“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.”
This is an excerpt of a fascinating New York Times article called “The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food“, which showcases the length companies go to in order to find the perfect snack – the perfect mouthfeel of a chip, the best combination of sugar, fat and salt to make stopping to eat as difficult as possible, and the illusive vanishing caloric density – that feeling cheetos have of melting in your mouth? According to food scientist Steven Witherly, this tricks your brain into thinking they don’t have any calories, so you can keep on eating them forever.
The dedication of food companies to provide us with exactly what we want is impressively demonstrated by the example of Frito-Lay, whose research complex near Dallas employs nearly 500 chemists, psychologists and technicians with a research budget of up to $30 million a year.
In the ongoing debate about who is to blame for the escalating obesity crisis in the US and elsewhere, the above mentioned quote goes to the heart of the argument – is the food industry just meeting consumers’ demands, as is its role in the food market, or can it be responsible for the increasingly unhealthy eating habits of the general public? This issue has been battled over for years, with eight obese teenagers filing a lawsuit against McDonald’s in the early 2000s, claiming they didn’t know how unhealthy a daily diet of fast food was and making the company responsible for their overweight and health problems (after circling through courts for years, however, it was voluntarily dismissed by both parties in 2011).
Now, with more science emerging that we might be wired by evolution to prefer energy-dense sweet and high-fat foods for survival reasons, it might be interesting to ask – is it still solely the consumer’s responsibility to resist the intense advertising campaigns and the scientifically calculated formulas for the most addictive snacks, and just to demand healthier food which companies will then furnish him? This is one solution of the industry to the obesity crisis, and the provision of low-calorie versions of mealtime favorites has increasingly become another profitable alternative for companies.
However, another topic the article touched on (and which warrants a blog post in itself) was that one of the newer revelations of the industry for successful sales was to “put the kids in charge” and market to children directly. As a consequence, a 2007 study found that out of 8,854 food ads directed at children, most ads were for products that according to nutritionists and government agencies should be consumed either in moderation, occasionally, or in small portions, and none of the ads promoted fruit and vegetable consumption. Can we expect the same rationality and understanding about nutrition from children as we do from adults? How does this shift in marketing influence families’ consumption habits now and, even more importantly, the next generations’ perception of and demand for healthy foods?
Closing with a last quote from the New York Times article, this one might show the mindset of at least part of the industry, according to Bob Drane, the former Vice-President of new business strategy and development of Oscar Mayer, a producer of processed meats that has since merged with Kraft Foods. Today, he gives talks to University of Wisconsin medical students linking the food industry and public health:
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!”