Is the Downfall of Hostess a Win for Public Health?

Why solving obesity is more complicated than a couple of Twinkies

Published on November 20, 2012 by Abdul El-Sayed

Ding Dong, the obesity epidemic is dead! At least that’s the word on the street following the demise of Hostess Brands, the multi-billion-dollar bread and snack-food giant that asked a federal bankruptcy court on Friday for permission to close up shop. But while the death of the Ding Dong producer is a win for public health, the victory isn’t all Golden Sponge Cake with Creamy Filling.

On the one hand, Twinkies, Ring Dings and Wonder Bread are just the type of nutrient-poor, energy-rich foods epidemiologists have blamed for the U.S. obesity epidemic, which affects more than one in three Americans. And among the cheapest, most available options in small markets and bodegas across the United States, consumption of these products is most common among low-income Americans and minorities, groups most likely to suffer from obesity to begin with. In that regard, the downfall of Hostess may be a windfall for public health.

In fact, following its first bankruptcy in 2004, Hostess executives blamed Americans switching to lower-carb snack options, suggesting improvements in health messaging around poor-quality foods may have played a role in the corporation’s demise. If shifting dietary preferences truly set the stage for the company’s eventual collapse, it would suggest that Americans are making better choices about their health—a small victory in the greater war on obesity.

But sometimes in public health, our myopic focus on those factors that are the most obviously related to a given problem can keep us from thinking critically about factors acting more indirectly to produce the ones on which we’re so intently focused in the first place.

Poverty and marginalization, in part, drive demand for low-cost, energy-dense foods like the kind Hostess produced. Not only do the poor lack ready access to higher-quality food options in their communities, but they often can’t afford them. In that sense, public health advocates can go ahead and celebrate the end of Hostess with glee, but unless equal focus is placed on quelling the poverty and marginalization that create space for these products, our foodscape will continue to be polluted by companies like Hostess that profit at the expense of the public’s health.

Other companies are reportedly lining up to bid on Hostess’s iconic brands, which they surely wouldn’t if they believed there was no longer a market with such unhealthy products. So despite the death of the company that bore them, these junk foods will live on. Even if the bidding corporations see the writing on the wall and take steps to reincarnate them in leaner, healthier forms, a Twinkie will still be a Twinkie.

If we agree that poverty and marginalization are, in part, to blame for our obesity epidemic, it’s clear that we should put another asterisk on this win: Hostess’s demise leaves 18,000 Americans without jobs in an economy where work is hard to come by. Not only will those former employees suffer, but their families and communities will bear the burden with them. These now-unemployed workers are closer to being relegated to consuming the types of foods they used to produce—and certainly at higher risk for obesity for it.

One could argue that these 18,000 lost jobs are the necessary cost of an overall improvement in our foodscape, that the death of a company like Hostess is what happens when demand for high-energy products slips. This may be true, but it suggests that the rise or demise of companies like Hostess shouldn’t be the metrics we use to judge the effectiveness of our public health messaging. The gradual fall of Hostess since 2004 hasn’t decreased inequality or obesity, which are both at their highest levels on record and accelerating.

While Hostess may no longer be producing products that contribute to American obesity, the demise of the Ding Dong will only be a win if it happens in the context of improvements in America’s social landscape and decreases in obesity in our country. Otherwise, the public health victory in Hostess’s closing will be as empty as the calories it successfully sold for so long.

Edited by Jordan Lite

Abdul El-Sayed
Abdul El-Sayed is a social epidemiologist and physician-in-training. His research explores how our social realities make us sick. Abdul is also Fellow at Dēmos, a non-partisan public policy center in New York. His commentary engages healthy policy questions in the US and globally, with a particular focus on social inequalities and disease prevention in light of health trends. Follow him at @elabdul.

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1 Comment

To me, this is the most pressing public health issue:

“Hostess was trying to cut workers’ pay by 8%, benefits by 32%, while the CEO gave himself a 300% raise.

Nine Hostess executives received 60-100% raises while filing for the 2nd bankruptcy for the company.

Meanwhile, they stopped paying for employee pensions , owing them $160,000,000.

The 18,000 workers who make less than $20/hour are being blamed by many media outlets for the downfall of Hostess.”

Our laws allow for this to happen. Companies have no pretense of any corporate responsibility. This happens across the country, company after company. When lining executives’ pockets is viewed as more important than workers’ rights, we will continue to have devastating health inequities. The issue isn’t just the loss of work for these 18,000 people–it’s the legal system that allows this to happen.

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