Wanted: Someone with sizzle to sell nutrition

June 12, 1991|By Charlyne Varkonyi

WASHINGTON, D.C. — We all know by this time that our diets should be high in carbs and low in fat and cholesterol, yet we eat a salad with diet dressing for the main course and reward ourselves with chocolate cheesecake for dessert.

OK, once people know what they should eat, how do we get them to actually eat it?

The answer, according to consumer advocates and nutritionists, the same ingredient that makes us buy a Madonna album or crave a Mazda Miata. You gotta sell the sizzle.

The suggestions were part of a two-day seminar on "Diet and Health -- Where is America Going?" -- sponsored by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer interest group celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Carol Tucker Foreman, former head of the Consumer Federation of America and assistant secretary of agriculture for food and consumer services in the Carter administration, says nutritionists and health officials are facing the same problem that Woody Allen wrote about in his book, "Without Feathers." A shirt maker who had a good product was wondering why the guy down the street was selling his shirts and he wasn't. Suddenly, there was thunder and a great booming voice.

"Abe, about thy shirts," God said. "Put an alligator over the pocket."

Ms. Foreman added, "What we have to do is find a better alligator."

What we need is a well-respected symbol to sell nutrition, said Ms. Foreman, who now runs a public policy consulting firm that works with public interest groups as well as corporations. And no one is better than the top man himself -- President Bush, who could form a National Council for Good Nutrition similar to the National Council for Physical Fitness.

"Instead of banishing broccoli and promoting pork rinds, he could be seen on TV chomping on carrots," she said. "The president could regale the media with talk about nutrition. . . . Good nutrition sells. What we need is a good messenger. We could begin by starting at the top."

She suggested that government also:

*Provide tax incentives for good nutrition, taxing more heavily the foods that are bad for health.

*Encourage production of healthful foods by rewriting food regulations such as the Standards of Identity, which now favor high-fat foods. The regulations, which were written to protect the consumer, require hot dogs, for example, to contain at least 30 percent fat.

*Banish foods such as high-fat hot dogs and whole milk from school lunches.

*Control sale of high-fat products so they are sold only in certain kinds of stores. She says banning such products would be going too far. We wouldn't want to replay the days of Prohibition, with people selling bootleg croissants and would-be shoppers being forced to "knock three times and ask for Joe."

Mona Doyle, a consultant to major corporations and a trend watcher, agreed that we need a salesman with sizzle. What we need, she said, is a rugged fruit and vegetable man -- a cross between Tom Selleck and the Marlboro man.

She said her rugged spokesman was a $100-billion idea, but provided a list of ideas that she predicted would generate at least $1 billion in sales. Here are some of the best:

*Food retailers could develop nutritional boutiques in the supermarkets where shoppers could go to one place and be reminded of all the things they should eat.

*Signs could recognize the vegetarian lifestyle. Like stores that have signs advertising "kosher and non-kosher foods sold here," the new signs could be "vegetarian and non-vegetarian foods sold here."

*Supermarkets, which are sure to become more and more the providers of ready-to-eat fresh foods, should give shoppers complete nutritional information with their take-out items.

*Stores could provide bonus points for purchase of healthy foods as they now provide cents-off coupons, triggered by purchases at automated check-outs. Those who buy unhealthy foods would lose points and therefore pay more.

*Fast-food restaurants should continue to provide alternatives to fried foods for take-out.

All of these changes will be gradual, because the good life is still associated with prime rib and potatoes covered in sour cream, according to Robert Pritikin, president of the Nathan Pritikin Research Foundation in Santa Monica, Calif., a chain of centers that studies relationships between diet and disease. Think of the process of changing from whole to skim milk. After a while, people start to like the foods they now dislike.

"Isn't it interesting how your favorite childhood foods are things you now hate?" he asked. "Taste is learned and it can change."

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