James E. Tillotson

James E. Tillotson
© Mark Morelli

The power of marketing could improve our diets

He is a generalist, a strategist and a market-driven intellectual. James E. Tillotson, professor of food policy at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, would rather walk into a Starbuck's™ or a Wal-mart™ than a laboratory because that is where he believes one of the answers to the future of public health lies.

Tillotson is confident that the power of branding and marketing could be one way to improve Americans' diets. He suggests that good nutrition could be marketed just as the food industry markets its brand-name products: Using behavioral and motivational tactics to fulfill consumers' needs. Herein could be the answer to the current dietary disaster that has expanded America's waistline at an exponential rate.

What the coffee is telling us
Every morning Tillotson does a bit of field social psychology research as he enjoys a cup of coffee at Starbuck's.™ He spends time watching what people eat, how much they spend and how a psychological bond forms between the consumer and the food. He has found that Starbuck's™ coffee becomes "both a status symbol and a much needed moment of relaxation in today's demanding world." Tillotson is not new to marketing or business tactics. Prior to coming to Tufts in 1989, he worked in the chemical and food industries for 25 years.

Tillotson refers to himself as an "accidental professor." He did not have a childhood dream of going into academia. Only when he reached retirement did an opportunity in academia arise. Tillotson had youthful aspirations to follow his father into psychiatry but after graduating from Harvard College in behavioral studies, he spent a year in medical school and decided that it wasn't the right career path for him. However, his interest in science drove him to pursue a master's degree in biology from Boston University and subsequently a Ph.D. in food science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

After graduate school, Tillotson was not interested in working for a food company because "they weren't progressive enough," so he ended up at the DuPont Co., first in the analytical lab, then in the company's development department. Ultimately, he registered pesticides in the agricultural chemicals department.

The juice revolution
While Tillotson worked days at DuPont, he worked nights on his MBA, which he received from the University of Delaware. Tillotson realized his future was not in the chemical industry, and in 1969, Ocean Spray offered him a job. During his interview at Ocean Spray, "which at the time was literally a bankrupt cooperative," he says, "I told them a juice drink could be just as tasty, fragrant and as lush as any juice, so I suggested they develop a line of products with different flavors. They immediately hired me as research director and we started to crank out products like Cran-raspberry™ and Pink Grapefruit Juice Cocktails.™" But Tillotson's team did more than just crank out cranberry sauces and juice drinks. His research group led the company through product innovations, new packaging and processing technology to the point where Ocean Spray's sales rose from $27 million to $1 billion in 20 years.

It was not just the luck of the day that made Tillotson the creative mind behind such a provocative and progressive new juice market; he was born with predictive genius. Once the mixed juices were under way in the production department, Tillotson was already thinking about the future of the food and drink industry, which he believed was in health claims. "I had heard of the old wives' tale that cranberry juice helped fight urinary tract infections, so I began to see this claim as the future of marketing of cranberry juice drinks. I realized that food marketing was going to be more than just plain nutrition claims in the future. It was going to be powerful health claims backed by powerful clinical research. I saw that food in the future had more than just vitamins and minerals to offer consumers, and I started successful clinical research at a Harvard Medical School hospital in the mid-1980s to prove the old wives' tales about cranberry juice. At the same time, food companies began to realize that nutrition could sell their products."

Since the 1990s, health claims have shaped the way food has been marketed, from All-Bran cereal™ and Tropicana™ orange juice for heart health to skim milk and Dannon Light n' Fit™ yogurt for bone health. Tillotson's long-term interest in health claims is the basis for the nutrition school's public policy of health claims for food course, which includes guest lecturers from government, industry and trade associations.

The pitch from Tufts
Tillotson was due to retire in 1989 and was considering becoming a Washington lobbyist, but that spring, the president of Tufts, Jean Mayer, and the nutrition dean, Stanley N. Gershoff, approached him with the idea of starting a food science department at Tufts. Tillotson enjoys keeping people on their toes—no matter who it is—so he told Mayer and Gershoff that a food science department was the worst idea he had ever heard. He told them, "You're not a land-grant college. You're not where the food industry is, and you don't have a lot of money. The big problems are in food policy." Mayer rebutted by telling Tillotson to show him the problems. After a short while, he returned to give Mayer a list he had compiled of 149 food policy problems. Mayer and Gershoff were intrigued and a week later offered Tillotson a job.

Since 1989, Tillotson has been a professor of food policy at the nutrition school. He also is an adjunct professor of international business at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and an adjunct professor of family medicine and community health at the School of Medicine. Tillotson is the only professor at the Friedman School with extensive industrial experience, which has shaped the way he teaches his courses. "I like to use case studies in my classes; I don't particularly like the use of lecturing for teaching at the graduate level. Lecture material quickly becomes obsolete. Case studies make the students think more and develop analytical techniques that [they] will use their entire lives. Plus it gives me the chance to learn from the students, too."

Food industry drivers
The best part about his experience at Tufts, he says, is the students. "The students are very high caliber, motivated, and savvy. Their enthusiasm is so great. The students are much more involved in the world and making a change than when I was in school. The commitment of the students to their careers and accomplishing things—to do well for themselves and for society—is tremendous. I have never come out of the classroom at Tufts with a bad feeling."

Tillotson's generalist mentality has led him to develop a system called the STEP™ analysis, which is a comprehensive interpretation of the social, technical, economic and political drivers of food industry and food policy issues. "I kid about being a generalist, but that's my intent, because to study the food industry and its policy issues domestically and internationally, you have to study these four drivers."

Nutrition is an applied science, but the question is how do we successfully apply it to make an impact on public health? Tillotson says he is "not sure it will start in the lab anymore. We may not need as much new laboratory science to accomplish what needs to be done in public policy today. In the future, the real breakthroughs for nutrition will come by the innovative coupling of laboratory science with social science to develop new public health policies" for controlling obesity, for example.

A wider vision
"Why has the food industry been so successful in shaping the American diet?" asks Tillotson. Because, he says, the companies send a limited message and incorporate social and behavioral psychology to get people to buy their products or services. "I get concerned at the narrow vision of nutrition today. There is a schism between the social sciences and the basic sciences. Nutrition policy has got to be all encompassing. It just isn't there yet," says Tillotson.

"Nutrition is at a critical point because people are confused about it," says Tillotson. "Policies are made, but that is only the first step. We have food labeling, the Food Guide Pyramid and the dietary guidelines, but they're just pieces of paper. Nutrition needs strategy." In his "Business and Nutrition" column in the January/February issue of Nutrition Today, Tillotson writes, "...In spite of governmental nutritional policies and guidelines and nutritionists' advice and activists' laments, the American public buys what meets their fancy, taste, economics and needs, despite good advice and good intentions." This is an opportunity to make a change, he says.

Tillotson is the editor of America's Foods: Health Messages and Claims and is principal and founder of A.R.D. Inc., a food and agribusiness consulting firm. One of his current projects is a collaboration with Dr. David Greenblatt, chairman of department of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at Tufts School of Medicine, in establishing the first research foundation in the United States that studies food and drug interactions.

Elizabeth Gilbert, N01, is a graduate of the nutrition communication program at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.