LAS VEGAS — As a nation, we’re fat, epidemically so. We’re exercising less and eating more. And as the nation’s food scientists gathered this week — in the city of the monster buffet — to consider the state of their industry, many top U.S. food manufacturers indicated they understand they need to help us get healthier — whether it’s with healthy Happy Meals or Quaker Soy Crisps.
“We accept this as truth,” said Nancy Green, vice president of nutrition for PepsiCo, which owns Quaker. “Obesity is a big challenge. Wellness is a bigger opportunity.”
Could it be that eating well is the profit engine of the future? Last year, PepsiCo saw its largest growth, of 13 percent, in what it calls “better for you” products, anything from Baked Lay’s to Diet Pepsi.
'35 million pounds of apples'
In the past year, McDonald’s, the world’s largest restauranteur, signaled its willingness to help us trim down — phasing out its long-derided supersized meals and adding an array of fresh entrées. It sold over 150 million salads in 2003, and this year drew attention when it unveiled adult Happy Meals composed of a salad, water and a pedometer.
It also began regularly offering milk and apple juice in its kids’ meals, and now sells apple slices (albeit with a low-fat caramel sauce on the side).
“We are going to serve 35 million pounds of apples that Americans didn’t have last year,” Cathy Kapica, McDonald’s global director of nutrition, told an audience Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists.
These are certainly ripe times to appeal to Americans’ big-waisted sensibilities in the supermarket aisle. A third of all shoppers consider themselves overweight, according to a multiyear survey from research firm HealthFocus International; nearly 30 percent say they want to lost 20 pounds or more.
But while in 1994, 66 percent of shoppers said they exercised “moderately,” that figure has shrunk to 59 percent. As the number of people who exercise declines, there is also growing confusion over how much to eat. “Consumers no longer know what is the appropriate portion size,” said HealthFocus president Linda Gilbert.
Americans, added Gilbert, have grown accustomed to pointing fingers elsewhere: “I didn’t eat, I was overserved.”
Taste is still key
That might be why Kraft now offers mini-Oreos instead of its lackluster reduced-fat Oreo (a product, Merrill Lynch food analyst Leonard Teitelbaum quipped, was “absolutely un-American.”) The difference is a focus on health and eating less — rather than engineering out fat, calories or anything else.
Find out how dietary advice has changedAnd according to HealthFocus’ data, half of consumers purchase products solely because they like the taste. Telling people what not to eat, whether in the form of reduced-fat or anything else, is often a hard sell.
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At the same time, ConAgra has reaped the successes of its Healthy Choice line. Kellogg’s has refashioned Special K as a breakfast tool to get fit. The health message may be a long-term winner. The Centers for Disease Control now considers obesity the fastest-growing cause of death, and Americans are slowly starting to see it not simply as an image problem, but also as a gateway to health risks like diabetes.
Some of this newfound fondness for healthy eating stems from companies’ fear of litigation. While recent suits against McDonald’s for causing obesity have been dismissed, the food industry has taken notice of the tobacco industry’s devastating fallout from its efforts to defend its products.
New options in the grocery aisle
Rather than defend the endless junk-food options available to consumers, many food firms are deciding instead to expand their portfolios, providing healthy alternatives — so that the overeating consumer can’t say he or she wasn’t given options. Many have tied their products to more active lifestyles, which is why McDonald’s adult Happy Meal includes a fitness booklet from Bob Greene, Oprah’s personal trainer.
Successful new products could also translate into serious cash as companies scramble to out-healthify each other amid competing nutrition claims and the lingering low-carb craze. With consumers spending $120 billion on food at home and another $246 billion on food away from home, Teitelbaum estimated that a 1 percent shift in consumers’ food-buying habits — from bread to steak, for example — is worth $1.5 billion.
Often targeted at aging Baby Boomers, healthy-lifestyle products may also prove a viable successor to the current raft of low-carb products, which many in the industry see as being just another fad along the lines of the low-fat craze in the 1990s. (Even Atkins Nutritionals insists its core business is information, not selling its ever-expanding line of low-carb foods and snacks.)
Healthier products could prove an end to the fad-hopping that John Stanton, a food marketing expert at St. Joseph’s University and industry consultant, calls “corporate attention-deficit disorder.”
On the other hand, these options still face the same hurdles with consumers, who have repeatedly shown they won’t open their wallets for food that doesn’t appeal to their own specific tastes. Said Teitelbaum: “The manufacturer has a vote, the consumer has a veto.”
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