Marketing and Overconsumption of Food

A recent fascinating video by Dr. Greger describes the role of food marketing in the steady increase in food consumption in the US since around 1980, that has led to a significant average gain in weight. I was interested to see the importance of a speech made by Jack Welch, then CEO of General Electric, emphasizing the responsibility of CEOs to maximize short-term results for investors. This caught my eye because everyone I know that worked at GE during that time, including some talented managers and engineers, think his influence on the company was bad.

When the emphasis of top management is on short-term results it can lead to mistaken short-term thinking. It is the opposite of the Native American view that we should consider the effect of our actions on the next seven generations. As mentioned in the video, according to Professor Marion Nestle, the author of Food Politics (recommended), this attitude had a major influence on the food industry, which started spending in excess of $30 billion annually on marketing. As Dr. Greger mentions, it’s not aimed at selling broccoli.

The history of the food industry and the role of politics and marketing is also covered in the fascinating book Salt, Sugar, Fat, by Michael Moss. I came away with the idea that these are not necessarily people with bad motives, for example, the guy that invented “lunchables” was trying to alleviate tbe ailing economy of his home town, while providing convenience for harried parents. But the result has not always been good.

As an enginerd, I think of capitalism as an optimization problem. In optimization we want to come up with the best solution, such as the lightest airplane. That is the “objective”. But there are “constraints”, like the wings mustn’t fall off. In business, the objective is maximizing profits. There are constraints like wanting long-term customer satisfaction and a good business reputation. Unfortunately if your focus is short-term you may not emphasize these enough. There are also constraints imposed by government, such as not being allowed to dump raw waste in rivers or use child labor. These have to be agreed upon by society. Too many constraints and government “red tape” can mess up the economy. Too few and you may be profitable but there are bad effects on society. In the case of the food industry, some of the bad effects include poorer health and weight gain. There is a case to be made that we should consider more constraints, such as on advertising aimed at children.

But there are also ways that we can use market forces to improve health. For example, supermarkets and companies know they can charge higher (often called “boutique”) prices for what customers perceive as higher quality or healthier products. An obvious example is that people will pay more for organically grown food. We can encourage this by “voting with our wallets”: buy more fruits, veggies, and other products from healthier suppliers. And buy less junk.

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