The impact of obesity and diabetes on Americans’ health is reaching a critical phase. Two-thirds of American adults are either overweight or obese, while 24 million suffer from diabetes.
Over the past two decades, several attempts have been made to cajole Americans to adopt healthier eating habits, but to no avail. Regulators have tried with nutritional labeling on packaged foods, Food Pyramid Guidelines and fruit-and-vegetable programs. Consumers have been hectored to exercise more and eat nutritious foods, yet obesity rates have doubled and the number of Americans suffering from diabetes is expected to triple by 2050.
With government efforts a failure and consumers unreliable in controlling their diets and exercise patterns, is there hope to ameliorate these conditions?
Yes there is, in the form of an unlikely suitor- the food marketers.
Because they control the supply of calories, develop the products we eat, and market those items, food marketers have the greatest influence on addressing these conditions.
The first place to start is with controlling excess calories. Calories affect obesity rates and obesity is the portal to type 2 diabetes. Since 1970, the number of calories available for each of us to ingest has increased by a whopping 30%. What went up must now come down.
No one is better equipped to deal with depleting this overabundance of calories than companies like Coca-Cola, General Mills, and Kraft. But engaging the food industry has been a challenge. Health advocates historically have taken the stance that obesity and its resultant type 2 diabetes cousin are the fault of industry and that they should be punished. That’s why we see proposals such as soda or “fat” taxes. On the other hand, industry has claimed that they offer plenty of healthier options and that consumers must be responsible for their eating choices. A plausible point of view, but unfortunately an ineffective one.
To secure the commitment of the food marketers, it’s necessary to think like a marketer. It’s not enough to spew out dire prophesies like our children will not live as long as we will or statistics citing the cost of diabetes exceeds $200 billion annually. These are not figures that they can relate to. In order to get the food marketers in the game feet first, we must show them how helping to fix these problems is good for their bottom lines.
Altruism by itself is not enough of a motivator; it must become a partner with greed.
Marketers will act favorably once they understand that there is a business opportunity. Attacking corporate fortresses because they are not dedicated to addressing public health issues only perpetuates the skirmish and does not serve the public’s health needs.
There are three ways to hit marketers’ radar screens in relation to diabetes:
1. Show them how big the opportunity is. There are currently 24 million diabetics in the United States, with an additional 57 million pre-diabetic. That’s as large as the Baby Boomer population. And it’s a market with definable needs since diabetics all require strict dietary boundaries. This is not unlike the emerging $2 billion gluten-free market which is gaining attention from marketers like General Mills. With celiac disease affecting 1% or 3 million Americans, that opportunity pales in comparison to the diabetic market. To be blunt, these “captive markets” are a marketer’s dream. Food companies just need information to be served up to them in the right (financial and marketing) language.
2. Illustrate how they can gain a competitive advantage and improve their profit margins. Three decades ago, the diet drink category was less than 10% of all soft drink sales. Today low and no calorie soft drinks exceed 1/3 of sales. The industry met an emerging need for weight management and appearance. And brands like Diet Coke that delivered superior taste to that segment won the marketing battle. The “first one in” who becomes a partner with the market’s needs will command loyalty (and repeat purchases) for a long time. Demonstrating how “owning” the potentially huge diabetic market would be a powerful incentive to a savvy food marketer.
3. Make it easy. Developing new products or revamping portfolios takes time, testing and money to ensure the delivery of acceptable taste, convenience, value and proper product compositions. While companies should continue to work on this, a shorter pathway to deal with the immediacy of rising obesity and diabetes rates would be to highlight existing products that meet the target market’s criteria. Addressing the needs of diabetics is a combination of tackling obesity (a calorie issue) plus metabolic considerations (like the amount and type of sugars in a product). What’s missing from the diabetes market is a labeling or recognition system which clearly identifies mainstream products that can be used with little concern.
Right now, diabetics are relegated to reading the Nutrition Facts panel on food packages. This is a tedious and timely exercise. In addition, separate “diabetes products” sections are rarely found in grocery stores. Even gluten-free products are gaining their own shelf space.
Lessons can be learned from several initiatives underway to highlight “healthier” foods. In-store labeling systems such as Guiding Stars (http://www.guidingstars.com) and NuVal (http://www.nuval.com) have been designed to “grade” mainstream food items on their relative degree of “healthiness.” A similar approach can be explored and adopted by the American Diabetes Association (www.diabetes.org).
What I am suggesting is a recognizable symbol or flag that goes on the front panel of foods and beverages that meets the criteria for consumption by diabetics. Like the ubiquitous Komen for the Cure breast cancer logo, this symbol would signal to all trying to manage and/or prevent diabetes that the food or beverage in question meets a certain pre-determined standard. This symbol would also be useful as a tool to fight obesity.
For example, products receiving the symbol would have to meet the following criteria:
1. Low in calories (due to the close link between diabetes and obesity)
2. A low glycemic index
3. No evidence of a deleterious metabolic effect.
Launching this kind of effort would be a major step in simplifying buying decisions for those millions confronting obesity and diabetes. And armed with a new logo aimed at large, well defined markets, the food industry will jump in because it’s just good business.