Obesity is an American epidemic. In 2015, more than one-third of U.S. adults – 78.6 million people – are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Much of the blame for this weight gain has been pinned on the fat-laden, high-calorie meals we eat in restaurants, and the junk food we buy in grocery stores.
"If you are trying to deal with obesity, it's all about calories," says Hank Cardello, director of the obesity solutions initiative at the Hudson Institute.
Lately, a quiet revolution has begun. Both fast-food chains and food manufacturers are switching to more healthful ingredients.
Just this year, restaurants and food manufacturers have trumpeted a steady stream of decisions to improve the quality of their products, including:
- Removing soda from kids' meals. In January, Wendy's removed sodas as an option from kids' meals. McDonald's, Burger King, Dairy Queen, Subway, Chipotle and Panera all have made similar decisions.
- Reducing artificial colorings and flavorings in foods. Heineken has removed caramel coloring from Newcastle brown ale. Nestle chocolate candy, Kraft macaroni and cheese, and General Mills cereals are losing their artificial colorings and flavorings.
Other companies that pledged this year to remove artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and/or preservatives include Taco Bell, Panera Brad, Papa John's, Pizza Hut and Subway.
- Dropping controversial ingredients from foods. Ingredients that have disappeared from some food products include titanium dioxide (Dunkin Donuts doughnuts), human antibiotics (McDonald's and Tyson chicken products), GMOs (Chipotle corn and soy ingredients) and aspartame (from Diet Pepsi)..
Why is it happening now?
Companies are making these moves in response to demand from the marketplace, says Cardello, a former food industry executive.
In recent years, more attention has been focused on the negative aspects of foods sold in grocery stores and restaurants.
Bloggers who focus on food issues and initiatives such as First Lady Michelle Obama's "Partnership for a Healthier America" have helped educate millions about the health consequences of poor eating decisions, Cardello says.
As consumers have learned more about the potentially unhealthful ingredients in many food products, some shoppers and restaurant patrons have started to search out more healthful alternatives.
"The numbers of people who want better-for you-food is really burgeoning," he says.
He says younger consumers – especially millennials – are at the forefront of the movement. But parents of all ages also want better food options.
"This is driven by a desire to serve their kids healthier fare," Cardello says.
Although such ingredient-conscious consumers represent just a slice of the overall marketplace, their numbers are growing, Cardello says.
"The trend is not a fad anymore," he says. "I don't see it going away."
Businesses react to consumer demand
As demand for more healthful foods has grown, businesses have started to tailor their products to this slice of the population in hopes of increasing sales.
"They are realizing that they need to respond to what a growing segment is demanding," Cardello says. "The bottom line is the bottom line."
With more restaurants and food manufacturers jumping aboard the bandwagon, options for eating more healthful food should grow.
That could help bring down obesity rates – but only if consumers do their part. Too often in the past, the blame for surging obesity rates has been placed squarely on the shoulders of the food industry, Cardello says
"We do kind of let the consumer off the hook," he says. "There has to be some involvement and engagement by consumers not to consume as much."