The Obesity Epidemic and Snacking: Aligning Intentions with Actions

As a company that manufacture’s vitamin and mineral premixes, the health of the average American is foremost on our minds. What are the vitamins and minerals that American’s need the most? Are there deficiencies we should be aware of? In short, are we producing the right, high quality products that Americans depend upon day in and day out?

As a country, it is hard to ignore the health epidemic that is slowly but surely consuming our nation: obesity. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) program, the prevalence of obesity has gone from 23% in 1988 to 68% of the population being categorized as overweight or obese in 2008. That comes out to a staggering 45% increase in just twenty years (Check out the CDC graphic here).

What makes the epidemic so deadly, according to Mintel, is that being overweight has become the new norm. While the NHANES study found that 68% of the American population was overweight and obese, a survey conducted by Mintel around that same time found that 52% described themselves as normal weight, with only 44% describing themselves as overweight. A complementary study conducted by the Columbia University Medical Center had similar findings, according to an article in USA Today. In the study, 66% of mothers were found to be overweight or obese, however, only 18% of obese women and 57.5% of overweight women were able to accurately estimate their weight when looking at figure silhouettes.

And unfortunately it is not just adults. According to the NHANES study, 17% of children between the ages of 2-19 are obese, and according to the USA Today article, 47.5% of moms of overweight or obese children “thought their kids were at a healthy weight”. This is a very serious issue, because according to the New England Journal of Medicine, being obese at a young age can result in “life-threatening consequences in the future”.

The reason I bring this up is not to be a Debbie Downer, but to demonstrate a point. Although it is a proven fact that more people are overweight and obese today then they were in the past, if they do not recognize that they are overweight, and that their current diet is unhealthy, they will not feel the need to make changes. The challenge for food marketers is to align consumer intentions with actions. According to Mintel, one of the greatest opportunities in the industry is to develop snacks that foster alignment between wanting to be healthy and eating healthy, and to communicate the health benefits of their snacks. However in doing so, the health claims must be common sense associative (ex. Calcium in milk) and the snacks must actually taste good. Lets be honest, no one is going to give up their low-fat baked potato chips for something that tastes like cardboard.

The key to creating alignment between consumer perceptions and purchasing habits is information. Educating the population about basic nutrition and healthy eating habits will not only help to improve the health of the general population overall, but will help to nurture demand for healthy snacks as well, spurring innovation and sales in that market. Already we have seen some headway made. In response to childhood obesity statistics, media, government and medical communities have begun to focus on healthy snack innovation targeting kids.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, the Food Trade Commission (FTC) found that foods being marketed to children in 2011 contained less sugar and more whole grains then they had in 2006. FTC Chairman Jon Leibowtiz was quoted saying, “ The encouraging news is that we’re seeing promising signs that food companies are reformulating their products and marketing more nutritious foods to kids, especially among companies participating in industry self-regulatory efforts. But there is still room for improvement”. While parents are responsible for the end purchasing decision, marketing is still a powerful tool when it comes to influencing children’s’ perceptions and creating habits. By educating children on the importance of a healthy diet and how tasty healthy foods are, food companies can hopefully expand the current dialogue to help inspire healthy habits in their young target audience.