When I saw it, I had the same reaction that many of you had.
But then, I did a little dance in my chair, because I love – love – being proven right. And, as my best friend Ashley would tell you I’ve been saying for years, “No one listens to Erika until Erika is proven right.” Seriously.
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I’m posting massive excerpts from the almost 14-page article, and I’ll try to keep them short, but seriously. When it comes to this, you want to read the entirety of the post. If you ever needed encouragement to kick the processed food habit, this NYTimes Magazine cover story – an excerpt from this book – will give it to you. Hell, it’s got me wanting to triple-check my own pantry, and I know there’s nothing in there.
If you’re still planning on skimming – and I wouldn’t blame you – then the important parts are in bold for you.
That being said, I’m going to do my usual. Y’all know how it goes:
1) When I said that processed food manufacturers go to extraordinary lengths to create the most palatable (read: addicting) foods that’d cater to the widest group of people, did you believe me? Well…
Stung by the rejection, Cadbury Schweppes in 2004 turned to a food-industry legend named Howard Moskowitz. Moskowitz, who studied mathematics and holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Harvard, runs a consulting firm in White Plains, where for more than three decades he has “optimized” a variety of products for Campbell Soup, General Foods, Kraft and PepsiCo. “I’ve optimized soups,” Moskowitz told me. “I’ve optimized pizzas. I’ve optimized salad dressings and pickles. In this field, I’m a game changer.”
In the process of product optimization, food engineers alter a litany of variables with the sole intent of finding the most perfect version (or versions) of a product. Ordinary consumers are paid to spend hours sitting in rooms where they touch, feel, sip, smell, swirl and taste whatever product is in question. Their opinions are dumped into a computer, and the data are sifted and sorted through a statistical method called conjoint analysis, which determines what features will be most attractive to consumers. Moskowitz likes to imagine that his computer is divided into silos, in which each of the attributes is stacked. But it’s not simply a matter of comparing Color 23 with Color 24. In the most complicated projects, Color 23 must be combined with Syrup 11 and Packaging 6, and on and on, in seemingly infinite combinations. Even for jobs in which the only concern is taste and the variables are limited to the ingredients, endless charts and graphs will come spewing out of Moskowitz’s computer. “The mathematical model maps out the ingredients to the sensory perceptions these ingredients create,” he told me, “so I can just dial a new product. This is the engineering approach.”
Moskowitz’s work on Prego spaghetti sauce was memorialized in a 2004 presentation by the author Malcolm Gladwell at the TED conference in Monterey, Calif.: “After . . . months and months, he had a mountain of data about how the American people feel about spaghetti sauce. . . . And sure enough, if you sit down and you analyze all this data on spaghetti sauce, you realize that all Americans fall into one of three groups. There are people who like their spaghetti sauce plain. There are people who like their spaghetti sauce spicy. And there are people who like it extra-chunky. And of those three facts, the third one was the most significant, because at the time, in the early 1980s, if you went to a supermarket, you would not find extra-chunky spaghetti sauce. And Prego turned to Howard, and they said, ‘Are you telling me that one-third of Americans crave extra-chunky spaghetti sauce, and yet no one is servicing their needs?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And Prego then went back and completely reformulated their spaghetti sauce and came out with a line of extra-chunky that immediately and completely took over the spaghetti-sauce business in this country. . . . That is Howard’s gift to the American people. . . . He fundamentally changed the way the food industry thinks about making you happy.”
These companies have a vested interest in making you happy by any means necessary, because “making you happy” means turning you into a repeat customer…by loading you up on the sugar, fat and salt. You don’t even need to listen to me on that one; check the label. It’s that simple. Speaking of which…
2) Remember when I told you processed food purveyors are the source of the vast majority of your sugar, fat and salt problems? Well…
Well, yes and no. One thing Gladwell didn’t mention is that the food industry already knew some things about making people happy — and it started with sugar. Many of the Prego sauces — whether cheesy, chunky or light — have one feature in common: The largest ingredient, after tomatoes, is sugar. A mere half-cup of Prego Traditional, for instance, has the equivalent of more than two teaspoons of sugar, as much as two-plus Oreo cookies. It also delivers one-third of the sodium recommended for a majority of American adults for an entire day. In making these sauces, Campbell supplied the ingredients, including the salt, sugar and, for some versions, fat, while Moskowitz supplied the optimization. “More is not necessarily better,” Moskowitz wrote in his own account of the Prego project. “As the sensory intensity (say, of sweetness) increases, consumers first say that they like the product more, but eventually, with a middle level of sweetness, consumers like the product the most (this is their optimum, or ‘bliss,’ point).”
Uh… huh. I guess.
Moving right along.
3) Remember when I told you that processed food was much more about preserving shelf life and cutting costs than anything else? Well…
He assembled a team of about 15 people with varied skills, from design to food science to advertising, to create something completely new — a convenient prepackaged lunch that would have as its main building block the company’s sliced bologna and ham. They wanted to add bread, naturally, because who ate bologna without it? But this presented a problem: There was no way bread could stay fresh for the two months their product needed to sit in warehouses or in grocery coolers. Crackers, however, could — so they added a handful of cracker rounds to the package. Using cheese was the next obvious move, given its increased presence in processed foods. But what kind of cheese would work? Natural Cheddar, which they started off with, crumbled and didn’t slice very well, so they moved on to processed varieties, which could bend and be sliced and would last forever, or they could knock another two cents off per unit by using an even lesser product called “cheese food,” which had lower scores than processed cheese in taste tests. The cost dilemma was solved when Oscar Mayer merged with Kraft in 1989 and the company didn’t have to shop for cheese anymore; it got all the processed cheese it wanted from its new sister company, and at cost.
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The trays flew off the grocery-store shelves. Sales hit a phenomenal $218 million in the first 12 months, more than anyone was prepared for. This only brought Drane his next crisis. The production costs were so high that they were losing money with each tray they produced. So Drane flew to New York, where he met with Philip Morris officials who promised to give him the money he needed to keep it going. “The hard thing is to figure out something that will sell,” he was told. “You’ll figure out how to get the cost right.” Projected to lose $6 million in 1991, the trays instead broke even; the next year, they earned $8 million.
With production costs trimmed and profits coming in, the next question was how to expand the franchise, which they did by turning to one of the cardinal rules in processed food: When in doubt, add sugar. “Lunchables With Dessert is a logical extension,” an Oscar Mayer official reported to Philip Morris executives in early 1991. The “target” remained the same as it was for regular Lunchables — “busy mothers” and “working women,” ages 25 to 49 — and the “enhanced taste” would attract shoppers who had grown bored with the current trays. A year later, the dessert Lunchable morphed into the Fun Pack, which would come with a Snickers bar, a package of M&M’s or a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, as well as a sugary drink. The Lunchables team started by using Kool-Aid and cola and then Capri Sun after Philip Morris added that drink to its stable of brands.
Eventually, a line of the trays, appropriately called Maxed Out, was released that had as many as nine grams of saturated fat, or nearly an entire day’s recommended maximum for kids, with up to two-thirds of the max for sodium and 13 teaspoons of sugar.
When I asked Geoffrey Bible, former C.E.O. of Philip Morris, about this shift toward more salt, sugar and fat in meals for kids, he smiled and noted that even in its earliest incarnation, Lunchables was held up for criticism. “One article said something like, ‘If you take Lunchables apart, the most healthy item in it is the napkin.’ ”
Well, they did have a good bit of fat, I offered. “You bet,” he said. “Plus cookies.”
The prevailing attitude among the company’s food managers — through the 1990s, at least, before obesity became a more pressing concern — was one of supply and demand. “People could point to these things and say, ‘They’ve got too much sugar, they’ve got too much salt,’ ” Bible said. “Well, that’s what the consumer wants, and we’re not putting a gun to their head to eat it. That’s what they want. If we give them less, they’ll buy less, and the competitor will get our market. So you’re sort of trapped.” (Bible would later press Kraft to reconsider its reliance on salt, sugar and fat.)
When it came to Lunchables, they did try to add more healthful ingredients. Back at the start, Drane experimented with fresh carrots but quickly gave up on that, since fresh components didn’t work within the constraints of the processed-food system, which typically required weeks or months of transport and storage before the food arrived at the grocery store. Later, a low-fat version of the trays was developed, using meats and cheese and crackers that were formulated with less fat, but it tasted inferior, sold poorly and was quickly scrapped.
…but we’re eating that. And we’re expecting our children to eat that, grow up, and be healthy. I’m sorry – why are we still looking anywhere other than squarely at processed food for blame in the rise in obesity? Hell, it’s clear that they blame themselves… why can’t we blame them, too?
4) Speaking of kids… remember when I told you that these companies have marketing firms that specifically target your kids in ways that encourage them to become early on brand loyalists? (Which benefits them because then those kids grow up and buy their foods for their kids?)
Kraft’s early Lunchables campaign targeted mothers. They might be too distracted by work to make a lunch, but they loved their kids enough to offer them this prepackaged gift. But as the focus swung toward kids, Saturday-morning cartoons started carrying an ad that offered a different message: “All day, you gotta do what they say,” the ads said. “But lunchtime is all yours.”
With this marketing strategy in place and pizza Lunchables — the crust in one compartment, the cheese, pepperoni and sauce in others — proving to be a runaway success, the entire world of fast food suddenly opened up for Kraft to pursue. They came out with a Mexican-themed Lunchables called Beef Taco Wraps; a Mini Burgers Lunchables; a Mini Hot Dog Lunchable, which also happened to provide a way for Oscar Mayer to sell its wieners. By 1999, pancakes — which included syrup, icing, Lifesavers candy and Tang, for a whopping 76 grams of sugar — and waffles were, for a time, part of the Lunchables franchise as well.
Annual sales kept climbing, past $500 million, past $800 million; at last count, including sales in Britain, they were approaching the $1 billion mark. Lunchables was more than a hit; it was now its own category. Eventually, more than 60 varieties of Lunchables and other brands of trays would show up in the grocery stores. In 2007, Kraft even tried a Lunchables Jr. for 3- to 5-year-olds.
In the trove of records that document the rise of the Lunchables and the sweeping change it brought to lunchtime habits, I came across a photograph of Bob Drane’s daughter, which he had slipped into the Lunchables presentation he showed to food developers. The picture was taken on Monica Drane’s wedding day in 1989, and she was standing outside the family’s home in Madison, a beautiful bride in a white wedding dress, holding one of the brand-new yellow trays.
During the course of reporting, I finally had a chance to ask her about it. Was she really that much of a fan? “There must have been some in the fridge,” she told me. “I probably just took one out before we went to the church. My mom had joked that it was really like their fourth child, my dad invested so much time and energy on it.”
Monica Drane had three of her own children by the time we spoke, ages 10, 14 and 17. “I don’t think my kids have ever eaten a Lunchable,” she told me. “They know they exist and that Grandpa Bob invented them. But we eat very healthfully.”
Oh, so you don’t even eat the stuff you make, because you “eat very healthfully?” Okay.
There’s an extra piece, here:
Today Bob Drane is still talking to kids about what they like to eat, but his approach has changed. He volunteers with a nonprofit organization that seeks to build better communications between school kids and their parents, and right in the mix of their problems, alongside the academic struggles, is childhood obesity. Drane has also prepared a précis on the food industry that he used with medical students at the University of Wisconsin. And while he does not name his Lunchables in this document, and cites numerous causes for the obesity epidemic, he holds the entire industry accountable. “What do University of Wisconsin M.B.A.’s learn about how to succeed in marketing?” his presentation to the med students asks. “Discover what consumers want to buy and give it to them with both barrels. Sell more, keep your job! How do marketers often translate these ‘rules’ into action on food? Our limbic brains love sugar, fat, salt. . . . So formulate products to deliver these. Perhaps add low-cost ingredients to boost profit margins. Then ‘supersize’ to sell more. . . . And advertise/promote to lock in ‘heavy users.’ Plenty of guilt to go around here!”
5) Remember when I told you that certain “health halos” – stickers, markers and labels used to denote something as “healthy” to a consumer – were being manipulated for profit, and couldn’t be trusted? Well..
The Frito-Lay executives also spoke of the company’s ongoing pursuit of a “designer sodium,” which they hoped, in the near future, would take their sodium loads down by 40 percent. No need to worry about lost sales there, the company’s C.E.O., Al Carey, assured their investors. The boomers would see less salt as the green light to snack like never before.
There’s a paradox at work here. On the one hand, reduction of sodium in snack foods is commendable. On the other, these changes may well result in consumers eating more. “The big thing that will happen here is removing the barriers for boomers and giving them permission to snack,” Carey said. The prospects for lower-salt snacks were so amazing, he added, that the company had set its sights on using the designer salt to conquer the toughest market of all for snacks: schools. He cited, for example, the school-food initiative championed by Bill Clinton and the American Heart Association, which is seeking to improve the nutrition of school food by limiting its load of salt, sugar and fat. “Imagine this,” Carey said. “A potato chip that tastes great and qualifies for the Clinton-A.H.A. alliance for schools . . . . We think we have ways to do all of this on a potato chip, and imagine getting that product into schools, where children can have this product and grow up with it and feel good about eating it.”
That’s right… plotting on getting products in to them when they’re kids, so they can “grow up with it and feel good about eating it.”
6) I’m going to save you from another extensive excerpt, but I am going to say this: grab a post-it note and a pen, and take a running tally of how many times you see “sugar, fat and salt” referenced as “palatable” or even “addictive.”
One more excerpt, for the road:
[…]While at Frito-Lay, Lin and other company scientists spoke openly about the country’s excessive consumption of sodium and the fact that, as Lin said to me on more than one occasion, “people get addicted to salt.”
When I told you that leaving processed food behind and embracing clean eating was how I regained my control, my sense of self-control and developed my understanding of “will power,” this is why. This is what the “corporate” end of that struggle looks like, and it only furthers my belief that I’m not the only one who may have to make this kind of a tough decision.
I’m gonna go and come back to this, but on this note, I’m curious; did you read the entire article? What were your thoughts?