Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the French gourmet and lawyer, famously said in 1825 “tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” In his days, that would have been relatively easy – people ate poultry, vegetables from the garden, soups, bread and a few fruits. Jean might have been able to tell quite a bit about someone from his diet back then, but his task would have been a lot harder today.
What you eat matters. There are dozens of reports that link food and cancer, for example. And food clearly matters in terms of weight and obesity. Some foods make you happy. Others make you sad. Food can make you attractive, or even smarter. It’s hard to think of something that would matter more, in fact, than what we all eat.
The problem is that few of us own farms, and almost no one eats what they grow or hunt anymore. Most of us eat manufactured food, which sets up a natural incentive for those manufacturers to figure out ways to sell more food at higher prices to us.
Let’s start with labels. There is essentially no single organization that regulates what manufacturers can put on their labels, with the exception of the Food Nutrition Label, which is somewhat regulated by the FDA (that’s the label with all the calories and the cholesterol/sodium amount). That label is fairly accurate, because it’s federally mandated. Everything else? Far less believable.
See, since no single agency regulates labels, you are pretty much free to put whatever you want. For example, “Reduced Fat” is a popular label, which means essentially nothing – reduced from what? Your food can still be massively loaded with fat, and if you make it with even 10% less fat you could use the “Reduced Fat” label with complete impunity. Don’t even get me started with labels like “Natural!” or “Organic”, which are so devoid of meaning as to be completely meaningless.
Or consider Smart Choice:
The idea behind the Smart Choices program was that you could give consumer an easy to understand (“a green tick mark!! How much easier can we make it??”) label to signal a good food item. It was a noteworthy idea, originally sponsored by some universities and a couple of consumer groups. But the idea morphed quickly when it came time to fund the program. How to fund the program? Well, charging manufacturers seemed like a good idea – after all, they had to be the ones to put the label onto the foods, right? So the program became funded by 14 manufacturers like General Mills and Kraft. And of course, a rule was passed that only products of the member manufacturers could be endorsed by the program, and membership cost $100,000 yearly. What did you get for your hundred grand? Well, for one thing, you got the right to argue that your product could be healthy and deserved a green check mark, regardless of how absurd the notion was:
All of these got the Green nod. How could Fruit Loops or Fudgsicles get a healthy choice tick mark? Well, under the influence of the manufacturers (who paid the fees, after all), the program gradually morphed from signaling food that was “good for you” to food that was “less bad than other, terrible foods.” So, for example, the Fruit Loops were considered ‘smart’ because some vitamins had been added to the loops. Under that guideline, of course, you could argue for a lot of foods to get the nod, from Mayonnaise to candy. Eventually the program was investigated by the Connecticut Attorney General, and was disbanded by the member organizations soon thereafter.
If you really want to dive deep on this topic, this 138-page report will probably make you happy and, as a neat aside, will ensure that you never trust a label ever again.
Okay, so you can’t trust labels. But surely, the rest of the food package is less easy to manipulate, no?
Let’s take a simple example. The name of the ingredients.
Now, a name is pretty simple. Sugar is sugar. Meat is meat. You can’t really get any simpler.
But if no agency regulated labels, you’ll probably not be surprised if no agency regulates the names of the ingredients in the box. This has been taken by some manufacturers as a license to get creative.
Let’s look at some examples:
Meant to look like: Well, cheese.
Actually is: oil, starch, and added proteins. None of which ever saw the inside of a cow.
(To be fair, they don’t actually claim it to be “cheese”. Technically, it’s “pasteurized processed sandwich slices.”)
Meant to look like: Crab meat. Expensive and classy.
Actually is: Fish parts that have been shredded, pressed together, and dyed red to simulate crab meat.
Actually is: Almost anything but actual Red Snapper fish. Several studies show that what is sold in the US as Red Snapper is, 80% of the time, different fish dyed slightly red to masquerade as Red Snapper.
Meant to look like: What, are you high? Cranberry Juice!!
Actually is: To be fair, there is some cranberry juice here – around 22% cranberry, in fact. Less than a quarter. Cranberries are expensive, and so most of the bottle (50% or so) is actually grape juice. Enjoy your “cranberry cocktail!”
I could go on, but you get the point.
By the way, even the humble expiration date can be manipulated. Interestingly enough, no one regulates expiration date (with some exception, like milk and baby foods in some states). Essentially, the manufacturers are free to put whatever they think is appropriate in terms of expiration dates. Even the language is up for grabs: a few years ago, most expiration dates were called, stunningly, expiration dates. Lately, you will notice that the verbiage is very different – “best by”, for example, or “freshest before”. The issue is that most foods are actually designed to last a long time, and even when they get old they lose flavor – they don’t become health hazards. But since we’ve all been conditioned to check the expiration date, we tend to throw away any food that has passed its ‘best before’ date. We tend to throw away 14% of our food, mostly because of expiration dates. That’s a lot – around $600 a year for the average household.
So where’s the manipulation? Well, if you throw away something, you tend to need to replace it. So, theoretically, if you throw something away more frequently… Can you see where this is going? Manufacturers used to focus on creating foods with long expiration dates, so that supermarkets and consumers could stock them for longer. But a few of them realized in time that shorter expiration dates would have an interesting benefit – consumers would, on average, throw away the food faster, and hence need replacements more often, which would mean more sales. And while there are obvious penalties for making an expiration date too long (the food loses flavor), there are few downsides for shortening the date.
Take eggs, for example. Typically, eggs will last around 5 weeks in a fridge. Over time, however, many egg manufacturers have progressively reduced the expiration date to two weeks or so, with the net result that consumers throw away a lot more eggs than we used to. One of my colleagues did a study for a manufacturer that estimated that reducing the expiration date by one day, on one product line, was worth $12M to the company as a whole. It’s a subtle trick, and one that is hard to spot even when you know it’s occurring, which of course makes it an excellent manipulation.
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Food is complex. Given enough incentive, you could probably understand the ingredient list of a packaged food, decide on its true nutritional value (with some help from Google), and then make an informed choice as to whether or not to buy it. Realistically, none of us have that kind of time or interest (which is why it’s such an easy area to manipulate). Instead, we need to rely on labels, names, packages, and other easy-to-understand signals for what is healthy, sustainable, and otherwise safe for us to eat. In the US, most of us assume that someone – maybe the FDA? – is somehow doing that for us, but the FDA tends to focus on life-and-death issues like drugs, not “Fat-Free!” labels. So essentially, we’re on our own, and we’re at the mercy of manufacturers and retailers, who have very little incentive to inform as opposed to sell. Once in a while, though, every couple of weeks, I like to do a deep-dive on a food that I buy regularly, and learn a little about it. As Jean (see above! How could you forget Jean already?) said, I am what I eat, and I don’t mind learning more about what I am, even if I do it a little bit at a time. And, once in a while, I stumble upon a manipulation that I did not know as a nice bonus!