Marketing Sugar, Salt, and Fat

I first became aware of the global food company Nestle marketing infant formula in Panama during my Peace Corps service in the late 1960’s. Before then, every young mother breast fed her newborn — infant formula simply wasn’t available. But as companies like Nestle looked for new markets, they began sending “lactation consultants” into clinics, rural villages and homes throughout Central America to persuade  young mothers that powdered infant formula was better. We’re talking about formula that needed to be mixed with water, often water that was unsafe to drink for adults, never mind infants. Powdered formula could also be mixed at half strength to make it last longer, cutting important nutrients to growing brains and tiny bodies. The results, as you can imagine, were not good. Breast milk dried up, and the young mother was locked into feeding her baby something less good than what was available naturally.

Now, Nestle is marketing what I might call junk food to poor populations in huge countries like Brazil.

“Children’s squeals rang through the muggy morning air as a woman pushed a gleaming white cart along pitted, trash-strewn streets. She was making deliveries to some of the poorest households in this seaside city, bringing pudding, cookies and other packaged foods to the customers on her sales route.

Celene da Silva, 29, is one of thousands of door-to-door vendors for Nestlé, helping the world’s largest packaged food conglomerate expand its reach into a quarter-million households in Brazil’s farthest-flung corners.

As she dropped off variety packs of Chandelle pudding, Kit-Kats and Mucilon infant cereal, there was something striking about her customers: Many were visibly overweight, even small children.”

The dilemma is that Nestle’s door to door locally hired consultants get work, paid jobs all too rare in the unskilled population. That’s a valuable contribution to the local economy. But what they are selling is often detrimental to the households they visit.

In fairness, Nestle has made a significant effort to lower the amount of fat, salt, and sugar in their packaged foods. But that’s not what the local populations seem to choose. They choose the sweet stuff, the salty snacks, the fatty, filling foods.

I haven’t seen door to door Nestle consultants in the village in Panama, but I have seen a rise in obesity. During the Peace Corps years, most didn’t have enough to eat. But what they did eat was nutritious: rice and beans, locally baked bread, fruit that grew in the back yard. Whole classes of foods were under-represented in their diets, like dairy and vegetables. But much of what they ate was good food. Now, it’s not rare to see kids have an orange soda and a bag of chips for breakfast.

Companies exist to make money for shareholders. Families get to choose what they want to eat. And the health consequences of skyrocketing obesity are unavoidable.

What a terrible dilemma.

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