It’s taken me over a week to read and figure out what I wanted to say about Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s [Really] Making America Fat. As usual, I’m about 6 or 7 months late to be the very first reviewer—I waited until my library acquired it. But having read it, I’m astonished that none of the bloggers, pro- or con-, have picked up on the fascination of reading a food politics book for its entertainment value as it unfolds and reveals its eccentricities. Because this is one strange concoction.
Hank Cardello, who spent most of his career as a marketing exec for General Mills, Coca Cola and other giants of the branded food world, is not the kind of player you’d expect to enter the current obesity debate, certainly not as a champion for health. His current organization is “a consulting firm that helps businesses take the lead on solving social issues.” Does that mean he’s pro-processed? Anti-processed? Well, not exactly.
Stuffed is neither a counterattack from the food industry nor the next go-green manifesto. It’s Cardello’s attempt to mediate between restaurant chains, supermarkets, Big Food manufacturers, Big Agro, the government, public schools, and pretty much every other player in food politics. It does pack some original insights about the interlock between food industry, government, and consumer behavior and a few genuine surprises among his recommendations—some reasonable, some so strange it’s worth reading just to find out how Big Food envisions its future.
Cardello spends the first part of his book dissecting the ways processed food companies, supermarkets and restaurants make decisions about the food they sell, and how they market it to consumers. Although some of it’s been done before–-usually with more indignation–-Cardello takes full advantage of his inside experience to shed light on the large web of influences surrounding profit, the bottom line, and manipulation of consumer perception and demand.
Why is a muffin or bagel twice as big as it was 30 years ago? How did Swanson’s TV dinners steer American expectations toward convenience over quality? Who decides what goes on the supermarket shelves? How did Pizza Hut get the cafeteria concession at your child’s school? How come the price of fruits and vegetables rose by 40% in a decade while the price of sodas and snacks fell?
His answers reveal the fundamental gridlock of businesses that have grown so successful that they can’t change easily without shutting down. Without exactly letting anyone off the hook for clinging to damaging business practices, Cardello contends that not only basic business constraints but government and consumer expectations are making it difficult to shift the system enough to improve the overall health of processed food. He echoes the standard company line that government should stay out of “nannying” and rely on voluntary compliance from the food industry, which he believes can and should lead the revolution. But at his best, he pinpoints the difficulty of getting consumers to change their habits and reveals the actual, sometimes adverse, response of consumers and the food industry to government regulation and guidance on nutrition.
He turns his attention to the cupcake wars in public schools–an iconic distraction, he claims, that keeps parents and administrators from looking too closely at just how badly school cafeterias have been franchised out to the fast food chains and vending machines to supplement underfunded school district budgets. He sounds more or less right.
He contends that the obesity epidemic has become an epidemic mostly in the era of food labeling, that pick-and-choose hazard regulations on specific ingredients confuse consumers more than they help and give advocates on either side fodder for garbled TV shouting matches. The Food Pyramid he points to as a prime example of government sellout to Big Food (here I’m with him 100%; at NIH I heard about the USDA panel from a nutritionist who’d been there), and so muddled it’s worse than useless for diet management. Worst of all, he says, only a small fraction, maybe a third, of consumers say they actually read the food labels.
He’s right on a lot of this too, but he gives health advocate organizations and government campaigns almost no credit for their work, and his insistence that customers are sheep who can’t change their fast food habits at all seems to ignore consumer reaction to a mass public deception. Many of the same customers who supposedly don’t want to be told what to eat are starting to check their restaurants’ nutritional information online.
Still, Cardello’s probably right when he points out that most customers in a fast-food joint are there to order what they know, get their food, and get out the door, and don’t take time to look at the nutrition info, wherever it may be posted. These are marketing issues and the discussion raises some intriguing questions for what states and municipal governments could do to approach truth-in-nutrition campaigns more effectively. So despite my wariness about his perspective, which he tries to balance but which remains firmly in the “food industry is the only capable player” camp, I was actually looking forward to discovering what he might recommend as a marketing expert.
Cardello next proposes that the sector with the most power to change the overall situation is actually the government, which pays huge farm subsidies to corn, soy, and wheat growers while penalizing farmers who try to convert some of their land to fruit and vegetables. Changing the subsidy system would be the most effective way to change the food supply and encourage more availability of nutritious and whole foods. OK, it would be a giant task, but it has possibilities. How would he do it?
But he doesn’t pursue either of these avenues. Instead, his interviews with leaders in most of the industry sectors give a cross-section view of current but not always appetizing ideas on how to improve the health value of processed food. This second half or so of his book is fascinating as a window into the way Big Food thinks about its future, not least because it relies on assumptions that most consumers hoping for better food are likely to find repugnant and even exploitative.
His solution to the school cafeteria problem attempts to mediate between vendors, schools and parents by selling smaller portions and healthier offerings in the vending machines, rather than getting rid of them. But his (and Big Food’s) definition of “healthier” is in doubt—he’s not really talking about milk or apples or tuna sandwiches; he’s mostly talking vitamin waters and other nutraceutical-enhanced soft drinks. And he doesn’t really see what’s wrong about vendors attempting to brand-train a captive audience of children in the process as long as the products are “healthy”.
His chapter on “Stealth Health” starts out discussing ways processed and fast food can be revised for better health without upsetting customer expectations à la “New Coke”. OK, but Cardello insists that any reformulation that could change the expected taste profile is an absolute no-no, as is mentioning the word “health” outside of breakfast cereals and yogurt products, because according to marketing research customers always believe the revised product won’t taste as good. In short, Customers Will Scream, and somehow that’s really the most important issue. So he envisions a strategy in which companies reengineer foods for health on the sly, with the least possible publicity, and offer healthier versions with non-health benefits prominent and the word “health” never mentioned. If that’s not a “nanny state” approach, I don’t know what is.
A better approach is the one he describes at General Mills, which a few years ago started building in employee incentives to limit unhealthy ingredients progressively and improve the nutrition label data—e.g., less salt in breakfast cereals—by specific percentages each year. Encouraging—but things get progressively stranger.
“Future Foods” opens with a Jetsons-style utopia of the highly automated future of food. Your favorite fast food purveyors check your medical specs and deliver an order formulated on the spot to your exact nutritional profile, replete with nutraceutical enhancements—no fresh food necessary, apparently. The company provides your entire diet. Cardello is eerily enthusiastic about this. Does he genuinely think it’s a great way to live? Sounds like food hell to me. His suggestions here are rife with “sneak-the-vegetable-derivatives-into-your-hamburger-and-fries!” thinking, rather than “offer actual vegetables.” He’s big on green tea extract (why not just sell green tea?) and omega-3 fatty acids—kind of behind the times as magic-bullet ingredients go. Snapple’s already done the green tea thing as bottled green tea. Cardello suggests the food industry wants to add the extract to a variety of other foods—like burgers and fries. Maybe ketchup, to branch out a little.
He also touts more questionable-to-dangerous additives—”satiety agents” (appetite suppressors) and energy boosters (mostly caffeine, but perhaps others as well). Again, these are not exactly news—I remember ads for “Chewable Ayds” appetite suppressant candies for massive weight loss in the back of my mother’s magazines when I was a kid, and hypercaffeinated sodas have been on the market to the skateboard crowd for years—now a crop of new “relaxation enhancer”-spiked soft drinks are being peddled to the same market to make up for it.
In any case, it’s not clear whether his interviewees plan to market their new products (I hesitate to call them food) on the strength of the additives or sneak omega-3s and soybean hulls into everyone’s favorite burgers à la Stealth Health. There’s also no mention of the tiny ethical (and now legal) problem of hiding ingredients from customers with food allergies or, in the nutraceutical context, drug sensitivities.
The fact that he gives several prominent examples (mostly from his corporate clients) of this kind of brave-new-world processed food experimentation in progress does nothing to change the fact that he’s preserving the basic burger, fries, coke scenario at all costs. (Well, except for about five separate mentions of Little Debbie Snack Cakes as a perfect vehicle for all kinds of enhancers.)
He says it’s impractical to expect real change in consumer behavior because customers just can’t possibly be expected to give it up or cut back to reasonable once-a-week outings. He insists they can’t possibly be marketed to correctly so they’ll relinquish their fast food. And portions? He thinks about selling smaller portions of nutraceutical-enhanced specialty items at a slightly higher price, so the companies profit again from the margin—the reverse of the classic extra-large muffin strategy that got us all into this mess in the first place. But he never, ever, considers ways to shrink fast food chain portions back to something smaller than a linebacker’s feast.
Most strangely, he’s hopeful for chewing gum. Wrigley’s (one of his clients) is now experimenting with gum as a snack alternative, and as an after-dinner substitute for seconds and thirds. They’ve found out exactly what we all knew 30 years ago: gum is not food, but it gives your mouth something to do. Just think what could happen if you boosted gum with one of the new appetite-suppressants-I-mean-satiety-agents and gave it to people after supper! “Can you make it in fried chicken flavor?” he quips. I’ll stick with mint, thanks. (What’s next, burger-flavored toothpaste?)
The book wraps up with his account of a think tank conference he arranged between food industry leaders and leaders in nutrition research. It’s the return of his initial vision of collaboration rather than adversarial thinking, and the tone is enormously civil and rational-sounding—a relief from the previous sections, though slightly jarring as well. As with most conferences, it produces no solid conclusions on improving American health via diet.
If it were just another conference and not a summit, that would be ok. Even though I realized halfway through that I was reading to see just how weird it would get, this book really bothers me. It is fascinating as a snapshot of the corporate mind running around in tighter and tighter circles, but it is not heartening for our future. It’s not just that Cardello’s worked for and clearly consulted for most of the corporate participants, and that all of them seem to have no further ideas on food than burgers, fries, coke and more burgers. It’s the idea that all that marketing, nutrition, and food engineering expertise should be used to deceive and manipulate customers further, supposedly for health, but actually to continue steering them toward ever-more-synthetic food products and away from whole fresh foods. If this is Cardello’s moderate utopia, I want out.
Filed under: books, Eating out, Food Politics | Tagged: cardiovascular disease, fast food chains, Food Politics, General Mills, Hank Cardello, healthy diet, heart disease, nutraceuticals, processed food industry |