Monday, March 11, 2013

Packaged Food

Here is a good and important New York Times article on packaged foods. I will pull out highlights and add some commentary, which hopefully gets you interested in reading the whole thing.

On the evening of April 8, 1999, a long line of Town Cars and taxis pulled up to the Minneapolis headquarters of Pillsbury and discharged 11 men who controlled America's largest food companies. Nestlé was in attendance, as were Kraft and Nabisco, General Mills and Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Mars. Rivals any other day, the C.E.O.'s and company presidents had come together for a rare, private meeting. On the agenda was one item: the emerging obesity epidemic and how to deal with it.

The food industry is locked in a classic arms race. They are not monsters and they would love to give people healthy food if it meant the same profits. The problem is that if they fail to add sugar and salt to everything, they will lose market share to their competitors and eventually go out of business. So they spend vast amounts of money 'optimizing' foods for maximum taste in order to stay in business.

In most situations, we want to see companies working hard to deliver products that consumers want at a good price. That is what makes market economies so good. But the problem is that when it comes to food, the things that people want will end up killing them.

The way you end an arms race is with some kind of binding agreement. If everyone agrees to prevent the escalation of the arms race, then everyone is better off. Humans have a lot of instincts about fairness and society that help us maintain these kinds of agreements. This meeting was obviously an attempt to stop the arms race, allowing the companies to maintain their situation and keep food healthy.

It was a noble effort, but it failed, as the article describes. Outside of small groups that trust each other, these agreements are always hard to sustain, because the incentives to defect are so strong. If every other food company is making bland healthy food, you can make amazing amounts of money by adding salt and sugar to your stuff. This process is what makes non-competitive agreements hard to sustain, and generally protects consumers from cartels and incumbent firms getting lazy and trying to make profits without constant innovation. But again, with food the process works against consumers.

In the process of product optimization, food engineers alter a litany of variables with the sole intent of finding the most perfect version (or versions) of a product. Ordinary consumers are paid to spend hours sitting in rooms where they touch, feel, sip, smell, swirl and taste whatever product is in question. Their opinions are dumped into a computer, and the data are sifted and sorted through a statistical method called conjoint analysis, which determines what features will be most attractive to consumers.

If you are relying on your instincts and sensations to guide your diet, you have no chance of remaining healthy. The techniques described in the article will generate superstimuli, foods unlike anything found in nature, and your instincts will tell you that you should seek them out. When all of the tools of modern science are being deployed to create something that you will find attractive, then it requires a monastic level of asceticism to avoid that thing. When the attractive things are full of sugar and salt and have no vitamins, then people without such extreme self-control will suffer lots of nasty health problems.

The military has long been in a peculiar bind when it comes to food: how to get soldiers to eat more rations when they are in the field. They know that over time, soldiers would gradually find their meals-ready-to-eat so boring that they would toss them away, half-eaten, and not get all the calories they needed. But what was causing this M.R.E.-fatigue was a mystery.

A lot of people would like to have this problem, and there are several lessons here. The first is the value of exercise. Soldiers in the field are burning a lot of calories. Their instincts may not be telling them to replace all of these calories.

The second lesson is the power of novelty. Although there is a lot of individual variation, the reward system in our brains seems to have an instinct to reward us for new experiences. If you are in a good place with your diet, then trying something new might be hazardous to your waistline.

The final lesson is that a restricted diet may help you lose weight because your appetite will diminish. This might explain the constant popularity of fad diets, even though there is no medical reason for them to accomplish anything if calorie intake is held constant. Any arbitrary and strict limit on your diet will be easy to remember and may decrease your appetite, so they may produce good results as long as you are getting all the vitamins and important nutrients you need.

With production costs trimmed and profits coming in, the next question was how to expand the franchise, which they did by turning to one of the cardinal rules in processed food: When in doubt, add sugar.

We are now realizing that added sugar can be a bigger problem than natural fats. When I turn three plantains and an avocado into a feast of chips and guacamole and eat that for dinner, it is not the healthiest thing in the world but it probably does less damage to me than a dinner of spaghetti and premade sauce.

Kraft's early Lunchables campaign targeted mothers. They might be too distracted by work to make a lunch, but they loved their kids enough to offer them this prepackaged gift. But as the focus swung toward kids, Saturday-morning cartoons started carrying an ad that offered a different message: "All day, you gotta do what they say," the ads said. "But lunchtime is all yours."

I find this kind of thing abhorrent. Adults have the ability and understanding to deploy self-control against psychological pressure and optimized superstimuli, even though it is hard. But feeding on the insecurities of adolescents to sell them a horribly unhealthy packed food is inexcusable. This particular message is especially sinister because it implies that any parent that does the responsible thing and refuses to buy this junk is denying children the freedom they deserve.

We need to understand as a society that children are simply not qualified to make any choices about diet and nutrition. Most of them have no chance to resist the seduction of these carefully optimized superstimulus foods. Once they are exposed to such things, their desires and instincts will be warped and distorted and they will start to see healthier foods as inferior, and refuse to eat them.

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