New Georgetown University report challenges “junk food” tactics to reverse obesity

Stratospheric obesity rates in the United States are driving policies like taxing soft drinks, adding warning labels on package fronts and banning candy at retail checkout lanes. A new white paper published by Georgetown University’s Business for Impact Center challenges these practices and demonstrates that all indulgent foods and beverages are not created equal and, therefore, new tactics should be taken to tackle obesity.

Indulgent products, sometimes referred to as “junk foods,” are the target of the public health community because many deliver high levels of calories, sugar, sodium and/or saturated fats. The report examined key indulgent product categories – soft drinks, sweet baked goods, packaged pastries, cookies, chips and pretzels, packaged ice cream, and chocolate and non-chocolate candy – to gain a better understanding of the role these individual food categories have on diet and to assess the connection each has to obesity and the intake of less desirable nutrients.

The findings showed that two categories – soft drinks and sweet baked goods (i.e., packaged pastries, donuts, etc.) – were consumed the most and delivered the highest percentage of calories and added sugars to the diet. In contrast, chocolate and non-chocolate candy contributed the least of these nutrients, with smaller quantities overall consumed.

The study also illustrated that consumers exhibiting the highest rates of overweight and obesity were less likely to read nutrition information on package labels. And despite the fact that in markets or countries where soft drink taxes were imposed, sales of such items declined as expected but obesity rates did not. This suggests that these strategies are not ways to significantly move the needle on reversing obesity.

The Rise of Permissible Indulgence

Consumers are finding themselves in a conundrum coming through the Covid-19 crisis as many are more concerned about their health yet are purchasing more comfort and “junk foods” and did not want to forfeit these tasty luxuries. This quandary was spotlighted in a Natural Marketing Institute survey which showed that while 47% of consumers said they were eating more healthy food options, 40% said they were eating more comfort and “junk foods.”[i]

The consumer trend for healthier eating is real. Consulting firm Accenture
reported that 59% of consumers expect to continue shopping more health-consciously coming out of the pandemic. Yet, snacking is on the rise. The 2021 Mondelez State of Snacking report cites that 85% of consumers eat at least one snack for sustenance and one snack for indulgence each day.

This increase in health consciousness accompanied by a craving for indulgent foods suggests that the “permissible indulgence” trend will continue as consumers seek to treat themselves with snacks that were also aligned with their health, dietary and weight management goals.

What does this mean?

The evidence suggests that the public health community must shift its focus from reducing grams of offender ingredients to targeting solutions around products and practices that empirically tie to obesity.

A “one-size-fits-all” strategy of restricting or banning all indulgent products will be less effective. Rather, they should acknowledge that consumers are snacking more and are continuing to demand convenient and tasty indulgences. Pushing portion balance and control as a way to manage the intake of calories, added sugars, sodium and saturated fats will give consumers what they want while helping them manage their intake of less nutritious ingredients.

The findings also suggest that relying on taxation or labels to reverse the tide of obesity may not get the job done. Missing in the taxation equation is what do consumers shift to when they reduce consumption of the taxed item? Without substitution effect analysis, it is difficult to determine if this is a potentially effective strategy. Likewise, while companies owe their consumers to be transparent about what is in their products, those who need the most guidance read labels the least.

Concurrently, food companies must commit to furthering their portion control packaging. Several packaged foods industries have made commitments to reduce calories (e.g., the American beverage Association Balance Calories Initiative) or portions (e.g., the confectionery industry Always a Treat Initiative). These commitments show good progress and continued effort is needed, especially by less engaged food sectors such as sweet baked goods and restaurant chains.

The food industry must also up its R&D spending in order to make innovation more of a partner with marketing. R&D for food companies is a paltry 1-2% of revenues and augmenting the amount of dollars spent on R&D is necessary. Adding a new flavor to a food or beverage product is not a breakthrough. Delivering a snack or candy bar with reduced sugar that tastes as good as the original is an innovation.

The Bottom Line

To be more successful in addressing the nation’s obesity crisis, both the public health community and food companies need to pay attention to increasing consumer demand for “permissible indulgences.” Policies that take the default option to tax and ban all indulgent products will be met with consumer backlash. Conversely, food companies need to speed up delivery of better-for-you versions and smaller portions.

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