Obesity Drugs Won’t Let The Food Industry Off The Hook


Food companies must work harder to help keep people from becoming obese in the first place.

Two recent developments represent two very different approaches for reversing the obesity crisis: the return of “diet” pills, and PepsiCo’s
recent “stealth” strategy to gradually reduce sugar, salt and fat in its snacks lineup (without telling anyone). The pills may indeed be miracle drugs — but they don’t let the food, beverage and restaurant industries off the hook for making their indulgent products more healthful, as PepsiCo is doing.

There’s no denying that weight loss drugs are hot right now and will be big business. The category is projected to grow to $13 billion by the end of this decade. Wegovy, introduced this spring by Novo Nordisk, is already being praised by social media influencers and celebrities like Elon Musk, who are taking it to trim down a bit rather than to reduce obesity. Advertising for the diabetes drug Ozempic has played up its weight loss feature along with its role in reducing A1C. Both contain semaglutide, a drug approved by the FDA in 2021 for people who have obesity or who are overweight with other medical risks. Looming is Eli Lilly’s Mounjaro, which claims a reduction in body weight by up to 16% and 22%, respectively, for those with and without diabetes.

The pills’ advocates will rightly point out that obesity is a health crisis that needs quick solutions, much like the COVID-19 crisis. The medical community has been calling obesity a disease since 2013, and the world’s obesity rate has tripled since 1975, according to a 2022 study by the World Health Organization. Along with making their manufacturers a lot of money, these medicines may pull many dangerously obese people back to a safer weight relatively quickly. That is a huge benefit to public health.

Perhaps most important, taking pills plays to human dietary behavior. Pills and drugs are very appealing to the consumer segment with the highest rates of obesity. These “Magic Bullets,” as they are called by research firm Natural Marketing Institute (NMI), comprise almost one-quarter of Americans (23%) and are the least concerned about living a healthy lifestyle. Compared to all other NMI health and wellness consumer segments, the Magic Bullets are the most likely to avoid counting calories (88.9%), have cravings for unhealthy products and usually just give up on diets (59.4%), and hate to exercise (63.2%). They are more disposed to taking pills than modifying their diets. On the surface, remedies like Ozempic and Wegovy make sense to help reverse obesity for these consumers needing the most help.

But what about helping other consumer segments who want to eat healthier and don’t want to take a drug, or don’t want to count calories or watch what they eat? Enter PepsiCo’s approach.

I applaud Pepsi for taking this slower route and developing foods that over time can help people from becoming obese in the first place. PepsiCo CEO Ramon Laguarta admitted that his customers still want indulgent snacks with irresistible levels of salt, sugar and fat. His approach is to make PepsiCo’s products less damaging by reducing those ingredients so gradually that people won’t notice. Toward that end, PepsiCo is employing 10 professional food tasters for a “sensory panel” to make sure the items still taste good. And Laguarta said he is confident that the reformulated products will be good for business as well as public health.

PepsiCo’s approach is a manifestation of what I’ve been calling “Stealth Health” – doing the right thing gradually and imperceptibly to consumers, without trumpeting it to the outside world. This is the same approach used when food companies look to cut costs – witness the shift in soft drinks from sugar to high-fructose corn syrup in the late 1970s, or the demise of the half-gallon carton of ice cream.

Reformulating indulgent products to meet the trend to “permissible indulgence” will appeal to a broader swath of the population. The biggest opportunities are with the 13% percent of people that NMI calls the “Eat, Drink and Be Merries,” who just want to live life to the fullest without fretting over what they eat; and the 24 percent of the population who are “Fence Sitters,” who want to eat healthy but can’t find the time to plan healthy meals. By gradually (and invisibly) reducing salt, sugar and fat, food companies can keep them as customers while steadily getting their palates accustomed to better-for-you foods and snacks.

We need more companies – and especially more restaurants – to emulate what PepsiCo is doing and begin their own Stealth Health initiatives. Here are some suggestions:

  • Don’t shift the dialogue to obesity reduction drugs as a panacea. They may provide a short-term benefit but will not change American’s need to eat healthier and adopt healthier lifestyles. Food companies must be front and center on this.
  • Give consumers what they want without telling them it’s healthier. Consumers demand taste, convenience and “permissible indulgence” and have demonstrated a broad rejection of products that don’t deliver on these attributes.
  • Reduce sizes gradually. While consumers have bristled at companies reducing package sizes while charging the same or more for them during the pandemic, a gradual reduction in the sizes companies offer will be beneficial to consumer health. The confectionary industry’s “Always a Treat” initiative has resulted in 50% of their individually wrapped products delivering 200 calories or less. Reducing restaurant meals by 10 percent at a time will also help lower calories and get patrons accustomed to smaller portions.
  • Don’t call anything “healthy.” Laguarta, the PepsiCo CEO, admitted that the company’s “healthy” products are a niche brand, appealing only to the health conscious and not to the majority of its customers. Marketing of reduced sizes or reformulated foods should play up their most appealing qualities, such as crunchiness or refreshing taste.
  • Do “stealth” quietly. While Stealth Health is the right thing to do, resist the urge to score public relations brownie points from it.

Will Stealth Health get an immediate payback? It will not, but we didn’t get to the epidemic of widespread obesity overnight. The new drugs can quickly attack the crisis in today’s population with the highest rates of obesity – and if they prove to be safe, that will be a good thing — but we also need longer-term solutions that will prevent future generations from dealing with obesity. That’s why PepsiCo’s effort is worth applauding, and why we need more companies to follow their example.

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