Obesity Report Chronicles the Sad State of America's Waistline -- and Tells Us How Great PepsiCo Is

Last Updated Jul 1, 2010 6:30 AM EDT

The seventh annual edition of the authoritative obesity report "F as in Fat" contains lots of the serious and sobering details you'd expect -- 28 states got fatter during 2009, with Mississippi still the fattest, and 40% of Latino kids are overweight versus 29% of white kids. But then a third of the way into the report, up pops a bizarre "personal perspective" from PepsiCo's (PEP) CEO Indra Nooyi in which she details the many ways her company is working to make America healthier.

"Helping consumers by building on our portfolio of wholesome and enjoyable foods is not just good business for PepsiCo -â€" it's the right thing to do for people everywhere," Nooyi chirps in a two-page soliloquy that reads like a press release and touts everything from Pepsi's pledge to reduce the sodium in its products by 25% by 2015 to its reduced sugar drinks like Trop50 and G2. No other food company is mentioned, just Pepsi. It's particularly jarring since the report is produced jointly by the respected Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust for America's Health, neither known for being corporate shills.

It's fine for Pepsi to promote its efforts to make its food healthier -- and as I've noted before, Pepsi is probably the most proactive of food companies in terms of making changes -- but since the food industry helped to create America's obesity problem, the inclusion of Nooyi's remarks in a public health report feel a bit like if Congress were to suddenly decide to give BP several pages with which to defend itself in forthcoming congressional reports on the oil spill.

Laura Segal, spokesperson for the Trust for America's Health, says that having Nooyi's comments in the report was an innocent attempt to have the "industry perspective" and not the result of any shady financial relationship.

Unlike other medical and public health groups that take money from the food industry, neither Robert Wood Johnson, which has committed $500 million over five years toward the goal of reversing the childhood obesity trend in the US by 2015, nor TAH receives any corporate money.

"We reached out to a number of companies and Pepsi was the first one to respond. We want to represent a range of opinions and the industry segment is a significant component of dealing with obesity," says Segal.

The "F As In Fat" report also featured other nine other commentaries from people involved in fighting obesity, including Senator Tom Harkin, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Yale's Kelly Brownell.

Adding Indra Nooyi, head of a company that makes Mountain Dew, Doritos and, let's not forget, Pepsi, to that list may have simply been an ill-conceived attempt to be inclusive. Those two pages might have read less like a free ad had someone from one of the industry trade groups written it.

But it also ties into the ongoing debate about what role the food industry should play in helping Americans slim down. Are food companies trusted partners who are committed to fundamental changes, or is getting people to eat healthier versions of processed food really a whole lot of Titanic deck chairs?

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