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How Food-as-Medicine Execs Are Responding to Kellogg CEO’s ‘Let Them Eat Flakes’ Remarks

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Food-as-medicine companies are none too thrilled about recent comments made by Kellogg CEO Gary Pilnick. 

In a CNBC interview, the multimillionaire executive encouraged families struggling to put food on the table to turn to cereal as their go-to dinner option. The remarks — which have been summarized by some as “let them eat flakes” — underscore the dire need to increase public education about affordable, healthy meal planning, food-as-medicine executives argued.

Pilnick’s comments were made on a February 21 appearance on CNBC’s Squawk on the Street. He and host Carl Quintanilla were having a discussion about high grocery prices.

“The cereal category has always been quite affordable, and it tends to be a great destination when consumers are under pressure,” Pilnick declared on air. “So we’re advertising about cereal for dinner. If you think about the cost of cereal for a family versus what they might otherwise do, that’s going to be much more affordable.”

Quintanilla responded by asking Pilnick if the idea of cereal for dinner has potential to land the wrong way with consumers. 

Pilnick said that the message was “landing really well,” adding that more than a quarter of Kellogg’s cereal consumption occurs outside of breakfast.

“Cereal for dinner is something that is probably more on trend now, and we would expect [it] to continue as that consumer is under pressure,” Pilnick stated.

His remarks come as the food as medicine movement gains steam in the healthcare world. 

The movement centers on the idea that one’s diet can be a major force in preventing and treating various health conditions. It emphasizes the importance of consuming nutritious foods tailored to individual needs to promote better disease management and overall wellbeing.

In the past couple years, more and more healthcare providers have been partnering with food-as-medicine startups so their patients can benefit from healthy eating programs. These programs usually are designed to educate people about how they can prepare nutritious, low-cost meals that easily fit into their daily lives. They also often seek to help individuals unlearn the instinct to turn to highly processed, low-nutrition foods when short on time or cash. 

Some of Kellogg’s most popular cereal brands include Frosted Flakes, Froot Loops and Rice Krispies. By encouraging families to think of these brands as suitable dinner mainstays, Pilnick’s comments could undo a lot of the progress being made by those in the food-as medicine space, experts told MedCity News.

FarmboxRx CEO Ashley Tyrner called Pilnick “completely out of touch with reality,” and argued that his comments were “damaging and degrading” to those struggling with food insecurity. She noted that she founded her food-as-medicine startup because she has faced food insecurity herself.

“The public recommendation for struggling families to replace nutritious foods with his sugar loaded ‘cereal for dinner’ is dangerous and outright offensive coming from Pilnick, who was personally positioned to bring in over $4 million in wages from his employer in 2023,” Tyrner wrote in an emailed statement.

In her view, the suggestion that families struggling to keep food on the table should opt for highly-processed cereal is “dehumanizing” and will lead the country “down a path of even higher healthcare costs associated with chronic conditions,” which already make up 90% of the nation’s $4.1 trillion in annual healthcare spend.

Another CEO of a food-as-medicine company, Lauren Driscoll of NourishedRx, highlighted the very correlative relationship between poor nutrition and chronic disease.

“We need to recognize that this is a flashing red light about the state of nutrition in the U.S. Poor diet is the number one risk factor for death and disease in our country. And today, we have over 44.2 million food-insecure people who are two to three times more likely to develop diabetes and 40% more likely to develop diet-related diseases, including obesity,” Driscoll declared.

Instead of directing families toward low-nutrition food options, people in positions of influence should be working to increase awareness of low-cost healthy meal options, she stated. 

Kyle Dardashti — CEO of food-as-medicine startup Heali — agreed with this take.

“We need to broaden awareness on which foods can provide affordability without sacrificing on health and nutrition. A lentil soup is nutritious, affordable and easy to make. Yogurt is another affordable and nutritious choice. There are tasty meals that can be under $1 per meal and correlate to positive health effects,” he explained.

In order for population health to improve at scale in the U.S., families of all income levels must gain access to nutritious and balanced meals that support their health, added Season Health CEO Josh Hix.

Similarly to Dardashti, Hix highlighted the fact that it is very possible for Americans to prepare healthy meals on a budget if they have the right resources.

“Through smart recipe development and partnerships with food retailers, one-third of our recipes have an average per meal cost of $2.50 or less. We know that eating a balanced meal can be both affordable and accessible for American families, as well as help people lead healthier lives and lower healthcare costs,” he wrote in a statement.

Kellogg did not respond to MedCity News’ request for commentary on the food-as-medicine CEOs’ criticisms.

Photo: Flickr user Vox Efx

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