Healthy junk food?

Hank Cardello Hero

Yes, says food industry veteran Hank Cardello, who wants companies to step up their game when it comes to better-for-you products.

Hank Cardello
Hank Cardello

Future consumers should be able to have their cake and eat it too—without getting fat.

So says Hank Cardello, who directs the Obesity Solutions Initiative at the Hudson Institute and wrote the best-selling book “Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat and How the Food Industry Can Fix It” (Harper Collins, 2009). Products like soft drinks, burgers, fries, pizza and cupcakes should all be reconfigured as lower in calories and “better for you” to help alleviate the ongoing obesity crisis in America and other developed nations, argues this noted consultant to food industry powerhouses. Cardello contends this will enable the industry to grow even as the waistlines of consumers shrink.

We’ve got to take french fries and burgers and everything else and … find ways to make them better for you without compromising them. This way, you don’t ask the consumers to change their eating habits.”
—Hank Cardello

Healthy junk food, Cardello maintains, need not be an oxymoron. “If we are going to make progress, we are going to have to focus on taking the most popular foods and modifying them,” he says. “That should be a rallying call for food scientists, kind of like putting a man on the moon. We’ve got to take french fries and burgers and everything else and … find ways to make them better for you without compromising them. This way, you don’t ask the consumers to change their eating habits.”

In fact, companies are already moving in this direction, Cardello explains. McDonald’s hamburgers are, as it happens, leaner than those of competing chains, and Chick-Fil-A has reduced the amount of chicken in its sandwiches—saving the company money and reducing calories for the consumer.

A man on a mission

Cardello, who is 63, has spent more than 35 years working in and around the food industry. After earning an MBA from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, he spent the early part of his career as an executive at General Mills, Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, RJR Nabisco and Sunkist Soft Drinks, where he was president. He then turned his attention to functional foods—products modified to promote health or prevent disease—by working as a consultant and an executive for startups that sold ingredients including omega-3 fatty acids, a food additive made from calf’s milk aimed at enhancing the immune system, and a cooking oil without trans fats or cholesterol.

A midlife health crisis in the late 1980s helped turn Cardello from an industry insider into a consultant, entrepreneur and author determined to use his influence to improve the food system. “I just crashed. I was burning the candle at both ends. I thought I had the flu. They gave me antibiotics. Nothing worked,” Cardello recalls. He decided that after he got better, he would “commit myself to helping people to live longer and healthier lives.”

The consulting firm that he launched in 1987, Chapel Hill, N.C.-based 27 Degrees North, advises the food industry on ways to address the obesity crisis. For example, he’s currently working with the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a coalition of food brands and retailers that collaborates with nonprofit groups including the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Parent Teacher Association to reduce childhood obesity. The foundation’s industry members say that since 2009 they have collectively removed 6.4 trillion calories from the marketplace, which represents a 78 calorie reduction per person, per day. Meantime, its Together Counts educational campaign, which promotes family meals and exercise, has reached about half of the elementary school students in the United States.

“It’s very challenging to show cause and effect, but we are seeing a plateauing of obesity rates—and we are actually seeing some declines for kids,” Cardello says.

Good food is good business

Cardello says he would like to end the polarization that has long characterized the obesity debate. Often, public health advocates blame big food companies for selling food with too much fat, sugar and salt, says Cardello. Put on the defensive, business executives note that they offer healthy choices and say consumers need to take responsibility for their own well-being. And politicians swoop in with proposals to tax junk food and ban super-size sodas. “They operate with a limited toolkit. The toolkit says tax, ban, constrain, regulate. Period,” he says. “It’s parental and futile.”

Despite the progress cited by Cardello—obesity rates have held steady lately and they appear to have declined for some children—more than one-third (or 78.6 million) of adult Americans and 17 percent (or 12.5 million) of American children are obese, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because getting people to change their eating habits is hard, and because research suggests that most diets don’t work, Cardello says it’s up to the food industry to find ways to make foods more nutritious and reduce the number of calories sold overall.

In fact, there’s evidence that such a strategy is even good business. In a series of industry-funded studies conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Hudson Institute, Cardello has found that “consumer products companies with a higher proportion of their sales in lower-calorie, better-for-you foods demonstrate superior sales growth, operating margins, operating profit groups and reputation.” The most recent study, published in 2014, analyzed the sales of 16 major food and beverage companies that are part of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation and found that lower-calorie products drove virtually all of their growth, accounting for 52.5 percent of sales and 99 percent of growth over a five-year period ending Dec. 31, 2012.

The Coca-Cola Co., for example, has found that customers are drinking less soda and turning to beverages perceived as healthier—Dasani and Vitaminwater bottled water, Powerade sports drinks, Minute Maid juices and Honest Tea, all owned by Coca-Cola. The company says it offers 180 low- and no-calorie beverages in the United States and Canada, representing nearly one-third of its beverage volume in North America.

“I wouldn’t have believed that when I was in the industry,” says Cardello, who used to market Diet Coke.

Investing in the future

Still, there are limits to what the companies can do. In 2012 and 2013, Campbell Soup acquired Bolthouse Farms, the baby-carrot company that makes healthy snacks for kids out of fruits and vegetables, and Plum Organics, a health-oriented baby food company. Both are growing nicely, the company says. But when Campbell took sodium out of its iconic chicken noodle soup, sales declined.

That’s why Cardello says consumer products firms need to beef up their efforts to develop and market lower-calorie, better-for-you alternatives to popular foods, “as opposed to trying to come out with twigs and berries.” One big opportunity, he says, is for the industry “to really drill down on what makes the most popular foods more filling. … Satiety is a big buzzword.” Research shows that low-calorie density, high-volume foods like oatmeal, for example, leave people who eat them feeling fuller. “Maybe you then don’t have that mid-morning snack,” he says.

More work needs to be done on reducing portion sizes too, Cardello contends, citing such successful examples as 100-calorie snack packs of Oreo cookies, 90-calorie cans of Coke and Mars’ pledge to limit candy bars to 250 calories.

Ultimately, says Cardello, he and the groups he advises like to find the common ground where the industry and anti-obesity activists can agree. “What’s important to me is that we get support from both sides of the aisle,” he says, because that’s the key to making faster progress.

Marc Gunther

Marc Gunther writes and speaks about business and sustainability. Based in Bethesda, Md., he is editor-at-large of Guardian Sustainable Business US and a blogger at

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