Chicago IFT: Michael Jacobson, CSPI, the Food Babe and the curious impact of social media

I had the privilege of attending a recent meeting of the Chicago Section IFT (Institute for Food Technologists).  The guest speaker was Dr. Michael Jacobson, Executive Chairman of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), who spoke about America’s progress in becoming a healthier-eating nation.

Dr. Michael Jacobson

Dr. Michael Jacobson

Over the last 40 years or so, the CSPI has helped to reduce saturated fatssodium and sugar in our food supply, among other things.  While CSPI has often been a thorn in the side of Big Food in America, its efforts have resulted in meaningful change, usually brought about by government mandate (as opposed to corporate altruism).  And Jacobson is no party-line activist –  – he independently assesses the social benefits vs cost on any initiative, including things as controversial/PC as GMOs (he’s open-minded on this, in case you were wondering).

My key takeaway:  regardless of the advances in food science, our chances of becoming a healthier nation lie in the hands (and mouths) of the consumer.  The locus of influence in food and nutrition is becoming decidedly less institutional.

Food Scientists – heal!
Dr. Jacobson offered that while food scientists have culpability in having created most of the ‘Franken-foods’ that he reviles (“…a breakfast cereal that is nothing more than vitamin-enriched marshmallows…”), these scientists now play a key role in creating healthier alternatives that can be adopted by mainstream America.  

Two things occurred to me during Dr. Jacobson’s presentation, illustrating both the weakness and strength of the consumer:

1) You can build it but they will not necessarily come.  These healthier foods need to appeal to intended consumers for this to work, as was brought home by an attendee who commented that her school district’s new, more nutritional lunches, in addition to costing more, are also discarded much more often by the kids.

The problem is that consumers typically don’t want foods that make health claims.  Putting ‘reduced sodium’ on a package, for example, is almost like saying ‘don’t buy me’.

So the conundrum is:  how do you get people to eat healthier foods without them knowing it?  Not easy.

2) According to Dr. Jacobson, the rise in social media has accelerated the process overall, despite consumers’ sometimes misguided crusades.
Consumers, who previously had no voice, are now collectively applying pressure through social media.

Just this week, the so-called ‘Food Babe’ helped prompt the removal of azodicarbonamide from Subway bread, through a petition that is at 78,000 signatures and counting.  We have been unable to detect one shred of relevant credentials in the area of nutrition, food science, or science in general, about the Food Babe.  She apparently has an undergraduate degree in computer science.  But she cleans up well, is able to get access to influential people, and operates a successful blog.  And guess what – she’s helping dictate your food options!  Deal with it.

Vani Hari - the Food Babe

Vani Hari – the Food Babe

Earlier examples of removed ingredients include:
Kraft Singles removing an artificial preservative (sorbic acid)
General Mills’ Cheerios removing GMOs
And that’s just 2014.
Other recent examples are here, including Starbucks, Gatorade, Kraft Mac and Cheese, and Chick-Fil-A.  These are not inexpensive or simple changes to make, and speak to the power of the consumer.

Yes, the consumer is a fickle, capricious creature and quite often prone to acting immediately (or signing petitions) without checking facts.  But overall, the ability to project a collective voice is starting to make a difference in the food landscape – – and on balance, it appears to be for the better.

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