For my penultimate post relating to the American Dietetic Association’s Food and Nutrition Conference & Expo (fun wrap-up post tomorrow!), I want to focus on the rhetoric one often hears at Big Food booths.
Whereas companies that sell real, whole food products focus on what they are actually selling (be it hemp seeds, green tea, or snacks made from whole, non-GMO ingredients), Big Food tends to rely on hype and deflection.
The Hershey’s booth was a particularly interesting case study. You should know that along with Aramark, Coca-Cola, and The National Dairy Council, Hershey’s was one of the conference’s premier sponsors (as you can see from this photo, this was no secret). I would express my outrage, but I unloaded it on Twitter while at the conference. Hershey’s has a three-year partnership deal with the ADA, by the way.
Hershey’s branding strategy is particularly interesting. First, there is “Hershey’s Moderation Nation” (more on that later). Their booth also had several “The Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition” logos. Yes — health and nutrition from the company with a ‘cookies and creme’ chocolate bar that:
- Has sugar as the first ingredient
- Contains partially hydrogenated oils
- Is made with likely genetically modified ingredients (high fructose corn syrup)
- Contains carcinogenic caramel color
Sure, they also offer non-alkalized dark chocolate with higher cocoa percentages and no frightening ingredients, but their product portfolio does not reflect nutrition or pure chocolate. I could understand a company like Endangered Species touting the health benefits of chocolate. Alas, they don’t need a PR boost from a self-created institute since the ingredient lists and sourcing/growing practices speak for themselves (FYI: Hershey’s is currently in hot water for labor rights abuses).
Whereas the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition took care of hype, Moderation Nation represented the ‘deflect’ strategy. The message? The usual Big Food talking point: it’s all about moderation (see bullet point number two of this post for my thoughts) and physical activity. To drive this point home, The Hershey booth had frequent ‘exercise’ breaks led by a fitness instructor. I personally witnessed a stretching session as well as a step-cardio meets zumba-with-maracas deal.
Undoubtedly, physical activity confers health benefits and is an important part of a wellness-centered lifestyle. What I object to is Big Food appropriating that message to wash their hands of any wrong doings (a topic Michele Simon touches on in her must-read book Appetite for Profit). Besides, the problem with many of Hershey’s products goes beyond ‘weight control’ or ‘calories in/calories out’. Sure, sugar adds empty calories, but it is also bad news from a cardiovascular and inflammation perspective.
And, so, when it comes to food companies, I find that my “rule” for choosing the right people applies: avoid braggers, and seek out the ones with strong, but quiet, confidence.