By now, consumers and companies are familiar with the food industry’s challenges during the coronavirus crisis. Restaurants are shut down except for drive-thru windows and pickup/delivery services. Grocery stores still have empty shelves. Fresh dairy and produce meant for restaurants, school cafeterias and other dining establishments are being tossed away. Many meat plants have shut down due to workers infected with the virus.
But beyond these tribulations, another issue has revealed itself: the obese are suffering from the virus at a disproportionately high rate. This pandemic has not only exposed the inequities in the US healthcare system but also its people’s access to healthy food. Supply chain problems are not the food industry’s only worries. Food companies have not fully embraced healthier products and now must commit to making them their priority.
In the largest study to date, researchers identified obesity as the biggest risk factor for people admitted to hospitals with COVID-19, along with age (being over 65). Research conducted in Shenzhen, China and published in The Lancet health journal showed that obesity significantly increased the risk of patients developing severe pneumonia while afflicted with the novel coronavirus.
Per capita death rates from COVID-19 in New Orleans, whose population suffers from high levels of obesity and related ailments such as diabetes, have been reported at twice the rate of New York City. This is alarming since the US has an adult obesity rate of 42.4 percent.
While some food companies have made progress in improving product nutrition (mostly by packaged goods companies such as Unilever, Nestlé and Danone), other industry sectors are lagging. Restaurants, in particular, have been slow to add healthier meals onto their menus. And supermarkets have stuck to tried-and-true promotions of cheaper, less healthy offerings.
The coronavirus outbreak is likely to boost unhealthy eating habits in the near term. Studies have already suggested that the pandemic may exacerbate childhood obesity rates. Even typically healthy consumers have been stress-eating and indulging more often than usual. Much needs to be done to make healthy foods more flavorful and convenient, especially as consumers are clamoring for these items.
Food makers, food retailers and restaurant chains need to step up quickly by preserving the health of consumers. They are the reason for the existence of food companies and they want to eat better. They must also stop treating healthier products as second-class. The industry must not miss the bus on the movement toward more plant-based proteins, less sugar, fewer calories and more fiber.
While their supply chains and facilities must operate efficiently, food companies need to reconsider what they are delivering through their supply lines. A large and fast-growing number of consumers have embraced healthier food that is sustainably sourced. The coronavirus crisis has amplified this trend. Food companies that capitalize on it will come out of the tunnel stronger.
It’s time for the industry to step up and own its customers’ health problems: poor diets that have led to greater obesity, illness and death. Their future will depend on it, long after the coronavirus crisis is over.