Frito-Lay, the PepsiCo subsidiary, is removing trans fatty acid from its biggest chips brands, in the hope of sidestepping criticism over the waist-size of America's youth. As more evidence links food and drink manufacturers' activities to obesity rates, firms increasingly run the risk of legal action. The industry must increase its focus on finding ways to help solve the obesity problem.

PepsiCo's Frito-Lay division, the US' largest producer of snack foods, plans to eliminate all trans fatty acid from three of its most popular brands of chips - Doritos, Cheetos and Tostitos - by early 2003.

Frito-Lay North America CEO Abelardo Bru says that the company hopes to help fight obesity among American youths. According to Centers for Disease Control statistics, 14% of teenagers and 13% of children aged 6-11 years were overweight in 1999. Between 1986 and 1998, obesity among African-American and Hispanic children increased by more than 120%; for white children, the figure was around 50%.

Several approaches have been proposed to stop the nation's expanding waist-size. Many state politicians have lobbied for special excise taxes on soft drinks. Meanwhile, labeling requirements have also become far more stringent - first through contents labels and then nutrition labels, educating consumers about the products they buy.

However, it's not clear that consumers actually read these labels, or that they comprehend the complicated information given. For example, most consumers will not realize that despite Frito-Lay's move, the total calorie and fat content of Doritos, Cheetos and Tostitos will remain almost the same.

Legislators and attorneys are increasingly highlighting scientific studies that link the activities of CPG manufacturers to obesity levels - and just as second-hand smoke brought down Big Tobacco by showing that non-smokers can still be the victims of tobacco-related health problems, the prevalence of childhood obesity could bring down CPG manufacturers.
Unlike tobacco firms, CPG companies will not be able to pass on settlement costs to customers, making it still more important for CPG manufacturers to increase the focus on finding ways to help solve the obesity problem - such as developing and leveraging innovative ingredients to improve the taste of low-fat food at competitive prices.

Related research: Datamonitor, "Childhood Obesity 2002" (DMCM0100)