More Than Wheaties
General Mills CEO Addresses Children's Health.
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Ross School alumnus Stephen W. Sanger, MBA '70, worries about kids eating their Wheaties. Not just because he's the chairman and CEO of General Mills — the maker of the iconic breakfast cereal — but also because of the health benefits he says cereals provide children around the world.
As the leader of the sixth-largest food company in the world with $12.5 billion in sales, Sanger expressed concern for the health needs of his 28,000 employees, as well as children, at the inaugural Susan B. Meister Lecture in Child Health Policy at the University of Michigan. He was invited to speak by the Child Health Evaluation and Research (CHEAR) Unit in the U-M's Division of General Pediatrics.
"Employers have a dual role in securing children's health in our nation," says Gary L. Freed, physician and director of CHEAR. "First, the content of dependent coverage and the way it is made available to employees has a significant impact on the access to care for children. In addition, corporations who make products that are either used or consumed by children need to make sure those products are safe and healthy."
Sanger's lecture, held at the U-M Biomedical Science Research Building auditorium on Oct. 5, focused on General Mills' corporate responsibility in children's health, including youth nutrition, childhood obesity and fitness. He also touched on his company's employee health and wellness programs.
Whole Grains and a Whole Lot More
Sanger pointed to whole grain and vitamin-fortified cereals like Wheaties and Cheerios as some of the healthy products that actually help battle childhood obesity. "Obesity is a complex problem, and not just a United States problem. General Mills is addressing the equation of calories burned versus calories consumed by providing higher-nutrient, lower-calorie foods for kids, like cereal," he said. Recently, all of General Mills' cereals have undergone reformulation to earn the "Whole Grains" label — something Sanger said was a challenge to accomplish.
He said that although taste and convenience still rank at the top of consumers' wish lists when it comes to food, nutrition is a close third. "Taste, convenience and health represent the trifecta for a successful food product today," he said.
Balancing Business and Benefits
Questions from the audience included an inquiry about the time lapse between scientific discovery and product implementation. For example, an audience member stated that the health risks of consuming trans fats have been known to scientists for several years, but the elimination of such fats in mass-produced foods has emerged only in the past year or two.
"We respond to the science, but we also respond to consumer opinion," Sanger said. "We need the science to determine what is conclusive."
Also, portion control and misleading package claims were on the minds of those in attendance. One member asked, "How can you only promote that a package of broccoli provides a whole serving of vegetables while it is swimming in butter and cheese?" Sanger replied that General Mills has to keep the "trifecta" in mind when developing products, and taste is still the first element of a successful product.
"We have to balance taste with nutrition," he said, adding that product information labels clearly state fat, calories, sodium and other nutrition information to allow consumers to make wise choices.
Employee Health and Well-being
General Mills' philosophy includes supporting the health and well-being of its own employees as well as its customers, according to Sanger. The corporation has been named a "Most Admired Company" and one of the "100 Best Companies to Work For" by many national magazines, including Fortune, for its commitment to healthy lifestyles for its employees.
Because employees who lead healthy, fulfilling lives are more likely to make strong contributions in the workplace, General Mills provides a variety of programs and benefits to help balance the demands of work and life outside of work. Its heath services department at its world headquarters is staffed by registered nurses and physicians during business hours and also provides dental and eye examinations, dermatology services, free immunizations and referrals. State-of-the-art fitness centers at the world headquarters main office and research facility make it easy for workers to exercise.
Sanger highlighted a General Mills Foundation partnership with the American Dietetic Association Foundation and the President's Challenge, called Champions for Healthy Kids. Each year, the foundation awards 50 grants of $10,000 each to community-based groups that develop creative ways to help youth adopt a balanced diet and physically active lifestyle.
Science and Cereal
To support its commitment to developing healthy products, General Mills developed the Bell Institute of Health & Nutrition. Bell is made up of scientists and registered dietitians who develop the company's food products and nutrition information. Sanger said that scientists in the Bell Institute contribute to research on whole grains, micronutrients and breakfast, and publish research and scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals.
Founded in 1998, the CHEAR Unit of the University of Michigan is a national leader in the analysis of the American health care system and the organization and financing of care for children. Multidisciplinary teams provide the structure for research of community, state and national child health policies, practices and programs.
Dana M. Muir, professor of business law, is the Ross School's representative to the CHEAR Unit core faculty, which also includes scholars from the U-M's schools of dentistry, law, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, public health and social work.
Written by Nancy Davis
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Mary Jo Frank