Future Forces: Food as medicine

While more Americans are making healthier choices at the supermarket, there is room for improvement. How can grocers help shoppers make the connection between what they eat and their well-being?

By Patrick Kiernan

As we settle into the holiday season of special family dinners and the inevitable New Year’s resolutions that follow, the current state of the American diet may give us all reason to reach for the “lite” eggnog this year.

We are a nation and an industry of good intentions. Countless associations and trade shows speak to industry coalitions helping families maintain healthy diets and weight. There now exist programs to teach children how fitness and nutrition must play together.

In another example, the Produce Marketing Association, (PMA), in cooperation with the foodservice industry, has committed to a goal of doubling the use of fresh produce in foodservice by 2020. It’s refreshing to see PMA joining forces with the National Restaurant Association and the International Foodservice Distributors Association to help our nation eat healthier, as almost 50% of today’s meals are prepared away from home.

Yet, all of the individual, company and industry efforts ultimately will be measured by results and costs. Thirty percent of the adults in 10 states are now obese. Across the U.S., 72.5 million of us are obese and the health care costs associated with obesity are now estimated to be as high as $147 billion per year.

With the implementation of the U.S. Healthcare Reform Bill, the government is scheduled to spend $35 trillion—or roughly $100,000 for every man, woman and child—on health care over the next decade. When the money runs out or the taxes eat up too much of gross domestic product, health care reform must move from cost management toward prevention. When weight and wellness go mainstream, American attitudes and behaviors will have to change or find someone else to blame for our nation’s health condition.

Today, American diets are not meeting federal recommendations. Analysis indicates that nearly the entire U.S. population consumes a diet with too few vegetables and grains and too much fats and sugars. Rising health care costs will force federal and state government intervention. What we don’t know is whether this intervention will come through subsidies or penalties on the mix of foods available in the marketplace.

We can look to Canada and to Ontario’s health care costs as an early predictor of the fiscal implications facing U.S. taxpayers. In less than 10 years, Ontario’s health care costs have grown from 23% to 45% of the Provincial operating budget. By 2022, the government warns that health care costs could reach 70% of the budget. What would your state or county do if 70% of its operating budget was devoted to health care?

While Americans increasingly view food as medicine to help lower cholesterol or to control blood sugar and blood pressure, we still are lacking as an industry in properly telling the pharmacy/food connection. The need to connect diet and medication can only grow with government prescription funding and a sliver tsunami of aging baby boomers moving into retirement.

If I were a politician up for election and criticized for high taxes and out of control spending on health care, I would move the target off my back and onto the grocery industry’s back by using the U. S. Health Eating Index, and the analysis from the National Cancer Institute. Our elected officials could require substantial changes in agricultural production, marketing and pricing by taxing calorie-dense foods with added sugars and unnecessary fats. By now, some of you might have imagined that I’ve put a little too much whiskey in my eggnog. So let me give you this final thought from a Ketchum Global Study on Food 2020.

  • “Knowledge, taste and availability are key barriers to healthier eating.”
  • “Consumers want food companies to take away the temptations that lead to obesity…but they don’t want to eat less.”
  • “Consumers expect how they choose and shop for food to be different by 2020…but they still expect food companies to be responsible for their health and well-being.”

So when the belt tightening for 2011 starts, perhaps we should spend more time connecting with consumers on how they connect food with health.
Patrick Kiernan, managing partner of Day/Kiernan & Associates, is affiliated with The Center for Food Marketing at St. Joseph’s Uni­versity, Philadelphia; the Institute for the Future, Palo Alto, Calif.; and Encore Associates, San Ramon, Calif. He can be reached at KiernanPat@aol.com.

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