CPG companies overcome challenges to restrict portions to address rising obesity rates

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

CPG companies overcome challenges to restrict portions to address rising obesity rates
Portion control may be the best chance – and biggest challenge – at turning around the current obesity epidemic, according to industry experts at the Partnership for a Healthier America Summit in Washington, DC, this month.

“Portion control is the No. 1 way to help address obesity,”​ according to a McKinsey Global Institute report published in 2014, and it also is “the kind of thing that packaged goods companies can do – whether it is [smaller] cans or portion control information [on product labels] or the nature of the products you introduce,”​ Hank Cardello, director of the Obesity Solutions Initiative at Hudson Institute told attendees at the Summit.

“That is a biggy,”​ he said, challenging manufacturers in the audience not to accidently overlook portion control by focusing on “secondary and tertiary issues because we like to do it all. If we can just remember, one thing can make a big dent in the problem.”

Many manufacturers already are heeding this call to action, including Coca-Cola North America and Nestle, but according to representatives from each company, reducing portion sizes isn’t as straight forward as it might seem.

“When you talk about something as large as obesity, which is multifactorial, it is really big and hairy,”​ and quickly can become overwhelming unless “you take it one little bit at a time, and portion seems, to me, to be a good opportunity,”​ Wendy Johnson, vice president of Nutrition, Health and Wellness at Nestle Corporate Affairs, said at the conference.

Unfortunately, she said, the national conversation around portion size “died”​ in the 2000s, leaving manufacturers, public health advocates and regulators to tackle it from different angles, resulting in confusing, and at times conflicting, information for consumers.

For example, Johnson said, “at Nestle, one of the good things we have done is put thoughtful portions on the back our packages. But the FDA has since changed their regs so that the regs are based on what people are eating and the thoughtful portions are based on what people should be eating.”

Recognizing that “sometimes those things go like this,”​ Johnson said she would like to revive the national conversation around portion control to “have a better alignment around giving people the guidance they need and in a way that makes them actually change.”

Given that the issue is too large for one company to tackle alone, she called for a multi-stakeholder group to have a conversation about portions and create an action plan for industry as a whole to follow.

Technical and logistical challenges also can stymie efforts to restrict portion size, said Nancy Quan, chief technical officer at Coca-Cola North America.

She noted that when Coca-Cola launched mini-cans of its iconic carbonated beverages it did so to help limit calories to 90 and to help consumers see the beverages “as more of a treat.”

And while consumers loved the change, “the plant managers have not been my friend on trying to get all the packaging lines in. And so that is one of the challenges we faced is changing the asset base and trying to move to slim cans or smaller cans is not easy,”​ she said.

Other strategies for tackling obesity

Despite these challenges, both women agreed that the effort was well worth it. But it isn’t the only thing the companies are doing to fight obesity.

Coca-Cola, for example, continues to expand its portfolio to include “beverages for life,”​ including juice, organic tea and even dairy, Quan said. It also is shifting the company’s iconic Coke brand away from just the original formula to be an umbrella brand that more equally distributes focus across the options, including Diet Coke, Coke Zero and other lower or no calorie options.

The company also “relaunched and restaged Diet Coke earlier this year with some really exciting flavors”​ that the brand hopes will appeal to a wider, and younger, audience.

Coca-Cola is also partnering with Suja to learn more about “this whole area of just-in-time delivery and cold pressing and staying in tune with consumer trends,”​ which are moving towards healthier options, Quan said.

“We have a huge learning curve, but at the end of the day we think doing what is right for the consumers and evolving to meet what consumers want with a portfolio that represents everything,”​ she said.

Nestle takes a science-based approach

At Nestle, the company also is taking on obesity by funding nutritional research that will help it better understand what people are eating, the impact of certain nutritional properties on health outcomes and then looking for ways its business can help fill in the gaps, Johnson said.

In addition, the company continues to reduce nutrients of concern, such as sodium, sugar and saturated fat, while also adding nutritious options such as seeds, pulses and vegetable-based products, she said.

It also is shifting the company’s trademark brand, which used to focus mostly on the original Coke, to be a more inclusive

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