Grocery Store Shelves Could Be America’s Greatest Obesity Concern

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than half of prepackaged foods have unhealthy sodium levels.

(Photo: Facebook/Doritos)

Apr 3, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Josh Scherer has written for Epicurious, Thrillist, and Los Angeles magazine. He is constantly covered in corn chip crumbs.

America’s food system seems to be changing for the better.

Kids are eating less fast food than they were 10 years ago, SNAP benefits are accepted at thousands of farmers markets across the nation, and farming practices that abuse antibiotics and rely on GMO crops are regularly condemned.

Still, the obesity crisis hangs over America like a death shroud. A government study published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease on April 2 offers one possible explanation: More than half of the foods that populate grocery store shelves are a far cry from healthy.

Researchers analyzed 3,900 products from major retail stores, using 2009 statistics from the Nielsen ScanTrack Database, which records all consumer purchases of food brands with more than $2 million in annual sales. They found that more than half the foods exceed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards for healthy sodium levels.

More than 70 percent of prepackaged pizzas, pastas, and meat dishes—and 50 percent to 70 percent of cold cuts, soups, and sandwiches—exceeded FDA “healthy” labeling standards for sodium.

“If you look at the sodium content, it does give you a good indication of how healthy the food would be,” said Linda Schieb, an epidemiologist at the CDC.

A study from the University of Helsinki in 2006 found that sodium intake is strongly correlated with obesity because it progressively increases thirst and—with the ubiquity of sugary drinks—causes a drastic increase in caloric intake.

Excess sodium is also considered a major preventable risk factor for hypertension by the American Heart Association. More than 90 percent of U.S. adults consume more than the recommended daily amount of sodium.

Researchers from the CDC also analyzed the sodium content in prepackaged food from grocery stores in different regions in the U.S. and found no significant differences. Even though obesity rates and sodium consumption vary across regions, chain grocery stores almost exclusively stock national brands of packaged foods.

Fortunately, many of these brand-name prepackaged foods are becoming less popular, and the parent companies are hemorrhaging cash. In the second quarter of 2014, Kellogg’s saw profits fall 16 percent, and General Mills experienced an equivalent drop in the third quarter. Kraft Foods’ profits fell a whopping 62 percent in 2014 compared with the previous year, which may have led to the recent merger with industry giant Heinz.

There’s no one solution to the obesity crisis, but the cogs finally seem to be turning in the right direction.