BUSINESS
02/28/2013 04:57 pm ET

Michelle Obama's WSJ Editorial Is At Odds With The Realities Of The Food Industry

Selling healthier food is just good business, according to First Lady Michelle Obama. We're not sure the food industry would agree.

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal Wednesday, Obama wrote that companies like Walmart and Walgreens are “proving conventional wisdom wrong” by increasing their offerings of healthier food and still making money off it.

“Every day, great American companies are achieving greater and greater success by creating and selling healthy products,” she wrote. “In doing so, they are showing that what's good for kids and good for family budgets can also be good for business.”

Obama is right that some businesses have managed to turn selling healthy food into an extremely profitable enterprise. Whole Foods, known for its healthy offerings, has increased its sales at an annual average rate of 13 percent over the past five years, according to the Motley Fool, and its returns have been much stronger than those of a typical grocery store. In addition, sales of organic foods grew by 9.5 percent in 2001, outpacing the traditional grocery industry, according to Business News Daily.

However, if you look outside retail business at the huge corporations that engineer and sell Americans processed food the picture gets a lot murkier. A recent bombshell investigative piece in The New York Times revealed the many ways the major food companies boosts their bottom line by making addictive and extremely unhealthy products. Indeed the NYT story begins with a meeting of major food executives who contemplate a proposal to address the childhood obesity crisis head on by making foods healthier.

The proposal died, Moss reports, after an executive from General Mills told the group:

“Don’t talk to me about nutrition,” he reportedly said, taking on the voice of the typical consumer. “Talk to me about taste, and if this stuff tastes better, don’t run around trying to sell stuff that doesn’t taste good.”

(Click over to The New York Times magazine to read the full fascinating story.)

It’s true, as Obama notes, that Walmart has boosted its efforts in recent years to offer healthier food that’s more affordable and easier to identify to make it increasingly accessible to consumers. The retailer has also opened more stores in areas of the country that are underserved in terms of their access to healthy groceries.

But even if grocers like Walmart offer more healthy options and make them affordable, major junk food and fast food brands are using tactics that make their products a must-have for consumers. Processed foods and soda-style drinks can be as addictive as cocaine and other drugs, according to a 2011 study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

And that’s no accident, according to Moss’ NYT piece; food companies adjust the sound of the crunch of a chip and meticulously play around with syrup flavor levels in sodas so that consumers’ desire for a product nearly rises to the level of a need.

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