The Food Industry Should Only Sell Bad Tasting Food

Over the past few days many food bloggers have been sharing and reacting to this intriguing NY Times article about the food industry:

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food

The most common reaction I've seen is a mixture of fear and revulsion: "How can these companies be so savage and relentless in how they market food to us! These greedy companies make us all fat!"

Which is fine. This is exactly the reaction you're supposed to have. It's the reaction that the New York Times and its editors want, and it's why the article is there in the first place.

But I'd like to offer a different reaction: I believe this article is fundamentally disempowering and condescending towards consumers.

It's easy to blame packaged food companies like Pillsbury, Kraft and General Mills for "relentlessly selling" delicious food, yet we consumers are the ones who pick bags of it off the shelf, lug it to the checkout counter, fish money out of our pockets to pay for it, and then take it home with us and eat it.

What's also interesting is how we naturally want companies in every other industry to give us what we want. But when the food industry gives us what we want, somehow, that's .... not what we want. Somehow it's the food industry's fault for selling us the very food that we consent to buy. Look around the universe of food, diet and health blogs and you'll see this mindset everywhere. This is an enormous and deeply disempowering leap of illogic, and it ignores what should be an obvious and empowering fact: we do not have to consent to buy processed, pre-packaged food products from these companies at all.

Are we such zombies that we have to force the food industry to sell only bad-tasting food that no one wants?

Readers, are you troubled by the subtext here? Share your thoughts!

Related Posts:
The Sad, Quiet Death of Campbell's Low-Sodium Soup
Zombies, Processed Foods and the Advertising-Consumption Cycle
Ending Overeating: An Interview With Former FDA Commissioner David Kessler
How to Give Away Your Power By Being a Biased Consumer
Survivor Bias: Why Big Food Isn't Quite As Evil As You Think It Is
Can You "Engineer" a Food To Be Healthier?

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Emmy said...

Agreed. Until they start shilling gogurts at the kids. There should be some restraint when marketing to kids. Parents *should* be smart enough and have enough control to direct their kids in the right direction, but we're getting into the second generation of hyper effective marketing-saturated public...

Anne@ said...

No, I agree...sort of. No one is forcing the stuff down our throats. However, what I DO think is the food industries fault is the way they have manipulated their labeling and marketing to make crappy foods appear healthier. Ive recently started going to a diet of ONLY whole foods, and Im not going to lie, it is exhausting at times. Looking up ingredients, figuring out what I really want to put in my body, cooking things from scratch that while they are easy, still take time and I used to buy them for close to the same cost off the shelf. While we aren't forcing kids to suck up gogurt instead of plain yogurt sweetened with real fruit, the sad fact is that most Americans don't know the better. I feel like we are just at an impossible place right now.

rob said...

I guess when I was younger I assumed that no one would intentionally create a product that was bad for me. That's where the confusion on my end has always been.

I am now older and wiser and understand that food companies will poison me for profit.

So I guess I agree with your article, but I wish we lived in a country where people cared more about each other.

Sally said...

I agree with what rob said.

Recently I read Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products by Jeannie Marshall. She's a Canadian living and raising her child in Italy. Processed foods have been slower to catch on there, but now have a real foot in the door. Most Italians have a hard time believing that a company would knowingly sell food that they know is harmful to their health, especially their children's health.

I think many Americans feel this way, too, and as Anne said, they just don't know better. Products labeled as "healthy" usually aren't.

Daniel said...

Good comments so far. A few thoughts:

Emmy: yes, but who, specifically, purchases nearly all foods eaten by children? This is a critically important--and empowering--point.

Anne and Sally: yep, what you're talking about is "Leanwashing." There was a link about this concept in a Friday Links post from about two weeks ago.

Re Rob's comment: to be fair, don't you need to distinguish between foods that are literally "poison" and foods that are only bad for you when eaten to excess?

Here's a concrete example to explain what I mean: Ethyl alcohol is a poison. It is particularly toxic when consumed to excess. So does this mean that the beer industry "intentionally creates" a product that is bad for us? Does your favorite microbrewery therefore poison you for profit?

All I'm saying is: be very careful with rhetoric like this. It can be deeply disempowering.


Emmy said...

Daniel, when they marketed Lunchables to busy moms, I was okay with that - we are grown ups who can make intelligent, empowered decisions. When they start throwing up cartoon characters and repetitive commercials on Nick, I start to lost my edge. I'm tired of playing bad cop all the time! This was especially true this week when my 3rd grader came home from school THREE DAYS this week with full-sized candy bars. Please, I am one person, against almost limitless forces (now including our local elementary school, who has fallen under the spell of the marketing machine). I *will* be the bad guy rather than let my son ingest food colors that make him wonky, don't get me wrong. I'm just sick of being forced into this corner.

Melissa said...

Thank you for eloquently presenting the other point of view as usual, Dan. So well put and yes, I also agree completely with your take on this.

Anonymous said...

My problem does not lie with the making & selling of prepackaged foos stuffs, it is with the deceptive packaging & relentless advertising.

We don't own a TV or watch movies & my 4 year old is still aware of licensed characters & especially notices them when they are on packages on grocery stores.

Margaret Smith said...

The part about the original NYT article which bothered me was the idea that food companies do indeed work to maximize the amount of their products people buy, and are willing to do almost anything to achieve that end. (I wonder: if they could get away with it, could cocaine become a common additive?)

But then, is this any different from what any product manager in any industry does? How can a company or individual producer make a living, much less maximize his/her profits by doing anything less?

I do feel that they (and toy manufacturers, etc.) should be restrained from advertising heavily to children, however. Just as any other industry should be restrained from preying on the minds of the young. But where would it stop? Should we prevent teachers from ever revealing their political, religious, or other controversial views to their students? Should parents also be constrained? Should anyone be allowed to persuade children to do/not do, anything at all?

You can see where this is going - who is to decide what is, or is not acceptable? I might make different decisions from those you might make. And that guy over there? He certainly can't be allowed to tell me how to raise my kids, can he?

I agree with you, Daniel, to a point. Yes, it is stupid to blame manufacturers for giving us what we obviously want, rather than taking personal responsibility for what we eat and what we feed our families. However, it is also unconscionable for companies to justify deliberately making foods "addictive" to shore up the bottom line.

The problem of course is where do we draw the line between government control of bad behavior and the kind of "big brother" control that will tell us all what to do, how to do it, and when to do it? At what point does "anything not required is forbidden" become the rule?

I have no answers to those last questions. The danger is that some politicians think they do, and their answers, in this day of extremes, are all unacceptable.

Daniel said...

One of the things that is most striking to me about this food industry debate is how it is an illustration--both individually and societally--of us literally giving away our power.

If food is too good (or too delicious, or too fattening, or too compelling to children, or too high in butter/transfats or whatever kind of fat is "bad" these days, and so on) we seem to instinctively "call in the authorities." Somebody ought to do something about this!

But who is "somebody"?

I'm not trying to make some kind of statement about regulation or government or anything like that. I'm guess I'm just highlighting the fact that if a plurality or a majority of our society thinks this way, we will soon forget that we had any power in the first place.


chacha1 said...

Have to confess, I stopped reading at the first Roman numeral. This is such old, old "news" I can't believe the NYT is wasting time with it.

Anytime someone publishes an apparently well-researched article that basically tries to substantiate a conspiracy theory, I walk away.

The food industry is doing what any stock-price-driven industry is going to do: maximize market share and marginal returns.

People who think profitable food products are going to be abandoned in favor of unprocessed foods (that actually require input on the user end) are painfully naive.

Eating well is 100% the responsibility of the consumer.

Marcia said...

I have to agree with Emmy here. "We're giving up our power"??

They market unhealthy food to children. CHILDREN. Yes, I do 100% of the grocery shopping at my house. But at school, my kid gets snacks, and treats. At after school care he gets snacks and treats. He's almost 7. I am simply not with him 24/7.

Daniel said...

Marcia, I wouldn't personalize it. I wasn't talking about you per se regarding giving up your power. I read your blog: you are a machine when it comes to feeding your family affordable and healthy food.

I was just making a generalized point about the mentality behind the NY Times article. If we assume we can't do anything in the face of these companies who give us the food we consent to buy... it becomes self-fulfilling. That's what I mean by forgetting we had any power in the first place.

You (and Emmy too) are the positive contra-example that I'd like to see more of.


Ingles Dietitian said...

So glad to see this post. While I would say marketing of food items on kids tv should be restricted. The bottom line is w/ the consumer who buys. Don't want your kid to be subjected to commercials about junk food ? Don't let them watxh TV. Don't want them to eat junk food? Don't buy it. Don't like a particular food company? Don't invest in their stock and buy other products instead. Vote with your pocketbook. Fortunately in the US we have choices.