What Does “Stealth Health” Teach Us About Michelle Obama’s School Lunch & Labeling Changes?

In the media, the conflict is portrayed as being between Michelle Obama and the food companies. The poor customer wants to do the right thing, but the food companies make it hard.

But that’s not how it really works. Sadly, the Wall Street Journal story is behind a pay wall, but a summary is posted at Newser.com: “Fast Food’s New Trend: ‘Stealth Health.’

In the minds of customers, healthy food often means less-tasty food. At the same time, however, many clamor for healthier options. All this puts restaurants and food makers in a bind—and the solution, the Wall Street Journal reports, is “stealth health.” This refers to companies secretly improving the healthiness of their offerings without telling the customers, at least not until they’ve already gotten used to the altered version. “When you tell people something’s healthy, they think it doesn’t taste good,” says an exec at Boston Market.

In the fourth quarter of last year, that restaurant chain reduced sodium in several products; it finally told customers about it in February. Kraft didn’t tell anyone when it cut trans fats from Oreos in 2006. And General Mills kept quiet about sodium cuts over six years in Hamburger Helper, using ingredients such as garlic to maintain flavor. “It takes multiple months, if not years, to get the right equation between taste and health,” says a company health officer. But it all depends on the product and its audience: Fans of Progresso Soups, also made by General Mills, want to eat more healthily—so when sodium was cut in the soups, the company made sure customers knew. Like it or not, we may be seeing lower salt levels in our food soon: The FDA is readying new sodium guidelines, the AP reports.

So notice what is going on. The food companies are not teaching Americans to eat junk. Rather, they have very little power over what the customers prefer to eat.  They have to hide the changes and hope that the public adapts without realizing a change has been made.

The First Lady is not combating the food companies, but the customers.