CK readers know all about my dislike of branded boxed cereal, one of the food industry's most heavily engineered products. It costs too much, it's usually loaded with sugar (often hidden in plain sight on the ingredients list), and it's packaged in tall, skinny boxes that seem bigger than they really are.
Worse, thanks to stealth price hikes, those tall, skinny boxes contain less and less cereal each year. Which reminds me of the famous joke from Annie Hall: "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." "Yeah, I know. And such small portions!"
Which is why news that General Mills has been re-engineering some of their breakfast cereals is both timely and fascinating. A Wall Street Journal article* recently chronicled General Mills' efforts to reduce the sugar in Lucky Charms, a cereal I practically grew up on.
What's more interesting, however, are the problems that pop up when you try to tweak the ingredients list of a manufactured food. For example, when you cut a cereal's sugar content, it doesn't float in milk. It gets soggy too quickly and loses that satisfying crunch. And, hey, if that soggy, unsatisfying crunch isn't sweet enough, kids won't eat your cereal at all. Which means the parents of those kids won't buy your cereal.
Another example--one that's borderline nasty: When General Mills attempted to reduce the sodium content in their low-fat crescent rolls, the rolls became moldy. Mmm-mmmmm.
Stuff like this makes me wish I were a sanctimonious food pundit, because it's so laughably easy to explain away these issues using the prism of corporate greed. Think about it. General Mills is greedy if they leave the salt in--that's because they're feeding us hyperpalatable salt-laden rolls that give us hypertension. And they're greedier still if they take the salt out and our food gets moldy--that's because they're trying to kill us with unsafe food. And if they put the salt back in, they're even greedier still for making their food unhealthy all over again on purpose. Clearly, all they care about is putting profits before people. QED.
And yet it's another thing entirely to try to figure out a incredibly complex problem like how to get safe, shelf-stable food out the door that tastes good enough for people to buy. A fat lot of good it does General Mills or consumers to make healthier food if it sits moldy and unbought on store shelves.
Which is why I want my readers to be knowledgeable, empowered consumers who can grasp several sides of an issue. Look, food companies want us to buy their foods and they want to make a profit. Duh. They also want to sell us what we want, which means if we demand healthier food they will make it for us. So far, so good.
But can we consumers expect these foods to taste exactly the same, have the same shelf life and perform exactly like the prior unhealthy versions? It's that last step in the argument that exposes the often inconsistent expectations we consumers have for our food. As we saw with the sad, quiet death of Campbell's low-sodium soup, sometimes food company's can't win no matter what they do.
Frankly, there aren't that many examples of a food company re-engineering an engineered food--and doing it flawlessly. One that comes to mind: when Crisco removed all of the trans fats from their vegetable shortening in 2007 (readers: if you can think of others, please share them in the comments).
And yet here's an irony. Any food pundit worth his salt could still criticize Crisco! Heck, the soundbite practically writes itself: "Why did they wait so long? Why did they sell trans fat-laden vegetable shortening for years to unsuspecting customers? We all know the answer: greed. They simply put profits before people, and they only made the change after the pressure over health concerns became overwhelming."
Gosh, it's awesome to have all the answers, isn't it? But the truth is, approaching this subject from this kind of predetermined, "corporations are greedy" prism doesn't give you answers, it merely gives you the illusion of answers. Here at CK, we obviously don't want to mindlessly defend food companies--but we also aren't interested using prisms that encourage consumers to give away their power either. If you think food companies are too powerful for you, and that they can persuade you to eat food you wouldn't otherwise eat, you've already willingly given away all your power.
But there's at least one conclusion that I take away from this debate: Processed, second-order foods like boxed cereal aren't really food--they are solutions to complex engineering problems. They are designed not to feed us per se, but to float in milk, to dissolve at a certain rate, to release sweetness in certain amounts, to decompose at a certain rate, and so on. All of which takes us to what is the most fascinating quote in the entire WSJ article:
"If we just took the sugar out, you wouldn't want to eat the product left behind, independent of sweetness."
Now we're getting somewhere. After reading that quote, there's a question that practically sits up and begs to be asked: Why would you pay your hard-earned money for a food product made up of things you wouldn't want to eat?
Now that's a prism that empowers consumers.
What's your take? Share your thoughts in the comments!
* PS: Readers, to get past the WSJ paywall, just Google the title "Success Is Only So Sweet in Remaking Cereals" and you should be able to access the article.
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