Six Core Principles of Healthy, Inexpensive Cooking

Readers, for a long time I've wanted to articulate Casual Kitchen's most important core concepts in an easily accessible format. That time has come. I've put together a megapost, broken down into six bite-sized short essays, each discussing one core concept. I'll run these posts over the next two weeks, one post every other day. After the series is over, I’ll create an archive post with links to all six essays for your convenience.

Today’s post covers branding, advertising and consumer empowerment. I hope you find this series useful, and as always, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below or privately via my email. Thanks as always for reading.

CK Core Principle #1: Avoid branded and heavily-advertised foods

There are more than 50,000 separate products in the typical grocery store, and for nearly every item, there’s a market segment pre-designed for every income level and customer type. This is true for everything from low-cost commodity foods (lentils, dried and canned beans, pasta, frozen veggies, etc.), to higher-cost processed foods (branded snack foods, pre-packaged ready-to-eat foods, frozen dinners), right up to the most expensive consumer product items (pain relievers, vitamins, branded boxed cereals). The price differential between the highest cost market segment and lower cost or unbranded market segments can be as much as double. Sometimes more.

And yet, shockingly, there's often little to no difference in quality between these products, despite this enormous price difference. In fact, in some instances, the branded product and the unbranded product come from the very same factory, both made by the same third-party manufacturer. Don't believe it? Then read my article The Do-Nothing Brand. Therefore, when a "brand" is little more than a sticker slapped on the product, an empowered consumer stands to benefit enormously by trying alternative products and by not making habituated purchasing decisions.

There’s really only one instance where the purchase of branded food products is fully justified: when you’ve tested it against lower cost alternatives in an true blind taste test. Why a blind taste test? Because branding techniques play off our deepest emotions: we associate various brands with our childhood, with comfort, with aspirational feelings, or with some other deep and usually subconscious emotional need. If you don’t blind test, you’ll automatically favor the branded product. Worse, you’ll most likely rationalize a reason for your preference. After all, that’s why companies spend so much money to create the brand in the first place!

Last and most importantly, understand that you, the consumer, ultimately pay for all branding and advertising activity. These excess costs are passed through to you whenever you buy a higher-priced branded product or any product that's heavily advertised and marketed. This is why I counsel readers to change how they react to advertising: once you grasp how advertising and marketing ultimately increase the prices you pay (and therefore reduce the value you receive for your money), seeing ads for a product makes you not want to buy.

Make the consumer products and food industries compete for your dollars. Don't let their advertising bilk you out of your money.

Brand Disloyalty
Prices, Zombies and the Advertising-Consumption Cycle
How to Blind-Taste and Blind-Test Brands
How To Be Manipulated By a Brand

Next up! Core Principle #2: Embrace Low-Meat Cooking

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Marcia said...

Looking forward to the next five!

I generally am not brand loyal. There are a few things where I am brand loyal.

My kid loves ranch dressing. So I buy Marie's - seems to have the closest thing to a "real food" ingredients list.

chacha1 said...

You know what, I realized I am pretty much brand loyal. I tell myself I have landed on these brands because they are, in my assessment, the best of the available options (e.g. meats from Open Nature or Aidell's or Niman Ranch) or because they are the ONLY option for certain foods we enjoy. Like, ground bison in my supermarket is from a single supplier.

I'm brand loyal with my haircolor too, because only one supplier makes the color I like best. :-)

O Organics (sold by the Pavilions supermarkets here in L.A.) is my choice whenever they have a product competing with the big brands.

My sense that organic foods are better may be purely illusory. But I can honestly say that I have never bought any organic food based on advertising!