Food Fight: Marketing Healthy Snacks Like Junk Food

10:37 AM, Nov 24, 2013   |    comments
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As we head into the holiday season, we'll soon be headed to the holiday food table, too. Experts have been worried for years that our waistlines are expanding with our ever-expanding desire for sweet, salty, and often fat-laden goodies. But how can lowly fruits and vegetables ever compete with the design, engineering, and especially the marketing of processed food? Lee Cowan reports our Cover Story:

Consider for a moment the carrot. And, if you can, ignore that it's healthy and comes out of the ground.

What's left is a food that's snackable, crunchable, somewhat addictive -- and, yes, neon orange.

From a marketing standpoint, the carrot is really not all that different from a Cheeto. At least, that's what the head of Bolthouse Farms seems to think, going by its ad, "Baby Carrots. Now in extreme junk food packaging!"

"Our first campaign for baby carrots was, 'Eat 'em like junk food,'" laughed Jeffrey Dunn, Bolthouse's self-described "Chief Carrot Officer." "We went right at junk food and said, we don't wanna be against junk food, we wanna be like 'em."

A Bolthouse TV ad shows a sexy woman enjoying the delights of munching on a tiny vegetable. "Oh, baby . . . carrot!"

Dunn knows all about junk food marketing. His prior job was as an executive at Coca-Cola.

"Coke has done an amazing job of creating that moment of refreshment that's -- you know, you can picture it when I say it," he told Cowan. "That's marketing. We've got to do the same good job for fresh fruits and vegetables. And there's no reason we can't."

But he knows it's an uphill battle -- and so does the White House. First lady Michelle Obama has said, "The deck is stacked against healthy foods like fruits and vegetables."

To help level the playing field, Obama recently announced that Sesame Workshop would license their Muppet characters -- for FREE -- to the Produce Marketing Association. Muppets Elmo and Rosita appeared with the first lady to promote broccoli.

Last year, advertising for fruits and vegetables amounted to $116 million. That may sound like a lot, but it's only 1/20th of what was spent on advertising junk food to kids.

Few look at that disparity with such a critical an eye as New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss. He won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the meat industry, including the widespread use of "pink slime" -- that unappetizing material found in some processed beef, including burgers served in school lunches.

And yet, despite unpleasant revelations like that, Moss says fruits and vegetables still have trouble competing.

"As well-meaning as it is, the government message -- that you should be eating more fruits and vegetables 'cause it's better for you, 'cause it's healthy -- isn't working," Moss.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says two-thirds of adults and one-third of children in America are either overweight or obese.

Processed food isn't the only culprit, but Moss says it's the combination of salt, sugar and fat -- as reflected in the title of his latest book, "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us" (Random House) -- that junk food companies are using to make their products irresistible.

"They use words like crave-ability, snack-ability," Moss said. "One I heard recently that is my favorite now is, More-ishness."

Few snacks are as "more-ish," he says, as that famed Cheeto.

"When you put it in your mouth, you hardly have to chew; it disappears," he said. "And when it disappears, it sends a message to the brain that the industry calls, 'vanishing caloric density.'"

You won't find "vanishing caloric density" on the label, because it's really more of a feeling than an ingredient. "You might as well be eating celery for all your brain cares about," said Moss. "So you eat a Cheeto and your brain is going, 'Wow, did that taste good. No problem, Michael. Keep eating!'"

"There's no doubt that processed foods are manipulated, [and that] we're manipulated as consumers," said Cowan.

"No. We're not manipulated," said Howard Moskowitz, a legendary food scientist, with a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Harvard. "Processed foods are tweaked and changed to increase consumer acceptance. Not manipulated."

If you've enjoyed a Cherry-Vanilla Dr. Pepper, or Prego's chunky tomato sauce, you're largely eating his recipe.

His signature is finding what's known in the industry as the "bliss point" -- that sweet-spot that creates likability.

"You know, at a certain point, this is part of American society," Moskowitz said.

"But you've tapped into it," said Cowan.

"Yes. But it's all -- you know, I didn't tap into it. Science tapped into it."

That same science, he says, could be used to engineer and market produce, too . . . and that's where Bolthouse Farms thinks it has an edge.

So, is there the equivalent of a "bliss point" in baby carrots?

"Oh, absolutely," said Jeffrey Dunn.  "We spend a lot of time cross-breeding carrots for sweetness, for mouth feel, all of the same things a processed food guy would do."

Taking a page from the junk food playbook, Bolthouse Farms now even has a taste lab, where food scientists figure out not only how to spice a baby carrot, but what kind of flavors to mix into their fruit juices, too, like a strawberry protein drink. "I like to say we're kind of nerdy juicers," said a scientist named Lance.

The lesson here isn't that processed food can be beat -- it's that healthy food can at least play the same game.

For Dunn, marketing fruits and vegetables isn't just a nutritional imperative; it's a moral obligation.

"Long-term healthcare costs are directly linked to this obesity crisis," Dunn said. "And the obesity crisis is directly linked to our diet. And that's something we can do something about, as a society."

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