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Why Healthy Eating Is Tricky for a Big Food Company

Consumers want to eat healthy. Food companies want to sell them products to meet that need. So what’s the problem? Well, there’s a big gap between what people say and what they do. Talking about healthy eating is easy. But following through on healthy eating is very tricky for a big food company because the products people actually want to buy and consume turn out to be not so healthy.

A report today from the Financial Times provides a case in point. The FT reports that Nestlé has concluded that most of its products don’t measure up to a recognized measure of healthfulness and some of them never will – no matter how hard they try to do better.

Earning Stars for Health – or Not

Nestlé executives reached this conclusion based on the health star rating system that Australia and New Zealand use. Under this system, foods can earn a health rating that ranges from half a star (not good) to five stars (the best). The threshold for healthy food on this system is 3.5 stars.

Internal documents from Nestlé note that more than 60 percent of their products don’t meet this threshold for health. In fact, the FT reports these documents say that “some of our categories and products will never be ‘healthy’ no matter how much we renovate.”

The Gap Between Talk and Action

The problem here is ancient. What we humans say and what we do often do not match. Consumers talk lots about “eating healthy.” They’ll even buy products that make promises about helping them do so. But at the same time, the real drivers of consumer behavior are more basic. Consumers know that a burrito at Chipotle can be a thousand-calorie dietary bomb. But it tastes good. Plus, Chipotle tells us that it’s all sustainable and free from GMOs. So we can rationalize it as healthy-ish.

Likewise, Nestlé wants to sell healthful products. But they have a dilemma, as Marion Nestle (no relation) explains:

“Food companies’ job is to generate money for stockholders, and to generate it as quickly and in as large an amount as possible. They are going to sell products that reach a mass audience and are bought by as many people as possible, that people want to buy, and that’s junk food.

“Nestlé is a very smart company, at least from my meetings with people who are in their science [units] . . . but they have a real problem . . . Scientists have been working for years to try to figure out how to reduce the salt and sugar content without changing the flavor profile and guess what, it’s hard to do.”

Thus, the gap between talk and action is great. This is not a problem of evil big food companies that don’t want to sell products for healthy eating. It is a problem of human perversity. We say we want one thing, but we pursue something else.

Wicked problems like this can be solved. But solving them will require wickedly smart strategies. Our strategies need some work.

Click here for the FT report. For more on Australia’s health star system, click here.

Nestlé Milo Advertisement, image © Nestlé Historical Archives / flickr

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May 31, 2021