaps most insidious, she said, is how big food companies target their advertising at age and ethnic groups. For example, food companies use toys to create a “pester factor” to get kids to badger their parents into taking them out to eat.

BRAND LOYALTY

Companies also create a brand loyalty by coming out with books and other consumer goods with the name of the restaurant. She pointed to a “counting book” by Oreo that ostensibly helps children with math — by getting them to count down from 10 cookies to zero. Oreos, by the way, have about 50 calories per cookie.

“It’s no wonder kids are fat,” she said.

In another prime example of building on a fast-food brand, a day after her speech, McDonald’s announced that it was introducing a line of clothing for children.

Other techniques food companies use are to convince kids they don’t need to eat “adult” food or to offer schools much-needed money in exchange for installing their soda vending machines or food kiosks.

Complicating matters are the claims that the federal government now allows food companies to make. The government used to make food companies making health claims undergo Food and Drug Administration testing, but once the rules were relaxed it opened the way for foods like Lucky Charms cereal to get a Heart Check label on the basis that it is low in fat, she said.

To lighten America’s increasingly weighed-down scales, the country needs to set national goals for obesity prevention and make them work, state the nutrition message of each food explicitly, eliminate food marketing in schools, regulate advertising to kids, eliminate farm supports and regulate campaign finance controls so candidates won’t feel beholding to the interests of major food companies, Nestle said.

Sue Foerster of the California Department of Health Services said that just as there is evidence that all the advertising for unhealthy food products is increasing sales, there also is evidence that people are more aware of the 5 a Day message during periods when a 5 a Day campaign is being conducted.

“When we have even a modest public campaign, the numbers go up,” Foerster told the lunch audience. “Policy can make a big difference whether we’re promoting fruits and vegetables or whether we’re promoting junk food, whether we’re promoting physical activity or whether we’re promoting inactivity.”

GOOD NEWS

But things aren’t all doom and gloom.

Tom Stenzel, president of Washington D.C.-based United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, pointed out that the produce industry is making strides to get people to eat healthier. The pilot program in four states that gives elementary schoolchildren a piece of produce each day is one.

By becoming more politically active now, the produce industry can help the country become healthier while also helping itself financially, Stenzel said.

“There has never been a more important time for our industry to get involved,” he said.

The Nov. 12 event was the second of four ag forums scheduled at the Steinbeck Center this fall and winter. The next one will feature consumer reporter Michael Finney in a Jan. 21 presentation of a program called “Is the Customer Always Right? How Consumer Perceptions Shape Our Food.”