Sweetgreen CEO’s LinkedIn post tying Covid deaths to obesity draws backlash

Jonathan Neman, co-founder and co-CEO of sweetgreen.

David A. Grogan | CNBC

Sweetgreen co-founder and CEO Jonathan Neman wrote a LinkedIn post Tuesday connecting obesity to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, saying “no vaccine nor mask will save us” and proposing taxes on processed food and refined sugar.

The post was deleted Wednesday, several hours after Vice published a story about it. Even before Vice’s article, commenters on Neman’s original post were calling his argument “fat-phobic.”

Sweetgreen confidentially filed for an initial public offering in June, making this an inopportune time for controversy surrounding the company. Consumer backlash could hurt both its reputation and sales, turning off investors.

Neman’s commentary comes as the U.S. battles another wave of new Covid-19 cases, leading some localities to impose vaccination or mask requirements. As of Aug. 31, the seven-day average of daily new U.S. cases reached 160,455, up 6% from a week ago, according to a CNBC analysis of Johns Hopkins University data. Health officials have pointed to the highly contagious delta variant as the culprit, particularly in regions with low vaccination rates.

“78% of hospitalizations due to COVID are Obese and Overweight people,” Neman wrote in the post. “Is there an underlying problem that perhaps we have not given enough attention to?”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has listed having a body mass index within the overweight or obesity range as one of the factors that can make someone more likely to get severely ill from Covid-19. However, some medical experts, researchers and dietitians say that BMI is a flawed health metric because it doesn’t account for body fat distribution or accurately predict the health of different races and demographics.

Neman’s statistic likely comes from an article published in March in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

In his LinkedIn post, Neman also said that Covid is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and the best bet is to focus on overall health, instead of just preventing infection.

“We cannot run away from it and no vaccine nor mask will save us (in full disclosure I am vaccinated and support others to get vaccinated),” Neman wrote.

He also called mask and vaccine mandates “government overreach” and proposed implementing health mandates.

“What if we made the food that is making us sick illegal? What if we taxed processed food and refined sugar to pay for the impact of the pandemic?” he added.

Taxes on processed food and refined sugar would likely hit low-income consumers the hardest. A Sweetgreen salad, which starts at $9.95, could be out of their budget range.

In response to a commenter calling the post “fat-phobic,” Neman said that was not his intention. He wrote that the post was meant to start a conversation about how we should think about health differently and attack the root causes.

A representative for Sweetgreen did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CNBC.