Monday, January 4, 2016

Looking for That Magic Bullet

When it comes to health and diet, Americans more and more are looking for the “magic bullet,” one or two easy answers to let them stay healthy and live forever.  That is the only rational explanation I can come up with to explain the constant parade of generally irrational food crazes.

On this CBS This Morning segment they hit on the “craft food craze” by reference to a high-end chocolate company that found itself in hot water for adding re-melted chocolate from another brand to their artisanal candy bars (that sell for $9 each).  The Mast Brothers responded “they only did so in their early days and never lied to consumers. This has sparked a larger debate about so-called ‘artisanal’ products and why consumers are willing to pay more for them.”

During the course of the discussion with a Wall Street Journal reporter, they mention other such crazes:  natural, GMO or gluten-free.  Apparently 59% of consumers look for “natural” on products, apparently not understanding that the FDA has never defined the use of the term.  Natural can mean whatever the company wants it to mean.  Yet shoppers look for the word believing they are getting something of better quality and last year spent $40 billion on food products labeled as such.

Likewise 66% look for “locally produced” products.  I wrote last month about how Chipotle, after loosening their original definition of locally produced by expanding the radius, then moved away from the concept toward more centralization to ensure better quality after a few embarrassing incidents of contamination.  The fact is that food moves around.  For every local farmer you try to support, there is a truck driver hoping for a shipment.  Time from farm to table is controlled not only by the travel time, but also the time between picking and loading (usually unknown), time unloading and sitting on the store shelf (usually unknown) and time it sits at home before being served (known, but how well managed? – unless someone goes grocery shopping on a daily basis).  Very little of this makes sense when examined closely.

Along a similar line, about this time last year CNBC (and others) reported:  “A full 88 percent of consumers say they're willing to pay a premium to some degree for foods with healthy attributes, according to Nielsen's online poll of 30,000 people in 60 countries.”  The all-natural or non-GMO labels were considered very important in this decision by about 43 percent.

Because we are reacting to the advertising, I have called these trigger words.  But the advertising must be appealing to something already in the grocery shopper’s mind, planted there by blogs using scare tactics (like if you can’t pronounce it – don’t eat it) and television doctors promising miracles.  It’s a vicious cycle where shoppers get ideas about healthier food that businesses use to think up alluring labels.  The underlying cause of the whole thing seems to be a search for some kind of shortcut. 

A few years ago the food was not dangerous.  It didn’t kill or harm people.  It may not have been “all natural” or “organic” or “artisan,” but it was perfectly safe to eat and most were OK with it that way.  A few years ago we did not have 66% of Americans overweight or obese either.  I am not saying that these new crazes for “healthier” food are responsible for the obesity.  Rather, it seems the buzzwords on food labels offer a promise, a promise of a better life for just a few dollars more, and that is a lot easier to stomach (pun intended) than the really hard work of hitting the treadmill, reducing serving sizes and making better basic choices of regular food without regard to the buzzwords.

Personally, when grocery shopping I will continue to avoid labels like all-natural, non-GMO, organic, and the rest; because I have done the research and know that I am getting very little, if any, benefit for the extra money.  Unfortunately, it is getting harder and harder.  At the same time that we hear politicians and local charity organizations talk about the problem of food insecurity among some, the rest are buying into all these crazes, abandoning foods that don’t meet these new definitions of healthy, thereby causing manufacturers to adapt, pushing the prices up for everyone; and again the poor are the ones who are hurt the most. 

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