Viewpoints

Daniel Weintraub: What’s bad for the bottom line is good for our waistlines

Kraft Velveeta rotini and cheese is displayed at a grocery in Pittsburgh. On Aug. 12, Kraft Heinz announced it would cut about 2,500 jobs as part of its plan to slash costs after the food companies combined.
Kraft Velveeta rotini and cheese is displayed at a grocery in Pittsburgh. On Aug. 12, Kraft Heinz announced it would cut about 2,500 jobs as part of its plan to slash costs after the food companies combined. Associated Press file

If you want to know about Americans’ changing food preferences, read the business page.

A spate of “bad news” stories in recent weeks and months might actually be good news for the long-term health of the country.

Profits at Kraft Foods – the massive processed foods conglomerate – have been plunging, forcing the company to accept a mega-merger with another food-packaging giant, Heinz. Sales at McDonald’s – the world’s biggest restaurant chain – are down, and visits to other fast-food outlets are also lagging. And Pepsi recently announced it is reformulating its diet cola recipe in response to consumer complaints and declining sales.

All of these stories are an indication that Americans are paying more attention to what they eat and drink with an eye toward improving their health. The change looks more like evolution than revolution. It’s coming in fits and starts, and sometimes what looks like change is really just public relations and marketing.

But it is clear that people have been getting the message that whole foods are almost always better for you than packaged foods, that fast food and soda are unhealthy, and that too much added sugar is a major cause of obesity.

The change is hitting some of America’s most iconic food companies where it hurts, in the bottom line.

Kraft’s profits plunged by 60 percent last year as consumers lost their appetite for such classics as Jell-O and macaroni and cheese. Last month the company merged with Heinz to form Kraft Heinz Co. The new entity is the world’s fifth-largest food and beverage company. Executives hope a round of cost cutting will help offset the revenue both firms are losing to declining sales.

But many analysts think the marriage is going to be a rocky one because Americans, especially young adults, are increasingly turning away from processed foods. They are also losing their taste for fast food.

McDonald’s sales have been dropping for three years and were down another 2 percent in the second quarter, pushing profits down as well. And it’s not just the Golden Arches. Traffic at all hamburger chains has declined by 3 percent in the past five years, even as the economy has been growing and overall restaurant visits are up slightly.

The soda industry, meanwhile, has been fighting the perception that its sugary concoctions are a cause of diabetes, one of the most prevalent and expensive chronic diseases in America. Carbonated soft drink sales peaked in 2004 and have declined every year since then. While Coke and Pepsi still dominate the market, those giants have seen the biggest drop in sales, losing market share to smaller brands.

And it’s not just an aversion to sugar. Consumers have also rebelled at sugar substitutes that are suspected of having bad health effects. Earlier this month Pepsi changed its diet soda recipe, removing Aspartame, a controversial sweetener, and replacing it with a blend of sucralose.

Other changes in consumer tastes are prompting a huge expansion of the organic food industry and leading nearly every food company in America to do what it can to promote more wholesome or natural ingredients. Many of those claims are flimsy, but the point is that consumers want fewer additives and chemicals in their food, and producers are getting that message.

It may be too early to say that America is becoming a healthier place. But it’s not too soon to suggest that a decades-long decline in health driven by poor food choices might be coming to an end.

Daniel Weintraub is editor of the California Health Report at www.healthycal.org.

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