Hidden Motives

4 Victories for Stealth Health

Stealth health is a growing movement within the food industry as restaurants and packaged food makers quietly reformulate their products to take sugar, salt, and fat out. They are doing it to meet commitments to provide healthier products without taking a hit on sales.

  1. Healthy Weight Commitment. An assortment of big food companies committed to removing 1.5 trillion calories from the U.S. food supply. In January, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announced that those companies had surpassed their goal by more than four times. Analysis by Barry Popkin at the UNC School of Public health found that they had actually removed 6.4 trillion calories. Look for a publication of the full analysis in the fall.
  2. Sodium. Both restaurants and packaged food companies are quietly reducing the sodium in their offerings. In a report issued yesterday, the Center for Science in the Public Interest called out bad actors who are actually increasing the sodium in their products, while quietly noting that Subway, McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell had all made good on pledges to reduce sodium.
  3. Trans Fat. McDonald’s french fries and Oreos cookies are two of many brands that have totally eliminated trans fats through a tedious process of quiet reformulation to avoid harm to their sales.
  4. Added Sugar. With a requirement to label for added sugar looming, many brands are looking for ways to flush this boogeyman out of their products. Nesquick is one example. It’s gone from 17 grams of added sugar, down to 12.5 grams now, and aiming for 10.6 grams by year end.

Those who would say that some of these products should not be part of the diet are ignoring reality. The American food supply is a very large ecosystem. McDonald’s, for example, feeds many millions of people and can thus can have a very big effect by nudging them toward healthier diets if they do it carefully.

The stealth health trend is helpful for a couple of reasons. First, it seems that labeling a product as healthy can have the perverse effect of canceling out the product’s potential health benefits. A healthy halo can lead people to eat unhealthy quantities. A study just published in Appetite makes this point by giving identical cookies to subjects in a controlled study. When the cookies were labeled with a perceived healthy brand (Kashi), the less careful eaters ate more regardless of the calories on the label. The same cookie was consumed in higher quantities by the more careful eaters when labeled with a lower calorie content and a brand perceived to be less healthy (Nabisco).

Second, many people are completely unmoved or even repelled by health claims. For these customers, trumpeting healthier formulations of a beloved product can hurt the brand. Consumers quickly switch to less healthy alternatives.

Though some public health advocates might not care about sales of “Big Food,” they should care about opportunities for a healthier food supply.

Click here and here to read more in the Wall Street Journal. Click here to read more about the success of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation. Click here to read about CSPI’s report on sodium in restaurant meals. Click here to read the study of health branding and labeling.

Hidden Motives, photograph © Ruben Alexander / flickr

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2 Responses to “4 Victories for Stealth Health”

  1. July 03, 2014 at 3:28 pm, Suzan Nashashibi RNutr said:

    The pledges and committments will contribute intensively to reducing obesity&overweight rates around the world .Besides effect on weight this sill positively effect health standards of individuals

    • July 03, 2014 at 4:16 pm, Ted said:

      Well said, Suzan.