Within our conversation about: The culture and business of food

Open-plan kitchens created a snacking culture. Did that foster the obesity epidemic?

Written by Charlie Hill

In the past few decades American kitchens have literally opened up—as architects adopted an open-plan kitchen walls got broken down and the kitchen blended into the living room.

Traditional kitchen: Segregated and highly regulated. Julia Childs’ Kitchen, Smithsonian Museum

Modern Kitchen: Open, multi-functional, and unregulated. Ikea Catalogue, 2010

We recently did in-depth research around kitchens for a multinational consumer goods company and found that while the more flexible space brings families together the informal arrangement also gives the entire family easier access to the kitchen. Mothers no longer controlled what the family ate and when they ate.

This democratizing shift had some serious unintended consequences: It created a culture of snacking. And that shift to more snacking has contributed to the rise in obesity in America.

Snacking helped create America’s obesity epidemic

Institutional research backs it up. Snacking accounts for 27% of children’s daily calories, which have been linked to weight gain and obesity.* Childhood obesity has tripled in the last 30 years and  more than 25% of Americans are obese.

Kitchen design also changed in a way that supports informal snacking. Instead of dining tables we now have island tops and bar stools designed for brief, passing moments—times where you can grab a quick snack before you head off to school or work.

Over the years kids have also had more of an influence on the food parents bring into the house—and with an easily accessible fridge stocked with their choice of food children are essentially being given an invitation to snack.

While the open-plan kitchen has been democratizing—women aren’t confined to the kitchen, men take on more of a caretaking role—three square meals have turned into salty and calorie-laden snacks and nutrition is no longer central.

While there are all kinds of factors that play into childhood obesity and the rise of a snacking culture—from the arrival of fast food chains on American highways in the 1950s to the fact that kids don’t exercise enough—it’s clear the open-plan kitchen has a role.

How can the food industry fight the obesity epidemic?

What does this mean for the industry? What, if any business opportunities can be drawn from the situation?

Companies are reluctant to take on the responsibility of tackling an issue as challenging as obesity—and it’s hard to blame them. It’s not clear if there is an immediate return on investment and at a time when budgets are still tight there are other territories that make better business sense. Perhaps more pertinently, no company wants to associate their brand with a problem like childhood obesity–the “we didn’t cause it so why should we fix it” defense.

However, it’s hard to ignore the increasing prominence of healthy living products and services, especially in the food industry. U.S. sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $24.8 billion in 2009. Sales in 2009 represented 5.1 percent growth over 2008 sales. Experiencing the highest growth in sales during 2009 were organic fruits and vegetables, up 11.4 percent over 2008 sales.

The logical next step is to extend that consumer interest from produce alone to look at the broader ecology of healthy eating—which includes where we eat and what we use to prepare and store food.

The reality is that consumers are not willing to change their behavior—the convenience, multi-functionality, informality, and connectedness that the open kitchen provides suits modern family living and is here to stay. We have to understand that the dynamics of family life aren’t going to change—parents are not going to guard the fridge or spend more time preparing meals from scratch each evening.

Build products and services around people’s routines and family dynamics

Food manufacturers need to start to look at creating products and services that cater to the routines of snacking—but in a healthier way.

If the modern family consumes wants to snack and consume food in less structured ways, let them. But let’s help them do it with a healthier approach.

So can appliance manufacturers create storage solutions that maintain the freshness and healthy properties of produce for longer, thus encouraging parents to buy fresh ingredients for their family rather than processed, convenient snack foods?

Samsung is already exploring this idea with new LED technology called Freshtech, which ramps up the vitamins and minerals and extends the life of produce by mimicking the process of photosynthesis. .

What other technologies can enable consumers to prepare food faster and more efficiently and help us reduce our dependency on snack foods?

Based on our research we know consumers are interested in investing in appliances and services that enable their families to eat healthier meals.

The challenge—if companies are willing to take it on—is to develop products and services that recognize how families live. People are busy,  unstructured, and independent eaters with individual diets. If companies innovate around that given by finding ways to help people eating healthier and more balanced meals they can chisel out a big advantage for themselves.

*A new study shows that snacks account for more than 27% of children’s daily calories. The study’s author Barry M. Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, links the findings to unhealthy weight gain and obesity. Childhood obesity has tripled in the last 30 years. The bigger picture is also not pretty: A 2007 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Public Services confirms that more than 25% of Americans are obese. (The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that 66% of American adults are either obese or seriously overweight.)