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issue: November 2003 APPLIANCE Magazine

From the Top
Diets: They Are a Changin'

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by Dick Topping, director of Appliance Research, TIAX, LLC

The U.S. faces a potential public health crisis more formidable than anything it has experienced in the past. Today, as many as 65 percent of Americans are overweight or obese.

At least 300,000 deaths occur every year as a result of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other serious chronic diseases related to obesity. The avoidable medical costs of obesity exceed U.S. $50 billion each year, more than 5 percent of total U.S. health care expenditures, and the total economic costs of obesity approach $100 billion a year. A conference last summer on the Changing American Diet, sponsored by TIAX, the Harvard School of Public Health, and the Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Mark McClellan, told us that improving the American diet is one of the nation's most pressing health issues.

Aside from worrying about the effect of looming holiday temptations on your waistline or feeling guilty about missing your last workout, you may be wondering what all this has to do with you. Potentially, quite a lot. Consider the fact that the $1-trillion industry of food and related products has links to more individuals and businesses than does any other industry. Even a small adjustment - say in the amount of trans-fatty-acid-containing vegetable shortening used to make cookies and donuts - is likely to have reverberations everywhere from waste management and transportation to education, healthcare, and the appliance industry.

Though it's still too early to predict the most viable pathway toward a healthier population, action is already being taken. The U.S. FDA has mandated that trans fat content be clearly labeled on all retail food products by 2006. A group of lawyers is poised to take on the fast food industry the same way they took on big tobacco, and some food chains are concerned enough to be introducing salads and lighter fare to offer consumers healthier choices. As appliance producers, you probably won't be dictating improvements in the nation's diet, but you do need to be ready to respond to new food preparation and cooking requirements as the foods we eat evolve.

The growing trend toward healthy eating may build upon the post 9/11/01 impulse to spend more time in the home, whether that be logging quality family time or eating healthier meals. After all, home is where consumers have the most control over what they put into their bodies. This could be good news for appliance producers, whose products are prominently at the center of this new kitchen sanctuary. But what will the next generation of appliances need to deliver?

On the food preservation side, refrigerators may need to store and preserve many more fresh vegetables and fruits. Crispers will need to be larger, but they may also need to balance carbon dioxide and oxygen concentrations to keep contents safe, moist, and fresh longer. The typical automatic defrosting system, which dries the interior air, won't make this easy. The new crispers will have to block that dry air from entering, while also introducing new ways to precisely control the temperature and atmosphere to enhance food preservation.

And what about the freezer-to-refrigerator-volume ratio? Frozen food appears to be becoming less popular, so the U.S. trend toward ever-larger freezer compartments may be over - unless, of course, there is a simultaneous move by American food manufacturers to develop nutritious frozen fare as we have seen with microwaveable "bowl" meals that cater to both health and convenience.

As for cooking, U.S. manufacturers should expect some significant changes in baking requirements. For example, low-fat foods have a high water content. Removing that internal moisture while not overly drying the outside is a challenge. Maybe a combination of microwave and convection would better address the issues of moisture and desire for speed. New approaches, such as convection steaming, may ensure a healthier cooking process that leaves food moist.

The U.S. appliance industry is also going to have to address the move toward food without trans fatty acids. The oil substitutes that will replace these acids in everything from french fries to buffalo wings are unstable, meaning they oxidize rapidly, causing unpleasant flavors. To counteract this effect, fryers may need to cook faster and at lower temperatures, which is no easy task. Year-round in-house grilling of meat, fish, and vegetables may also continue to grow in popularity, leading to demand for this feature in ranges and cooktops of all price points.

Clearly there are market opportunities - and challenges - ahead as Americans change the way they eat. You may want to consider the future - along with the calories you're ingesting - the next time you reach for a donut.

Dick Topping

Dick Topping is director of Appliance Research at TIAX LLC (www.tiax.biz). He can be reached by phone at 617/498-6058, by fax at 617/498-7206, or e-mail at topping.r@tiax.biz.

From the Top appears bimonthly in
APPLIANCE Engineer¨.


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