The Odd Symbiosis Between Nutrition Activists and Big Food

USDA Seven Food GroupsConsumers eat for good health. They always have. It used to be that USDA was the primary focal point for telling us how to eat healthy. But now, nutrition activists have a prominent voice in setting the agenda for healthy eating. And in setting that agenda, they’re providing critical fuel for the marketing machinery of food companies.

Big food is eager to sell us ever more of the healthy food that nutrition activists tell us we should be seeking.

Wonder Bread: From Commodity to National Brand

Mid-twentieth century dinners revolved around meat and potatoes. With a little help from Wonder Bread – white bread fortified with vitamins and minerals – such meals dominated popular ideas about how to build strong bodies.

Wonder Bread became a hugely successful brand by marketing its health benefits. The opportunity to market those health benefits came from dietary guidance that favored fortified flour to fight gaps in nutrition. But times have changed. White bread is a dietary outcast. And the brand is a historical footnote.

Defining a Steady Stream of Marketing Opportunities

Low-fat dairy guidance gave yogurt marketers Dannon and Yoplait a tool for building brands with a health image. Never mind that many of those low-fat yogurts were loaded up with enough sugar for three fun-sized Snickers bars. Dietary guidance creates food marketing opportunities.

Now the guidance tells to run for our lives from sugar, especially added sugar. This twist is a threat to Dannon and Yoplait. But it’s a boon for Siggi’s. This brand came out of nowhere with a healthy image based on “simple ingredients and not a lot of sugar.”

Nutrition activist Michael Pollan could have written the copy for their advertising. He’s the guy who said, “When you pick up that box of portable yogurt tubes, or eat something with 15 ingredients you can’t pronounce, ask yourself, ‘What are those things doing there?'”

Now, thanks in part to market dynamics that Pollan helped create, Siggi Hilmarsson has many millions of dollars in the bank after selling his brand to Lactalis, the world’s largest dairy food company.

Nutrition Activists Feed the Marketing Machine

Innovation always yields both winners and losers. Noise in the marketplace about added sugar has been a headache for Dannon and Yoplait. Losers either catch up or give way to innovators.

Meanwhile, nutrition activists continue to lobby for new guidance on what to eat. And all those guidelines create more opportunities than threats in the end. Smart marketers turn nutrition guidance into product innovations with hot new claims. This year, marketers will bury us with low added sugar products.

We’ll buy more and thus we’ll eat more. It’s healthy, right? Soon, the activists will need to find a new culprit for ever-growing rates of obesity. Added sugar will be extinct.

For perspective on the long history of food activism at CSPI, click here. To learn about the food activist who changed how food was regulated in the twentieth century, click here.

Symbiosis, photograph © Klaus Stiefel/ flickr

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January 10, 2018

One Response to “The Odd Symbiosis Between Nutrition Activists and Big Food”

  1. January 10, 2018 at 4:16 pm, Allen Browne said:

    “Big food is eager to sell us ever more of the healthy food that nutrition activists tell us we should be seeking.”

    This statement struck me and I thought about it. Are we all suckers and Big food knows it? Is the problem the “nutrition activists”? Ultimately big food wants to make money. Unfortunately, the same is true of many “nutrition activists”. We need food, but I am not sure we need “nutrition activists”. We need nutrition science and honest, eloquent, persuasive champions of nutrition science. Aahh – it sounds so simple. 🙂