Can You "Engineer" a Food To Be Healthier?

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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Anonymous said...

1. Am I a freak because I like LIFE because it gets soggy? (I don't eat it very often, but I like it & will buy it on occasion to satisfy a hankering.)
2. Are non-branded cereals better - say Joes O's instead of Cheerios? (Are Cheerios "bad?")
3. I'd like to get sanctimonous about how I did not but the Low Sodium offerings from Campbells because they are not Kosher - which is only half of it, but I just don't buy canned soup...
4. I know Kosher foods have the sodium, sugar, & fat issues...
5. I feel so much better about my "plain" diet - you see I am too lazy to go beyond steaming vegetables, baking chicken & boiling potatoes. Luckily my family is too lazy to revolt. Besides I feed the Cheerios for breakfast & occasionally dole out jarred spaghetti sauce on whole wheat pasta - just to mix it up a bit!
6. But the saddest side effect of this post - you reminded me that I haven't eaten my plain though instant oatmeal yet & I am hungry. (Hey at least at 6:42 it is still breakfast time.)

chacha1 said...

I loooooove Lucky Charms. They are a comfort food. Once or twice a year, tops. ... I know perfectly well that "good source of whole grains" notwithstanding, Lucky Charms are essentially candy in a bowl of milk.

The only manufactured cereal that I buy regularly is granola. I could make my own, I suppose, but the impact on my overall health of that one choice is negligible. I'd rather have the TIME. It's the same choice I make in buying bottled pasta sauce.

People who gripe about the content of manufactured foods, while continuing to fill their carts with them, get no sympathy from me.

Anyone can learn to cook, if truly health food is their priority. If they want food manufacturers to do all the work for them ... well, that's kind of lame.

Dave said...

Very insightful post, thanks!

Here's a little story that I think reflects the real motivation that drives some of these big food companies: I have a friend who works in the test kitchens for a big cookie company. She sets up for testing cookies in large-scale production. So I asked her about how the taste testing works. "Taste testing? No, we really just look at spread (how wide the cookie gets) and yield. So we can figure out cost and box design."

Packaging over taste, eh?

Daniel said...

Some great comments and questions right off the bat.

Anonymous: I don't think there's anything wrong with your diet at all. Perhaps with the minor exception of liking soggy Life Cereal. :)

But seriously--plain, unprocessed, simple foods usually taste better, and they're almost always healthier and cheaper.

Chacha: Interesting framework on the value of your time vs making it yourself. For us, pasta sauce is an example too of where we save time and go for the "manufactured" version. There are no hard and fast rules, obviously--I just hope my readers make conscious choices about the foods they choose to make versus the foods they choose to have made for them.

There's also an "ick" factor involved here too. It's why I don't butcher my own meat (uh, yet) or why one reader a year or so ago wrote to me and told me she doesn't de-bone her own chicken breasts, but prefers to pay extra for prepared chicken in the store.

Dave, that's a great--and vaguely disturbing--anecdote. Wow. Thanks for sharing.


Milehimama @ Mama Says said...

I love Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and also buy it every once in a while (twice a year, maybe? When it's on sale w a coupon, I'm not paying $4 a box for it!)

I generally avoid most "junk" cereals. I have lots of kids, but we eat oatmeal, maltomeal, or Cheerios, mostly. But I do let them pick out any cereal they want on their birthday- it's a tradition for our family. I hope I'm helping to reinforce that these kinds of foods are treats, not every day fare. (My family is dye free for health reasons, and I don't relax THAT rule, even for birthdays.)

Moms Best makes a "Golden Grahams" and a "Cinnamon Toast Crunch" knockoff that's pretty good, and the Moms Best is better (not great, but better) health wise than the standards IMO. It at least is made with whole grain flour and real sugar, not HFCS, and is dye free.