Proof that Facts are Needed in the Discussion on Obesity and Advertising

June 25, 2014

Last week, Mark Bittman wrote an article in The New York Times titled, “Parasites, Killing Their Host.” (6/17/14) The article hurls a wide range of serious charges at the food industry and its advertising.  Bittman claims that, “Even a mindless parasite knows that if it kills its host the party’s over, and by pushing products that promote ‘illth’ — the opposite of health — Big Food is unwittingly destroying its own market.”  

Yesterday, The New York Times ran a letter to the editor I wrote in response to this article, because Bittman’s totally unsubstantiated assertions deserve to be addressed.  

For starters, it is a widely accepted fact that there are multiple causes driving obesity in the United States.  Bittman unfortunately ignores this reality to solely focus on advertising.  One of these key factors is geographic location within the country.  According to CDC data from 2012, there was a 14.2 percentage point difference between the states with the highest and lowest obesity rates.  Colorado was the lowest with a 20.5 percent obesity rate and Louisiana was the highest at 34.7 percent.  The states with the highest rates were found in the South and the Midwest.  If, as Bittman claims, food advertisers actually were only in the business of hurting their customers for profit, there would be evidence that they are using different advertisements to target the consumers in these areas with the highest obesity rates.  However, this is simply not the case.

The CDC has also released data that suggests the obesity epidemic is getting better for at least one age group.  In a recent study, the numbers showed that obesity rates had dropped 43% among children 2-5 years old.  This progress was praised by many, including First Lady Michelle Obama.  This step forward was especially lauded because children under the age of 5 who are overweight are five times as likely to be overweight or obese when they become adults.  If it were true that advertising was the driving cause of obesity, then this shift should not be taking place.  Advertising is not generally directed to children of this age group and parents clearly are making the purchasing decisions.  

Another key piece of evidence Bittman chose to belittle is the force of the marketplace.  Bittman states, “Some profitable corporations nibble at the edges of [change] already, but — as a piece in the current Harvard Business Review points out — American capitalists have become poor innovators.”  Clearly Bittman is blind to all of the innovations food companies have carried out recently to provide a vast array of new and improved products consumers want to buy.  

In response to a call for healthier offerings, food companies in the last few years have made over 20,000 reformulations to products to make them lower in calories, fat, sugar and sodium.  

The food industry has also taken on major self-regulatory efforts to address concerns about advertising to children.  The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) shifted the content of ads directed to children 12 and under to better-for-you food offerings.  The 17 participants in the CFBAI represent over 80% of child-directed TV food advertising.  The FTC has supported the industry’s self-regulatory efforts and in a 2012 report commended the industry for making improvements.  Bittman claims that, “Only the naïve, however, would believe that Big Food is generally working toward [change].”  But only those who willfully ignore the billions of dollars spent in the effort by the food industry to meet consumers’ demands in regard to healthier food offerings and the major changes in advertising to children could possibly make these patently false changes and allegations.  

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