Globe and Mail: Food, beverage companies veil the reason you’re fat

Jan 29, 2015
Brent McFerran, assistant professor, Beedie School of Business.

Brent McFerran, assistant professor, Beedie School of Business.

The following article about research by Beedie School of Business assistant professor Brent McFerran  was published in the Globe and Mail on January 26, 2015.

By Rosanna Tamburi.

The majority of adults in more than half of all industrialized nations are overweight or obese.

A new study co-authored by Brent McFerran, assistant professor of marketing at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business in Burnaby, B.C., finds that the marketing tactics used by food and beverage companies play a major role in rising obesity rates. These marketing campaigns deflect attention away from the foods we eat (and that the companies produce) and emphasize the role of exercise in weight loss.

The study points out that while calorie intake, exercise and genetics all play a role in determining weight, the scientific literature points to overeating as the major culprit behind weight gain and obesity. The message, however, doesn’t seem to have filtered through to many consumers.

In six surveys conducted in the United States, South Korea, France and Hong Kong, the authors found that about half of respondents believed that poor diet was the primary cause of obesity. The rest blamed it on lack of exercise and genetics. What’s more, people’s beliefs about the causes of weight gain were closely correlated to their body mass index. Those who believed that diet was to blame were slimmer, even when controlling for other factors such as socioeconomic status and health.

Why the confusion? The authors argue that the advertising, promotional, lobbying and philanthropic efforts of food and beverage companies are partly to blame. “Food is one of the most marketed product categories and it’s one of the most astutely marketed product categories,” says Dr. McFerran.

“Certainly a more co-ordinated effort is needed to reach the public because these misbeliefs seem to persist,” he adds.

Dr. McFerran and his co-authors believe governments have a crucial role to play in correcting these perceptions and in making sure consumers are well educated about the link between diet and obesity. They suggest that governments regulate advertising of these products just as they do alcohol and tobacco.

They also call for a tax on products that are high in fat and sugar, arguing that the tax would reduce demand for these products while the revenues generated could be used to fund a public education campaign.

“We know that once that information is out there [it] drives behaviour,” Dr. McFerran says.

The article was published in the Summer 2014 issue of the California Management Review.

Read the full article on the Globe and Mail website.

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