A recent Wall Street Journal article titled “Pepsico Wants to Sell Healthy Food, Consumers Want Chips” highlights a peculiar problem in the United States – “[PepsiCo] says it wants to make more ‘good for you’ snacks, but much of its revenue growth comes from high-fat, high-salt standbys such as Doritos and Cheetos.”
It reminded me of a book that was published about four years ago titled Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss, a New York Times columnist and a Pulitzer prize-winning author. Appearing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Moss gave the audience a taste (!) of how these food companies “hooked us” by summarizing the route taken by one junk food scientist to create a new flavor of Dr. Pepper:
“To find the most perfectly sweet formula, [the junk food scientist] took 61 versions each slightly different than the other, submitted it to 3000 consumer taste tests, threw it in his computer, did the high regression math analysis, and came up with the precise amount of sugar which he calls the Bliss Point, which was guaranteed to send us over the moon, send the product flying off the shelf, and make more money for Dr. Pepper.”
In his New York Times article on the same topic, Moss summarized his book and seemingly exposed the “extraordinary science” that is involved in the creation of “addictive junk food.” Apparently, the companies have figured out that salt, sugar and fat are the “holy grail” of junk food and “they know that when they use these three ingredients to market their foods properly, they’ve got winners.”
Moss blames the “fierce competition” in the food market and the profits in this market segment for the creation of these unhealthy junk foods. And then of course, when the dirty word “profit” is mentioned, you’ve got to bring forth the bogeyman – Wall Street!
Moss says, “Even when these companies try to do the right thing by consumer health … they get pushed back by Wall Street, which is basically going: Hey, where are the profits?”
Moss discusses the example of Campbell Soup which tried to create a “healthy line” of soups that contains slightly less salt. But “all it took was a cough, a hiccup, from Wall Street and … they put the salt back in. Because they are looking at their competition in the soup aisle and their competitors aren’t doing it!”
So, according to Moss, “The problem lies in [the junk food companies’] collective zeal to do what companies do, which is to make more money by selling more products.”
When I thought about it, all it took me to debunk Moss’ bogus line of argument is to ask two questions: 1. Why did Wall Street push back on Campbell Soup? Because profits were down. 2. Why did the profits go down? Because consumers don’t want to buy the “healthy” line of soups.
The fundamental problem is that consumers are more interested in buying tasty foods than healthy foods. Even if the companies try to make marginally healthy products, they are losing money. In essence, what Moss is saying is that the food companies and Wall Street are guilty of providing the consumers with exactly what they are demanding – junk food!
If you ignore the hand-wringing and exclamations, Moss’ entire argument boils down to this: Food companies have figured out how to create the most delicious, mouth-watering, yummy flavors of food at affordable prices. Consumers love these foods and they are literally buying them by the cartload. Food companies are reaping huge profits, so they are making more kinds of junk foods. As a result, Americans are getting fatter and fatter. So much so that the experts are using terms like “epidemic” to describe the high prevalence of obesity in America. And, when you have a problem, you need villains. Usually, it is most convenient to blame the guys making the money.
Whatever happened to individual responsibility? Don’t people believe anymore that they are what they choose to be?
Temptations have always existed, and they always will, for junk food, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, pornography, and so on. People and companies will try to market these products using all possible techniques at their disposal. So long as there are buyers, there will be makers and sellers. The makers and sellers of these products deserve no more blame than Oppenheimer deserves for Hiroshima and Nagasaki!
Moss talks about how difficult it is for mothers to prepare healthy foods in their busy daily lives. But facts tell a different story. Campbell’s healthy soups were as easy to pick up from the soup aisle as were the other soups. Yet many of the busy mothers chose the unhealthy option.
Wall Street did not make Campbell put the salt back in. The consumers did. Wall Street’s action is simply a reaction to consumer preferences.
The practice of creating bogeyman is not new, of course. Usually, it is easiest to accuse faceless fall guys like Wall Street, Corporations, Capitalists, Big Tobacco, and Big Pharma. We are led to believe that somehow Wall Street collectively conspired to hook the gullible population on to junk food.
Moss’ book is just another attempt to shift the blame from the people to corporations, which make the products, or Wall Street, which finances the corporations. Politicians play this game all the time because all they care about is votes – you can’t get the votes if you blame the people for their own problems, right? But, why does Moss need to do that? Well, maybe the answer is the same! If you blame the people, then people will not buy your book, right?
Oh, I can play this game too: Wall Street, through its pressure on the publishing company, is forcing Michael Moss to blame Wall Street!
So, what’s the solution?
As always, there is a top-down approach and a bottom-up approach.
The top-down approach is the top choice of pro-government advocates – to pressure government into creating new rules and taxes that are meant to force food companies to make and sell ‘healthy’ food products. Some European countries have proposed or passed laws for additional taxes on salt, sugar and fat. In New York City there is a severe limitation on the amount of trans fat in foods sold in restaurants. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to impose a limit on the maximum size of cups that can be used to sell soda.
The top-down approach curtails individual liberty. As a consequence, such approaches fail to achieve their objectives or create unintended consequences elsewhere that negate any perceived gains.
No matter how passionately pro-government advocates argue, there is no way to come up with a fool-proof set of legislative tools that will solve this problem without significant and, often counter-productive, drawbacks. In many countries, including the United States, attempts to ban alcohol consumption through prohibitions failed miserably and, in the process, caused lot of harm to society. Nearly half the number of people incarcerated in the US and a large portion of the homicides in the US are attributed to laws prohibiting production and sale of narcotics.
The bottom-up approach is what I call the War on Tobacco Way. The real success in the War on Tobacco was achieved in the United States by making tobacco unpopular and by successfully generating a social stigma towards users of tobacco. This was done by educating the consumer about the harmful effects of tobacco and also making tobacco “un-cool.”
President Obama went to great lengths to avoid smoking anywhere where there is a camera. Contrast this to the 1960s and 1970s when Walter Cronkite and many talk show hosts used to smoke on live television.
Pro-government advocates have and do try to influence governments to impose legal restrictions to limit the availability of tobacco. However, for the most part, these efforts have been blunted by the tobacco companies’ marketing efforts.
The War on Tobacco Way is to educate people on the ill-effects of substances that are harmful to the general population. Unlike what most people think, it is not necessary to go into detailed explanations or medical jargon. People who consume too much junk food are fat. There are many studies showing the ill-effects of being fat not only on long-term health, but also to income levels and general happiness. The tough part is how to get this message across effectively. But it is not that much tougher compared to the efforts required to enact half-baked, piecemeal laws.
Educating consumers to wean them away from harmful practices is a slow process. However, in the long run, it is the most powerful defense that society has against addictive substances. It will also ensure that tasty foods are available at affordable prices for consumers who enjoy them responsibly. There are many positive effects of occasional indulgences in tasty and delectable foods like chocolate bars, Doritos, Yodels, potato chips, Coke, and Raspberry Iced Tea.
There will always be people who willfully abuse substances even after being fully aware of the consequences. There is nothing a society can do about it but continue to stigmatize them. Occasionally, I see people walking by a smoker yelling, “That thing is going to kill you someday!”
One of the most significant social impacts brought about during the Obama presidency came from a member of his family. First Lady Michelle Obama used her position to shine a spot light on the problem of childhood obesity. She did so by coming up with symbolic yet highly effective public relations exercises like breaking the world record for jumping jacks, appearances on talk shows, and creating an organic vegetable garden at the White House.
Through her insistence that parents be aware of the ingredients going into their children’s food, Michelle Obama subtly put the ball back in the parents’ court by making them responsible for their children’s eating habits. One of the strongest defenses against childhood obesity is to create a social stigma such that parents are held responsible for their children being overweight and obese.
The War on Junk Food can borrow many plays from the War-on-Tobacco playbook. Part of the campaign should be to shame the food companies that make these junk foods and the grocery store chains that sell them, which is something Moss’ book does very well.
When it becomes unprofitable to sell junk food, either because people do not want to buy it, or because a company’s brand is taking a hit due to social stigma, then companies (like PepsiCo) will make healthier products and Wall Street will gleefully cheer them on. After all, Whole Foods is a company that specializes in selling healthier food products, and Wall Street doesn’t seem to be conspiring to kill it! In fact, Wall Street has played a critical role in the success of Whole Foods.
I am not fully opposed to what Michael Moss has to say in his book; what I object to is the central message he is transmitting through his conclusions. Although he concedes that those people involved in creating and marketing junk foods are nice people, his conclusions and overall message seem to imply that these people are solely responsible for consumers’ junk food addiction, and that consumers are helpless in this regard. By absolving the consumers and parents of any blame, Moss’ argument does a great disservice to society.
“Salt Sugar Fat” should be used as a slogan to educate consumers. It should be used not only to shame the food companies that produce junk food but also the consumers who abuse junk food. It should not be used to shift the blame to faceless organizations or groups, and then push for enactment of more government regulations.
The bliss point of a free society and a free market economy is when profits are limited by the knowledgeable consumer who refuses to abuse junk foods. Such a bliss point can be achieved only by empowering the consumer with information.
This is how we can have our bliss point, and eat it too!
* Satish Bapanapalli has been an ardent admirer of Milton Friedman’s ideas since 2009. Satish’s ideas closely resonate with libertarian or classical liberal philosophy.
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