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Why the Food Industry Loves Michelle Obama

On the surface, Michelle Obama's command yesterday that the food industry "step it up" and sell healthier food to America's increasingly obese children may look like a stern, whip-cracking admonishment from our new obesity czar. Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth. Believe it or not, Michelle Obama's speech at the Grocery Manufacturers Association's Science Forum in Washington, DC was actually music to the food industry's ears, the verbal equivalent of a big, warm, fuzzy hug. Being asked to "step it up" and ramp up "efforts to reformulate your products" is exactly the sort of thing food manufacturers, who've been under the gun for years for marketing unhealthy food to kids, want to hear. This is advice they can work with.

For proof of how Obama's speech was received, look no further than the fact that attendees not only laughed in all the right places, as Marion Burros noted, but they gave the First Lady a standing ovation. That's right, a standing ovation.

There was no blaming, no talk of bad, over-processed foods. Only constructive criticism served up with a smile and a dash of humor.

Gleeful at the opportunity to be part of the solution, food executives wasted no time in pointing out that they already have made all sorts of wonderful improvements in their products and will continue to do so. "In recent years, our companies have reduced calories, sugar, fat and sodium in more than 10,000 products," Richard Wolford, Grocery Manufacturers Association chairman and chief executive officer of Del Monte Foods (DLM), said in a statement. "They have also enhanced the nutritional profile of many products with the addition of whole grains, fiber or other nutrients and created the informative and convenient 100-calorie pack." GMA and many of its member companies are already enthusiastic supporters of the First Lady's Let's Move initiative.

But here's the problem. Big food companies already sell healthy food. It's called plain Cheerios, Raisin Bran, Planters bags of nuts, dried fruit, yogurt, granola bars, bags of frozen vegetables, cans of beans, etc. But people don't buy nearly as much of this boring stuff as they do Lucky Charms, Pop Tarts, Oreo's, Mac N' Cheese and hot dogs.

The issue is not that there are no healthy choices in the supermarket, even among the packaged offerings in the much maligned center aisles -- though certainly there could be more. It's that there are still all these unhealthy, fattening products beckoning shoppers as they wheel their carts down row after row of brightly lit aisles. Even with more healthy products, the bad stuff's not going to disappear from shelves any time soon. Food companies would be committing financial suicide to do that.

So until Americans decide to change their eating habits and buy more of the healthy food that's already out there, it's hard to see how the obesity problem, childhood or otherwise, is going to get better.

Photo by Flckr user nitot

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