This month, Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us hit the bookshelves in a big way. He exposes the big food companies’ practices of scientifically engineering junk food to be physically and emotionally irresistible. Moss explains that he didn’t start off inspecting processed foods, but “one of [his] most trusted sources in the processed food industry said, ‘…if you want to see something that’s making larger numbers of people ill, look at what’s intentionally added to processed food namely salt, sugar and fat’” 1. His research quickly proved his source right. Moss points to tomato sauce as a prime example: “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” 2.
We at Fearless Future have been closely watching this unfold. We read the New York Times article, listened to interviews on NPR, and then the other day I watched a discussion led by Dr. Oz, a strong influencer in wellness that includes food-purchasing choices. Influencers have the power to sway potential buyers and often have marketing activities oriented around them 3. Ultimately, I was left confused after the interview. There was ample discussion on the science of sugar, salt, and fat and their effects on the brain, but Dr. Oz hesitated to draw strong conclusions about the processed food manufacturers. In fact, he admitted to working closely with some of these companies and more than once expressed understanding about the companies’ motives. “Many companies are merely trying to keep their brand in the mix in an atmosphere of stiff competition and limited profit margins,” Dr. Oz argues, “However, that’s no excuse for endangering the health of the public by developing new foods and drinks loaded with more sugar, more fat and more salt” 4. He makes a valid point about the world of business, but his role, as a doctor speaking to the American public, should be to guide consumers towards better food choices. Instead, all he offers on his website as advice is, “In order to protect yourself, become a food label vigilante. Actively look for foods that are lower in sodium, and have less sugar and lower fat. You can also seek out natural, plant-based snacks and food” 4. This isn’t new advice but more significantly, it doesn’t offer any practical examples. Who do you know refers to fruits and vegetables as “plant-based snacks and food”? I’m just not convinced that Dr. Oz has his viewers best interests in mind.
One of Moss’s case studies that you can read in the New York Times article is about a popular Oscar Mayer product. Moss writes, “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’” 2. Processed food manufacturers are manipulating developing brains. Companies deliberately target children in their marketing but put the blame of obesity squarely in the consumers’ laps. It’s not hard to draw a comparison to the tobacco industry.
My point is marketing is a powerful—and potentially dangerous—tool. That’s why Fearless Future is committed to what we do: serving nonprofits and small businesses that support the common good, not the bottom line. We see a future of marketing for good as Moss ends his New York Times article with an inspiring story about “deadly dull” carrots marketed as junk food: “‘We act like a snack, not a vegetable,’ [former Coca-Cola executive] told… investors. ‘We exploit the rules of junk food to fuel the baby-carrot conversation. We are pro-junk-food behavior but anti-junk-food establishment’” 2. We don’t expect any sweeping changes in the industry, but it’s encouraging to see sharp-minded moguls use marketing principles to promote positive products.
- http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2013-02-28/how-processed-food-took-over-american-diet/transcript ↩
- http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/magazine/the-extraordinary-science-of-junk-food.html ↩
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Influencer_marketing ↩
- http://www.doctoroz.com/videos/salt-sugar-and-fat-could-you-be-addicted?page=2#copy ↩