Sales decline symbol as a group of shrinking shopping carts with a blue arrow going down as a metaphor for commercial retail consumerism on a white background.

Not your father’s food choice

The food business operates on tight margins, meaning that the difference between the cost of the goods and what it receives from the sale of those goods is small.  Still, if a company can sell a lot of product, they can be profitable.

As noted in this report, many of the great American food companies that sold iconic food products are now faced with sluggish sales and sagging profits.  This includes Cheerios and other breakfast cereals we grew up eating, Coca Cola, the taste that refreshes, and Kraft Mac and Cheese.  You might remember that the manufacturer of Twinkies even went bankrupt a few years ago.

Now comes news of declining sales of another iconic American food product – Campbell’s Soup.  According to this report, even their organic line has been hurting.

Business experts have suggested that Millennials simply do not share the same brand loyalty as their parents and grandparents, at least for food.  iPhones are another story.

Nonetheless, this may explain why small food brands, especially those for natural, organic or healthy products are so popular among Millennials.  We will discuss how U.S. food companies are addressing this challenge.



Organic everything – way beyond chocolate cake

As we begin our discussion on organic foods, we will address the reasons why so many consumers are willing to pay a premium for these foods.  One of the main reasons is that organic foods are thought by consumers to be healthier than conventional foods.  We will review the actual data on this question, but regardless, this perception certainly exists.

It’s interesting that by attaching an “organic” label to a food, it suddenly becomes healthy.  Cookies, cake, ice cream, candy bars, potato chips – you name it, there is bound to be an organic version.

From the “you can’t make this up” file, there is even organic cigarettes.  Indeed, according to this recent article published this past week, in the tobacco-growing state of Virginia, tobacco has become the main organic commodity produced in that state.  There are now more farms and more sales in Virginia for tobacco than poultry or milk.

Now I know organic versions of wine and beer are available, but as I was writing this I thought what could possibly be next.  Organic marijuana, perhaps?  Sure enough, it’s available in Colorado, Washington and other states where marijuana is legal.

And I thought organic chocolate cake was a bit over-the-top!



More bad news for the soda industry

One third of Americans are now obese and another third are overweight.  Diabetes rates are not far behind.  Childhood obesity and diabetes, almost unheard of 50 years ago, have reached alarming levels.

There is a lot of blame to go around – from fast food restaurants to school lunch and other government programs that encourage unhealthy diets.  Of course, the packaged foods industry has also received a lot of the blame.

Soda pop producers have been especially singled out by many nutritionists and public health professionals for their role in promoting obesogenic diets.  I spent nearly half of the lecture on Monday, reviewing how pervasive pop consumption is in the U.S. and how many calories we consume as  sports drinks, soda pop, and other sugary beverages.  Even with consumers cutting back on their pop consumption, each one of us still drinks, on average, more than 35 gallons per year.

Just as I was thinking that I had perhaps over-done it with my critical comments, this article appeared in the New York Times.  It refers to a research report in the prestigious journal JAMA Internal Medicine that describes how the sugar industry promoted research in the 1960s and 1970s that advanced the argument that fat and cholesterol were the real dangers in our food and to our health.  Sugar consumption was down-played.  This position became dogma for the next 40 years.

Indeed, the researchers that led these early studies were themselves well-known and from prestigious institutions (from Harvard, no less).  That they were paid by the industry without disclosing this information was, according to nutritionist and soda pop critic, Marion Nestle, an “appalling” conflict of interest.  In her JAMA commentary, she notes that the sugar/pop industry continues to have a “cozy relationship” with obesity scientists and that such relationships bias the research in this important public heath field.

This issue is not going away, and the soda pop tax issue is front and center.  Of course, there is also a personal choice part of the equation.  I look forward to reading your posts.



Pay now or pay later

Obesity is not the only so-called life-style disease, but it certainly is the poster child for such diseases.  That’s because nearly every other life-style disease, from type 2 diabetes to heart disease, hypertension, and cancer, are all related to an obesogenic life-style.

To remind you, life-style diseases are those caused by daily habits and our regular routine. The main contributing factors are poor diet, lack of exercise, and general physical inactivity.  Even posture (i.e., sitting at your desk at work and your couch at home) and poor sleep habits are part of the syndrome.

This means that successful solutions to the obesity problem will not likely be based only on dietary changes.  Rather, we (meaning future food scientists as well as public health experts) will need to be broad-thinking and creative in order to change entire life-styles.

It may be naïve to suggest that building more sidewalks, bike trails, and public swimming pools and playgrounds have a role in the obesity issue, but that is exactly the discussion we need to have.  Likewise, incentives for grocery stores to open locations in cities and to ensure public safety in those area should also be on the table.  The school lunch and food stamp programs need to be re-configured in a major way.

That these cost money is not really the question.  After all, the cost of the obesity epidemic is about $300 billion.  We all pay for this cost (even healthy people) in the form of insurance premiums, loss of productivity, and medical bills.  The bottom line is that prevention is almost always cheaper than the alternative.



Our sorry state of obesity

Every year, obesity data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control are presented as a report called the “State of Obesity”.  The 2016 report was released last week.  The news is mostly (but not entirely) bad.

For example, more than one-third (nearly 38%) of U.S. adults are now considered obese.  For women it’s even worse (40%).

The glimmer of good news is that the obesity rates are leveling off, and in four states (Minnesota, Montana, New York and Ohio), the rates dropped a bit.  The rates also vary considerably state-to-state, with Colorado the lowest (20%) and Louisiana the highest (36%).  Indeed, of the top ten heaviest states, 8 are in the South. Nebraska, if you are interested, ranks 14.

As we will discuss in class, obesity is correlated with other health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.  Childhood obesity (17%) is especially alarming.   That’s why this is the most serious public health problem in the U.S.

We can argue all day about whether or not food scientists have contributed to this problem.  However, we can also consider ways that food scientists might contribute solutions to this problem.  This is also why we will devote several lectures to this topic.



Why we eat what we eat and why can’t we stop?

Why we eat what we eat – this has been the question we’ve been discussing the past several lectures. As we’ve learned, there are complex cultural, social, psychological, personal, and biological components to this seemingly simple question.  The next topic is no less complicated – why, as a society, do we eat so much that nearly 70% of our population is overweight or obese?

As we address this important question, we will re-visit many of the issues raised in this first section.  For example, does the pervasive advertising of junk food affect our eating habits?  Does our family environment have an effect?  What role does personal choice have?




The very idea of a comfort food is rather obvious – these are foods that we go to when we are feeling blue or when need a lift.  But do these foods, or any food for that matter, actually make us happy? I am pleased to share two recent studies that shows that some foods can indeed make you happy.  And surprise, it’s not chocolate, not a juicy steak, and it’s not mac and cheese.  Could you believe the happy foods are, at least according to these studies, fruits and vegetables!

One study was conducted among college students in Iran, the other adults in Australia.   In the first study, the results showed that medical students who ate more than 8 servings of fruit and vegetables daily had the highest happiness score.  Eating a healthy breakfast also helped bring about some happiness.

In the second study, greater fruit and vegetable consumption led subjects to report increased happiness, life satisfaction, and well-being.

While there are no cause-and-effect explanations, it’s worth thinking about the next time you need a little comforting.  Reach for the broccoli, not the brownie.




Despite the role of biology in determining what we eat, our eating habits are profoundly influenced by food trends.  Thus, try as many of us do to avoid being just another “follower”, we often make food choices based on fads, fashion, and what everyone else is eating. As food writer David Sax suggested, while “we do have a choice about what we put in our mouths, the reality is that our appetite is collective”.

There is clearly some truth (maybe a lot) in this.  Consider all of the foods we probably did not grow up eating, but which so many of us now eat routinely – sushi (at least 5 sushi restaurants in Lincoln), kombucha tea, and of course upscale coffee drinks are everywhere.


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