OFPA explores industry's healthy food trend

April 5, 2012
Contact Information:

Dr. Renee Threlfall, Department of Food Science
479-575-4677 / rthrelf@uark.edu

By Dave Edmark, Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station
479-575-5647 / dedmark@uark.edu

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SPRINGDALE, Ark. -- The food industry is active in the current trend toward encouraging healthy eating, but "you can't tell people they need to cook healthier unless you give them the tools to do that," a Wal-Mart executive said at the Ozark Food Processors Association convention on April 4.

Joe Quinn, Wal-Mart senior director for issue management and strategic outreach, addressed the OFPA's 106th Annual Convention and Exposition that centered on the theme of "Healthy Food Trend: Keeping Your Products Competitive." He discussed the company's recent efforts to encourage better diets, such as the new "Great for You" icon that will begin appearing on some of Wal-Mart's in-house Great Value branded products this year. About 20 percent of its Great Value products that Wal-Mart determines to be eligible by meeting particular nutrition standards will carry the icon, which will be used in consumer education to encourage incremental changes in diet, Quinn said. 

Quinn said Wal-Mart is also addressing nutrition issues by opening 275 to 300 stores in urban and rural "food deserts" – areas not served by grocery stores – between now and 2016. The company has also begun working with the "Sesame Street" television program to educate children about healthy food choices and has donated $2.2 million to the Sesame Workshop for that purpose. Wal-Mart is also partnering with the American Heart Association to make heart-healthy recipes available to consumers.

Quinn offered a quote from Bill Simon, president and CEO of Wal-Mart U.S., who said, "No American family should have to choose between food that is good for them and food they can afford."

Food product developers seeking to make more nutritious offerings for children should consider what children like, how to improve snacks and how to produce balanced meals, said Jamie Baum, an assistant professor of food science at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. The industry can help by reducing sugars and sodium in products, removing trans fats, making decreased portion sizes and increasing the availability of plant-based proteins, she said. Baum also called on the industry to reduce advertisements of less healthy foods and increase access to healthy foods by making them more affordable. 

"Parents want healthy foods that are nutritious and easy to prepare," she said. "Kids want foods that taste great."

Baum cited statistics showing that 34 percent of American adults are obese, and 25 percent of that group was obese during childhood. Obesity prevalence in children has tripled since 1980. One-fifth of children eat six snacks a day. The chief sources of sugar in children's diets come from soda, energy and sports drinks, grain-based desserts and dairy desserts. Ninety percent of children older than 8 don't consume a recommended amount of vegetables, she said.

The images that children see play a role in their eating choices, Baum said, pointing to another statistic that 83 percent of food advertisements on children's television programs are for snack foods, fast foods and sweets.

Since 2000, Tyson Foods has launched initiatives to voluntarily label allergens in its products, reduce trans fats, update its nutrition guidelines and reduce products' sodium content. Molly Miller, a Tyson senior food technologist, said the sodium reduction effort demonstrated the issues that must be considered in addition to the nutritional aspect, such as the effects on a product's shelf life and the inhibition of pathogens.

Food product developers are faced with significant challenges, Miller continued, as they consider ingredients, costs, technology and regulatory issues. Among consumers, she said, "Taste always trumps nutrition."

Maureen Dolan, an assistant professor at Arkansas State University, explained current issues surrounding mislabeling of seafood products' nutritional contents. Following a flurry of national news coverage of the problem last year, Applied Food Technologies of Florida implemented a DNA barcoding technique to identify fish species. Proper labeling contributes to efforts to maintain high standards of the nation's food supply and consumer health, she said.

Mark Cochran, U of A System vice president for agriculture, welcomed the audience to the convention and noted the frequent occurrence of industry-backed research grants for food safety projects in the food science department led by its "internationally recognized faculty."

The OFPA convention opened April 3 with its annual golf tournament held at Shadow Valley Country Club in Rogers. A record 93 golfers played in the event with proceeds benefiting the OFPA scholarship fund. Scholarships sponsored by OFPA and its members were awarded to seven students. In addition, nine students competed in a scientific poster competition and four students participated in presentation sessions. The convention had 61 exhibitors and more than 300 attendees.