business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Even though I get paid to write and talk about how people eat and cook, I have to admit something terrible: I’m getting overwhelmed. It’s just that everything is too complicated these days.

Years ago, comedian Jack Mason had a wonderful routine on food. Mason would tick through a litany of foods that science had determined were the worst things you could ever eat. That is, until science found something even worse.

Today, even Mason, who has a wonderful gift of making any explanation sound incredibly complicated, is flummoxed. On a YouTube video about food choices, he sounds off against the never-ending run of competing studies on whether foods are good or bad for you. Chemist and activist Linus Pauling, Mason says, spent years of his life promoting the importance of taking massive doses of vitamin C and lived to be nearly 100. “Turns out, he would have lived to 200 without it.”

Mason may have a point.

Just think of what we’ve heard lately. Eating fish prevents or at least slows dementia. Wine makes us healthier and maybe improves our sex life. Eating chocolate helps limit the damage and risk of death from heart attacks. And, in possibly my favorite, a friend of my son’s—and a pre-med student at that—explained how the food coloring in blue M&Ms have been linked to healing spinal injuries.

Don’t believe me; check any of those headlines on Google. You don’t have to look far as all of these studies came out in just the past few weeks.

Now think for a second what these messages say to our shoppers. While certainly there are some who will chow down on handfuls of M&Ms as preventative medicine before entering the X-games, I’m betting a vast majority rolled their eyes and ignored the news. They have simply heard too much from too many with too little reason to believe.

Sorry to say, that’s a problem. Unless you have been living under a rock, health is a big issue. And amid all the screaming and confusion surrounding the issue, health care costs are out of control and something must be done. But let’s not dwell on the politics or legislation. Instead, let’s examine the impact on this industry because the impact is coming.

The New York Times reported this Sunday on the wellness initiative at the Cleveland Clinic. The hospital no longer hires smokers and the rules aren’t likely to stop there. Delos M. Cosgrove, the clinic’s chief executive, says if he could he would also stop hiring obese people. Pointing out the costs obesity puts on the health system, Cosgrove says the nation needs to rethink its weighty problem. “We should declare obesity a disease and say we’re going to help you get over it.”

The line from such thinking to the aisles of supermarkets is very, very short. But as usual, there is opportunity in this challenge. Re-read MNB from last week to absorb the words of Whole Foods’ CEO John Mackey, who pledges to return his company’s focus to healthy eating. Whole Foods may be having issues at the moment, but Mackey is onto something big. (Of course, he also found out last week the danger of getting political when he came out in the Wall Street Journal against the Obama administration’s health care reform plans, only to enrage liberal Whole Foods shoppers who started using words like “boycott.” Talk about things getting complicated…)

Shoppers don’t know who to trust. They face the constant barrage of news telling them all the products that are killing them plus all the products saving them and they react like Jackie Mason, without the comic touch. They get confused, frustrated, overwhelmed and angry.

Now think of the opportunity to help them sort through the confusion, to help them make better choices and to better understand the nutrients and attributes of various foods. Sure it’s tough for even supermarkets to sort through the clutter of news, but that’s what shoppers ache for us to do: to simplify their lives and satisfy their desires.

Great comedians get rich mocking the complicated. Good businesses do the opposite.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .
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