Good luck selling unappealing food (commentary)

Good luck selling unappealing food (commentary)

MOMENTARILY set aside any preconceived convention about what you should or shouldn't be eating; it doesn't even matter if your selection isn't necessarily nutritious or has been called "unhealthy."

Now, answer the following question: What's your favorite food?

Your choice is likely some food item that's probably categorized as having too much salt and/or sugar and/or fat. Those three ingredients are fundamentally essential to making food taste good. There's really no getting around it.

That serves as the foundation for Michael Moss' recent book, Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.

Moss explains, "Grocery products have lots of attributes that make them attractive, chief among them color, smell, packaging and taste. In the craft called optimization, food engineers alter these variables ever so slightly in making dozens and dozens of new versions, each just a bit different from the next. These are not new products to sell. They are created with the sole intent of finding the most perfect variation, which is divined by putting all these experimental versions to the test."

None of that is very surprising. Food companies develop food we like; that's really no different from us iteratively tweaking our favorite in-home recipe until we get it just right.

From a grocery product perspective, that's a fascinating process that involves consumer responses to both taste and marketing. The deeper you delve into those aspects of commercially successful foods, the more intriguing the background becomes. Food makes for a great story, especially when considering the combination of science and business (think Food Network).

Just like food, books, too, must sell. It can't just be a great product; it also has to move off the shelves.

Moss had to somehow "hook" people into actually purchasing his book, hence the underlying premise about "how the makers of processed foods have chosen, time and again, to double down on their efforts to dominate the American diet, gambling that consumers won't figure them out."

That's the story that sells, and that's because it suggests some type of conspiracy.

Moss asks, "What if some of these products are so tasty (that) people can't resist eating them? Is it possibly part of the problem that (food companies) have just made this stuff taste so good that people can't help but eat too much?"

In other words, make a food product and then pile on some compelling marketing, and you have the perfect equation for "addictive" products. We simply can't help ourselves — right?

In light of the trends in obesity and health care in the U.S., that's an especially important question. It's behind the book's assertion that we've become casualties of "big food companies" and their research acumen; our collective weight problem is their responsibility.

Let's also remember that the obesity epidemic isn't just about food; rather, it involves a number of interacting variables that include food, lifestyle and personal choices that have converged over time.

There also remains the bigger question about causation. Jeffrey Dunn, former president of Coca-Cola North America and Latin America, asked: "Does the preference for soda and snacks drive the availability of soda and snacks, or does availability drive the preference?"

Whatever the answer, the bottom line is that we like food that tastes good. No one debates the need to do better, but is that a function of increasingly unfavorable individual decision-making and sedentary lifestyles, or does it result from some broader scheme to control our shopping and eating behavior?

If we determine it to be the latter, the need arises for some Orwellian type of decree establishing taste standards for all food — both in and out of the home — something like, "No food should be exceedingly yummy."

The goal would be to create food that's perfectly mediocre and presented in an unappealing manner. Good luck with that approach.

Never mind assigning blame; the better strategy includes a renewed emphasis on personal wellness, nutritional education, common sense, balance, personal responsibility and empowered decision-making.

Sure, that will take some work, but it's worth it. Maybe that way, we can have our favorite food ... and eat it, too.

*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.

Volume:85 Issue:38

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