Junk food junky
When I was in business school, a couple of Arthur D. Little consultants paid a call on a marketing class I was taking. The one thing I remember from their presentation was that the reason Alpo Beef Stew for dogs smelled like Dinty Moore Beef Stew for humans was so that humans would perceive that their dogs were getting something yummy to eat.
I, of course, had to put this to a test, so the next time I was near a can of Alpo and had a can opener in hand, I tried a bite.
While it did not smell anywhere near as delish as my mother’s beef stew, it did smell pretty good – maybe like Campbell’s Vegetable Beef soup. But the taste was way too bland – no salt or other tasty additives for the family pooch.
I thought of this while reading a recent article in The New York Times on the lengths that food companies go to to make junk food addictive.
On the one hand, here are these evil-doers, one step removed from the tobacco executives who knowingly made cigarettes addictive, hooking us on stuff that’s no darned good for us, making sure that they always won the “bet you can’t eat just one” bet.
On the other hand, here are canny food company scientists and marketers doing what they can do to push more product by giving us what we want. Unfortunately, what we want is not celery sticks and carrots. It’s Cheetos and M&Ms.
If I had to pick one hand to play, I would have to say that, while I’m a bit sympathetic to the argument that “they” are just giving us what we want (i.e., Cheetos and M&Ms), what “they” are doing – given the humongous rates of obesity we have in this country – is really no better than what the tobacco evil-doers did to get smokers hooked on taking a puff of springtime.
The article starts out with a retelling of a food industry powwow in 1999, when the U.S. obesity rate was a relatively modest 25%. (It’s now 35.7%, according to the 2012 figures from the CDC.)
Jame Behnke, a Pillsbury exec, teed up the meeting by expressing his concerns about the elephant on the food industry’s groaning table:
It was time, he and a handful of others felt, to warn the C.E.O.’s that their companies may have gone too far in creating and marketing products that posed the greatest health concerns.
Behnke was followed by Michael Mudd, a Kraft VP, who ran through the grim obesity statistics, and said:
“For those of us who’ve looked hard at this issue, whether they’re public health professionals or staff specialists in your own companies, we feel sure that the one thing we shouldn’t do is nothing…As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing. And we could make a claim that the toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco.”
Having heard the problem laid out, Stephen Sanger, the head of General Mills, which has given us such necessary evils like Lucky Charms:
“Don’t talk to me about nutrition,” he reportedly said, taking on the voice of the typical consumer. “Talk to me about taste, and if this stuff tastes better, don’t run around trying to sell stuff that doesn’t taste good.”
To react to the critics, Sanger said, would jeopardize the sanctity of the recipes that had made his products so successful. General Mills would not pull back. He would push his people onward, and he urged his peers to do the same. Sanger’s response effectively ended the meeting.
So here’s the problem: if there’s more salt, sugar, and fat in it, we’ll eat more of it. Which is good for business. But bad for everyone’s health.
Of course, that’s good for business in the short term.
In the long run, if the junk food junkies all die early, that can’t be good for business, can it?
I like Cheetos and M&Ms as much as the next guy. Even just typing the word Cheeto is making my mouth water.
And yet, like any reasonably nutritionally responsible and health conscious person, I try to limit the mount of junk that I consume, without becoming puritanical and self-depriving about it. This also means recognizing that I feel better when I eat healthy than when I eat crap. This doesn’t get me to eliminate all crap from my diet. After all, that Italian sub from Big Al’s, with onions, pickles, and hots, with a side bag of Utz chips, all washed down with a Diet Coke, tastes pretty darned good going down. It’s just that in the aftermath, my body’s telling me that this wasn’t a wise choice to make. So most of the time – although by no means all the time – I try to just say no to the worst of the worst foods.
But I’m also someone who can afford to buy healthy foods, and who has access to places to buy them.
I can walk over to Whole Foods and get my produce, so I’ve always got fresh fruits and veggies in the fridge. I can buy free range chicken and grass fed hamburger (which, let me tell you, makes a mighty tasty meat loaf, even if I’ve had to substitute crushed gluten free crackers for breadcrumbs). I can make sure I always have a handful of almonds or dried pineapple to snack on.
Money and access, of course, are not something that’s available to all consumers, especially the poor. And that, of course, is where the obesity epidemic has its greatest hold. And if no one’s force-feeding poor folks – or anyone else - on junk food, if there’s nothing else around…
But most middle class people can afford and have access to healthy food.
So in order to extend their market beyond poor folks who can only shop at convenience stores selling pop-tarts and beef jerky, the food-industrial complex has to make their wares so addictive. So tasty. So convenient.
Which is how we all get hooked on them.
As I write this, it’s 9 p.m. on a snow-stormy night. And I’m tempted to run out to the corner store to see if they have Cheetos. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a Cheeto, but what I wouldn’t give for one melting in my mouth, coating my teeth with sticky Cheeto melt, and turning my fingers a fine orange-y-yellow that I can lick off.
And if I did go out for that bag of Cheetos, I wouldn’t even bother to make a bet with myself.
I know I can’t eat just one.
Anyway, The Times article is an interesting read. But a long one. Make sure you have plenty of (healthy) snacks on hand as you start your read.