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Simple is Getting to Be Better

April 10, 2009

By Lee West

2840005184cfMost processed foods like to tell you what they don’t have:  “low fat,” “low carbs,” or (the worst) “low calorie.” Few foods, however, tell you what they do have. Here’s an idea: instead of selling foods that are not bad for you, what if people sold foods that were good for you?

News is, we’re getting closer. Apparently someone told Madison Avenue that Americans are starting to care more about what they’re putting into their bodies. The response hasn’t been to change the product, but how it’s presented: according to a recent article in the Washington Post, food marketers are starting to advertise food for having recognizable, and relatively few, ingredients. “White corn, vegetable oil and salt,” says an ad for Tostitos. “Three ingredients is good.”

My question is, good for who? The general message of these ads (and there are others, for potato chips and Fritos, ice cream and Snapple) seems to be that simple ingredients equals healthy ingredients. That’s not always true – think about sugar, or something like animal fat.

That’s what rubs me about these ads: they take a complex problem – what’s the healthiest way to eat? – and oversimplify it with a simple equation of their product to the good thing. This particular campaign doesn’t bug me so much, because I think the claim (that natural ingredients are better for you) is by and large true, despite the lack of nuance. But I worry about what’s to come. The Post article suggests what may be the next generation for food marketing:

Up next for food manufacturers’ marketing plans: going local. The concept is the current darling of sustainable-food advocates and environmentalists because food sourced or processed locally tends to be fresher and have a lower carbon footprint. Frito-Lay’s Gonzalez noted that the company has 32 plants around the country and that, for example, Tostitos sold in Washington area stores were produced 70 miles away in Aberdeen, Md. The company is working on new messages to connect their products to local communities.

As with natural ingredients, this seems like a good thing. People should care if their food is sourced locally, and have the information to decide accordingly. But as with natural ingredients, and with the promotion of USDA Certified Organic food in the past, local food is not necessarily the best food – for your health or for the environment. “Local” as a label, like “organic” and “natural,” can be a helpful heuristic. But no marketing ploy, however well-attuned to the changing desires of more sustainably-minded consumers, should be allowed to serve as a stand-in for truly healthy and sustainable food.

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