Casualties of Super-Sizing

Is the recession an opportunity for produce in foodservice? Some say yes. No less an eminence than Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association, has pointed out that produce is generally less expensive than protein, so restaurants and other foodservice outlets can reduce costs and improve profits by reducing the use of proteins and increasing the use of produce.

He is correct, but the journey is long before we reach the destination. The problem is this: Though produce is typically less expensive than proteins, the starches are far less expensive than the produce. So in our protein-centric food culture, most restaurants use the protein as the draw. Then to fill up the plate, restaurants use copious amounts of mashed potatoes, rice or pasta. Produce gets relegated to an almost garnish-like role, and that pound of steak and mountain of mashed potatoes is served with two asparagus spears and a grape tomato.

We need a solution. It is, however, more than the produce industry that needs a solution. A new report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reports what we already knew: Obesity is a major problem and it is getting worse. In 1980 just 15 percent of U.S. adults were obese; now the number is in excess of 33 percent.

Especially troubling is that 13 percent of high school students are now obese with an additional 15.8 percent classified as overweight. Among low-income children aged 2 to 5, 14.9 percent are obese and 12.4 percent of all U.S. children aged 2 to 5 are obese.

These numbers point to a future burdened with high medical costs and illness due to the diseases of obesity —, especially diabetes. The cost, the lost human potential and the increase in unhappiness caused by all this is startling.

The Produce for Better Health Foundation’s Fruits & Veggies — More Matters message hasn’t had much of a role in restaurants and its message is somewhat opaque. Although the produce industry is fortunate to have the wind at its back as public health recommendations urge increased produce consumption, this is mostly because of an assumption that the more produce people eat, the less they will eat of items that are not as healthful.

Yet this is not always what happens at foodservice venues. The report references a seminal piece by Lisa R. Young and Marion Nestle, both of NYU, titled The Contribution of Expanding Portion Sizes to the U.S. Obesity Epidemic as well as another report, titled The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Obesity Initiative, to point out that serving sizes have been growing on a large range of items. Somehow a typical Chicken Caesar Salad today is a 790-calorie, 31⁄2-cup serving size, whereas 20 years ago the same item was typically a serving of 11⁄2 cups and only 390 calories. A Chicken Stir Fry went from 2 cups and 435 calories to 41⁄2 cups and 865 calories.

Restaurants need dramatically different ways of marketing food, and consumers need to think about food differently. The whole “Super Size” phenomenon is based on a classic business strategy: Offer more for less. The consumers pay a little more to lower the cost per ounce of the food they buy. Now, this may not be a problem at retail where one can buy a club pack and eat the contents over many meals. At a restaurant, however, the large portion sizes are mostly consumed right there, making it easy to overeat. Yet changing consumer attitudes so that they see the additional food as a negative is very hard.

David Kessler, former FDA Commissioner, has a new book out, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, and he explains that fat, sugar and salt promote the release of dopamine, which is associated with pleasure in the brain. According to Kessler, we crave the dopamine so much that we are driven to eat even when we are not hungry. He wants to rewire the population by culturally changing our perception of fat, sugar, and salt so they are seen as unappealing, much as there has been a big shift over time in the way cigarettes are perceived.

There are some efforts out there. Darden has a terrific little chain called Seasons 52, and no item has more than 475 calories, desserts are served in little shot glasses — although you can still fit 324 calories of pecan pie in a shot glass! It is, however, as they self-identify, “a casually sophisticated grill and wine bar,” and the price point means its constantly changing menu is not a very useful model for mainstream foodservice.

In the midst of a recession, the appeal of cheap starches and filling proteins can make it a difficult time to focus attention on the virtues of fruits and vegetables. Yet, far more than the prosperity of the produce industry depends on our changing both the way foodservice operators market and the way consumers think about different foods. We need to switch the dynamic so individuals don’t want just “more” like some impoverished Oliver Twist. Instead, what they want is truly good and healthy and will help them live better lives. Recession or not, the problem is too urgent to allow for delay.