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Corporate America Cuts Down on Fat

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Knight Ridder Newspapers


KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Corporate America appears to be putting us on a diet.

American Italian Pasta is curbing carbohydrates. Applebee's is adding Weight Watchers items to its menus. Kraft is sucking fat out of some of its foods. And McDonald's is lightening up with salads.

Those are just a sampling of recent headlines addressing obesity in food-obsessed, overweight America.

Some wonder whether it is a sincere effort on the part of an industry that collectively spends billions of dollars annually encouraging us to wolf down their products. Others speculate that the ingredients of change include the threat of government mandates, media scrutiny and fear of anti-tobacco-style litigation.

But if the food industry really is putting its money where its mouth is, will the efforts toward a slimmed-down America work or will we just continue to pig out on fat, calories and carbs?

"All these pressures are coming to bear down on the industry - bad press, fear of litigation, the government, health care - so it has no choice but to respond," said Bob Messenger, who publishes "The Morning Cup," a trade industry newsletter.

"But at the same time consumers still demand super-sized, fattening food," Messenger said. "Now the industry is in a Catch-22 - they're trying to respond but won't respond as much as the legal or wellness communities want, because consumers won't buy it."

Few would argue that obesity in America literally has become a huge problem that comes with an estimated annual price tag of $117 billion.

Depending on who is asked, the percentage of adults in the United States who are considered obese ranges from 25 percent to 60 percent. Recent alarms also have been sounded over the growing number of overweight children and soaring rates of the type of diabetes caused by obesity.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is a longtime, self-appointed food police that has dissed everything including pizza, ice cream and Chinese food. The center's Web site has a fascinating list of tidbits aimed at illustrating the supersizing of America.

The list includes:

A new mandate by the Federal Aviation Administration for airlines to add 10 pounds to approved passenger weights.

News of doctors using longer needles to penetrate thicker layers of fat.

The fact that Target, Gap and Limited Too are selling plus-sized clothing for children.

And news that some makers of home scales have increased top weight ranges from 270-300 pounds to 330-400 pounds.

How we got to this point has been debated ad nauseam.

Often lost in the debate is the complicity of the Food and Drug Administration in the fattening of America.

"There are elements of the labeling that are very misleading, and yet studies show people do look at them, that they do affect their purchases," said John F. Banzhaf III, a Boston lawyer active in suing Big Tobacco and now Big Food. Among other things, he recently helped win $12 million from McDonald's.

By the end of 1994, the FDA started requiring manufacturers to use standardized, uniform labeling on its products, including the number of servings per package, calories, fat, sodium, sugars and carbohydrates.

The move was widely hailed as an important tool to help consumers understand what they were consuming.

But unbeknownst to many, food manufacturers, with the blessing of the FDA, have wide latitude.

When the FDA designed its program, it came up with reference portions - what one person reasonably would consume in one sitting. For instance, the FDA's reference portion for a soft drink is 8 ounces.

Food manufacturers fought for and won the right to, under some circumstances, increase a reference portion on some products by up to 200 percent and still call it a single serving.

"Look, there's so much play in the guidelines set down, and the FDA probably needs their ears pinned back," Messenger said. "But the manufacturers, they're still capitalists at heart. They will do it because they can and because it adds to their bottom line."

Indeed, Kraft Foods said capitalism was part of its equation in the development of a multitude of initiatives to address obesity.

The food giant is putting a cap on serving portions significantly lower than the 200 percent reference portions currently allowed. The company is also eliminating in-school marketing and conducting an extensive effort to take fat and calories out of some of its products.

Kraft spokesman Michael Mudd said that since the company revealed its plans, four motive theories had emerged.

"Was it for public health, was it for public relations, was it litigation or was it a business opportunity?" Mudd said. "The answer is yes to all those factors.

"We do feel a strong sense of responsibility, we do want the public to think highly of us, and we would prefer not to be sued, and if we can prosper along the way, so much the better."

Convenience, a major factor in what America eats, was part of the appeal in the deal announced last month between Overland Park-based Applebee's International Inc. and Weight Watchers International. The companies plan to jointly develop more healthful menu items.

"We're going to provide our guests with a choice, and we're going to make it easy for them," said John Cywinski, chief marketing officer for Applebee's. "We've been just floored by the outpouring of unsolicited e-mails and calls coming our way - the consumer response has taken me a bit by surprise."

Lauren Swann, a registered dietitian and marketing consultant to the food industry, applauds any moves to help people live a more healthful lifestyle. Sometimes, she said, that industry drive can take more research effort and may cost the consumer more money at the checkout line.

Then there's the whole Atkins low carbohydrate/high protein diet craze.

Last month Kansas City-based American Italian Pasta announced a deal to produce low-carb pasta under the Atkins label, which has identified more than 100 categories in which to introduce products.

Suzanna Eygabroat, with Productscan, which tracks grocery products, said that last year there were 13,542 new packaged goods introduced and stocked on grocery shelves.

"There's definitely a trend toward the better-for-you products category, but what's better for you is defined differently by different people," Eygabroat said.

Whether consumers will embrace such products remains unclear.

Meanwhile, the finger pointing continues. Banzhaf places the blame squarely on the food industry but is slightly encouraged by some of the changes taking place.

"It's a tiny step in the right direction motivated by litigation and fear of litigation," Banzhaf said. "But in my view, it's far insufficient to do much in terms of protecting them from liability."

Swann, the dietitian, said she thought that litigation against Big Food was ridiculous. "But the end result is we want to have a public that's capable of making informed eating decisions, and if the route to do that is sue McDonald's, it gets us closer to the goal."

Eygabroat disagreed: "It's the fatal flaw that puts the fault in the hands of the manufacturers even if food portions are too big and unhealthy, because that's what people want."

Todd Hultquist of the Food Marketing Institute has an all-inclusive vision.

"Tackling obesity is a family mission, but there are other players too, including retailers and manufacturers," Hultquist said. "People have been asking for healthier alternatives, and now they're getting them."

Mudd, with Kraft, said that if people had not been clamoring for changes, Kraft would not be incurring significant costs to undertake its litany of initiatives.

"Obesity is one of the most important public health issues facing the world," Mudd said. "To us the cost of doing nothing would probably be the highest cost of all."

(C) 2003 Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.. All Rights Reserved

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