No matter how you slice it, the food industry has not really been a part of the solution for America’s tens of millions of diabetics. Some marketers do think they are reaching out, but in truth they are clueless about what moves and motivates a diabetic when he or she is purchasing food and beverage products.
Here’s the low-down from a diabetic guy who’s observed the U.S. food and beverage industry for nearly 30 years — almost all national and regional ‘branded’ packaged foods in a traditional supermarket are not diabetic-friendly. How can they be when you must turn every package over and carefully scrutinize its ingredients? Not one mainstream line of brand-name products exists which a diabetic can confidentially pick up, knowing that the product will not send their blood sugar levels skyrocketing.
It’s easy to be fooled in the supermarket aisle. For example, the other day I picked up a product that listed 8 carbs per serving. Then I looked closer and discovered that each serving was equivalent to one-quarter of a cup. One quarter of a stinking cup! Why not just list a one-cup serving and the real carb count and let the chips fall where they may? Why do marketers do this? Because they don’t want to scare off consumers. For a diabetic that ‘8 carbs per serving’ looks pretty darn good, until you learn that the serving size isn’t enough to satisfy the appetite of a common house fly. Worse, this sort of nutrition labeling gobbledygook goes on in every aisle in the supermarket, in virtually every category of food.
After the debacle of the first low-carb frenzy in the very early years of the millennium, marketers today are hardly talking about low-carb; it went off their radar screens as fast as it went on. They were disappointed in the results, and the lack of consumer interest in their reconfigured low-carb offerings. So they bopped on out, although they were the actual culprits behind the demise of that first low-carb boom. The marketers hadn’t done their homework, and they didn’t commit to serious research and development. They simply rushed to market with under-developed products that failed to meet the consumer litmus tests of flavor and taste.
What good is a packaged low-carb product if its main accomplishment is to insult the palate? The food companies have no one but themselves to blame for the low-carb flame-out. They saw a bandwagon roll by carrying the banner of a hot new trend, and they all jumped in with little or no understanding of what it is a low-carb consumer really wants and needs. Diabetics want good taste, just like everyone else, and more precise labeling information without all the quarter-cup-per-serving gibberish. We want better information on the nutrition label that speaks directly to the diabetic, or perhaps a symbol that indicates a particular product truly is diabetic-friendly. This doesn’t mean big letters on the front of the package that spell out L-O-W C-A-R-B, but rather, information that makes it easier for a diabetic to identify a product that fits his or her dietary regimen.
But what really is needed are products designed specifically for diabetics, in serving sizes that match up with their daily carb needs. This, however, would require that food marketers give more than lip service to the diabetic dilemma, and recognize it for what it is, a consumer demographic in this country that is bigger than the populations of countries like Venezuela, Taiwan and the Netherlands, and likely to get bigger than that in the years to come.
Think about it — according to 2008 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24 million people in America have diabetes which includes 6 million people who don’t know they have the disease, while at least 57 million are prediabetic. Prediabetic? That means 57 million Americans are flirting around on the edges of this nasty disease and are likely to become diabetic unless they do a better job of managing the types of foods they consume each day. And moreover, Emory University’s K.M. Venkat Narayan, former head of the CDC, and his research team have concluded that 48.3 million Americans will have diabetes by 2050. Are we talking epidemic? Dr. Martin Silink, former president of the International Diabetes Federation, has called diabetes“one of the biggest health catastrophes the world has ever seen.”
If the food industry’s big multinationals require a more global perspective, well, there are at least, according to 2006 UN figures, over 230 million diabetics worldwide. My guess is that in these four years since the UN figures came out, there are tens of millions more diabetics around the globe. China alone has 39 million diabetics with India trailing close behind at 30 million. These are conservative estimates. With numbers like these, I wonder how the diabetic demographic cannot be a serious target for intervention and innovation by America and the world’s largest food companies?
In a nutshell, the food industry needs to get cracking since it holds the key to making it easier for diabetics to better manage their condition with foods specially designed for their needs. It’s true that eating fresh food is always preferable, but let’s be realistic, not every diabetic is going to plant a garden or become a vegetarian or vegan. Most of us will look to the food industry and the products in the supermarket.
I believe that what’s good for a diabetic is good for joe-average-consumer, especially in a country now so focused on issues of health. Big marketers are blowing it by ignoring diabetics. Reaching out to us is easy. Marketers need to kick up their interest in this disease and the millions who deal with it daily, and aggressively develop products that assist diabetics here and worldwide. Without the food industry as a committed and willing advocate for diabetics, the fight will be a whole lot tougher.