Nestlé is the world’s largest food company. Headquartered in Switzerland, it operates 456 factories and employs 283,000 people worldwide. Much of its business revolves around making us fat. And since that side of the business is doing so well, it has decided to branch into the diet industry too.
Nestlé is the name behind a vast range of sweeties (Kit Kat, Wonka, Smarties, Aero, Violet Crumble and Allen’s Sweets to name just a few) and their range of ice-cream is second to none (Peter’s, Dixie, Skinny Cow and Connoisseur are all part of the portfolio)
They also do a nice range of sugar filled ‘health food’. Including things like Fruit Fix (72% sugar), Nesquik (99% sugar), Milo (46% sugar), muesli bars (up to 31% sugar) and a huge range of cereals (under the Uncle Toby’s brand), boasting healthy gems like Healthwise (30% sugar) and Oats Temptations (34% sugar).
It’s perhaps a little less well known that Nestlé is also the company behind some of the biggest brands in the weightloss industry. They own the Optifast diet shakes promoted strongly by the doctors at the Wesley Hospital Weightloss centre, the Musashi brand of shakes and supplements for serious gym junkies and even the Lean Cuisine range of frozen diet meals.
I found all of those brands by looking (carefully) at the Nestlé web site. But strangely I didn’t find any mention of their biggest weightloss business – Jenny Craig. That’s right, Jenny Craig, the little ole diet outfit founded in Melbourne in 1983 (and purchased by Nestlé in 2006 – for over $800 million) is now one of the biggest weightloss corporations on the planet.
The science on sugar consumption is unequivocal. Eating large amounts of sugar is the most effective way to pile on the unwanted kilo’s. It’s also the most effective way to ensure you’re a candidate for heart disease and a list of other conditions that doesn’t bear thinking about.
By definition, Nestlé’s diet products and Jenny Craig programs are sold to people who are overweight. So Nestlé is selling those people a “cure” to a condition which was in no small part caused by consumption of Nestlé’s own products.
Ok, so Nestlé has spotted a growing (pun intended) market and made sure it’s got the products to address the need. Their shareholders would be disappointed if they didn’t do this. But its ethically dubious (putting it mildly) to sell people a substance which makes them fat and then sell them the ‘cure’ (without at least telling them you are the same people doing the selling).
If the cure doesn’t actually work (and the purveyor knows this) then we are well on the track to outrageously unethical (if not downright immoral) corporate behaviour. So, does Jenny Craig work?
A systematic review of the published research (on commercial weightloss programs) conducted in 2005 revealed that of the 1,500 available studies only 10 (!) met the inclusion criteria relating to study quality (because many studies are very short term, very small studies usually sponsored by the entity selling the diet). The researchers couldn’t find a single credible study of Jenny Craig and, of the rest, only one was a high quality, multi-site randomized trial.
That trial (of Jenny Craig’s primary competitor, Weight Watchers) found that if you could convince people to stick to the diet for two years (less than three quarters did), they lost a whole 3 kilograms (they started at an average of 94 kg and ended at 91kg after two years! – where do I sign up?). And for that privilege the dieters paid US$167 every three months (or US$445 per kg lost – which by the way is significantly less than an equivalent Jenny Craig diet would cost).
Granted, that study was based on Weight Watchers and not Jenny Craig, but it seems this astounding lack of success is not a one-off observation.
A 2007 UCLA review of 31 credible long term weight loss studies found that most people on calorie restricting diets (such as that promoted by Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers) initially lost 5 to 10 percent of their body weight. But they also found that the majority of people regained all the weight (plus a bit more) within 12 months. Sustained weight loss was found only in a very, very small minority of participants.
In the computer software industry, a persistent conspiracy theory about anti-virus software manufacturers has always bubbled just below the surface of acceptable dinner party chit chat. The theory goes that most of the worst viruses are in fact written by secret skunkworks sponsored by Antivirus software makers (the people being paid to get rid of them). By constantly creating new viruses, the need for their cures grows exponentially.
The software virus theory has never been proven (and probably never will be). But when it comes to what we put in our mouths, exactly that kind of thing is going on right before our eyes (if we care to look).
Sugar is a highly addictive substance that sells product. A food maker will always want to have more sugar than the product next to theirs on the shelves. Unfortunately it has the side-effect of making us fat.
If having a sugar loaded product means the customer gets fatter, then (from Nestle’s perspective) that’s another market opportunity. If the cure to the fatness is only temporary (and doesn’t cure the addiction to sugar), so much the better. Then you’ve got both sides of the business generating repeat income for each other.
Maybe Nestlé knows all this (and plans things this way) or maybe they’re just lucky, but whether Nestlé knows it or not, selling the disease and a non-cure sure isn’t hurting their (expanding) bottom line.