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CHICAGO -The companies that make Big Macs, Oreo cookies and Coke want Americans to know that good health and proper nutrition are at the top of their agendas.
U.S. health experts, concerned about the growing problem of obesity, are more than a little skeptical, even as they welcome any effort to provide healthful choices and nutritional information to increasingly overweight consumers.
In the face of mounting evidence of the health risks of high-fat foods and lawsuits aimed at the junk food industry, big names like Kraft and McDonald's say they are changing their approach to fat content, menu choices and marketing.
But health experts wonder whether a public relations blitz from the food industry will cloud people's vision to the hard nutritional facts about popular brands as they continue to pack on the pounds.
"There's a societal public-health responsibility that cannot be delegated to the food industry or the fast-food industry," David Satcher, the former U.S. surgeon general, said. "I think that would be dangerous."
Satcher and other health professionals say there are immediate steps the food industry can take to gain credibility with the public.
High on the list is improved disclosure about food content - both in labeling and at restaurants where Americans increasingly eat meals.
They call for tighter limits on marketing to children and tougher criteria for school vending machines and cafeteria food.
"I don't think that food companies are solely responsible for obesity, but clearly some of their practices are major contributors," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health group. "The food industry can help, especially by providing more choice and more information about content."
As the food industry positions itself as a public health advocate, Jack Trout, head of marketing consultants Trout and Partners, said it is going through the motions to put on a good face amid troubling trends.
Kraft Foods Inc., which makes Oreo cookies and Velveeta cheese spread, has promised fat-fighting initiatives that include the reformulation of some products, a reduction in portion sizes and elimination of marketing in schools.
McDonald's Corp., which recently faced potential class-action litigation linking Big Macs to obesity, has launched a range of health-oriented menu items such as more nutritious salads and fruit and milk in Happy Meals for children.
Several companies have suggested direct links between their foods and better health. Cereal maker Kellogg Co. has challenged consumers to lose weight by eating more cereal, while H.J. Heinz Co. has touted the disease-fighting properties of tomatoes.
The Quaker Oats unit of PepsiCo Inc. has its own research arm that aims to show drinking Gatorade enhances performance during exercise.