The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
Every visit invites new levels of astonishment, revealing an endless mutation of packaging masquerading as sustenance. Why go to the movies to be entertained?
For there, in the snack-food aisle, I stood in a mild state of shock, mouth agape, perplexed, slightly amused as if, unwittingly, I had signed up for a minor walk-on part in some surreal piece of theater, Pirandello perhaps, as I gazed upon the Herr's Philly Cheese Steak Kettle Cooked Potato Chips.
Mind you, these were not to be confused with the Herr's Kettle Cooked Baby Back Ribs chips. Nor should they be mistaken for the Herr's Kettle Cooked Buffalo Wing chips.
Personally, I am not opposed to wings. I am not opposed to chips, either. Quite the contrary, I love a great chip. I just don't want meat flavor dusted on a chip.
This is either bad science or exceptionally trippy science fiction.
Going to the supermarket is an act of discovery, akin to being Lewis and Clark, but in a really bad way and with too much high-fructose corn syrup.
Good food doesn't require chem experiments. It isn't necessary to play with it. Asparagus or raspberries, fish or, for that matter, potato chips are splendid when served simply and fresh.
Herr's produces 16 varieties of potato chips, which may be 15 varieties too many. Cap'n Crunch comes in seven varieties, including Choco Donuts, while still boasting of nutrients, an idea so absurd it was foreshadowed in a John Belushi "Saturday Night Live" routine. Oreo, in pursuit of global domination, offers 40 variations, including seasonal Easter yellow "creme" _ like it was patisserie or something.
When companies incessantly tinker with food, when they dust artificially flavored junk onto already questionable products, this draws attention to the fact that it might not be food to begin with. Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," argues it isn't food at all. These items are variations on the stale joke: "Waiter, there's a cheesesteak in my chips?" It's like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" but, instead, our alien life is food.
"Many of these companies are cannibalizing existing brands in order to stimulate the category," says Bob Golden of Technomic, a food industry consulting and research firm. "They're confusing line extensions for innovation. This is low-hanging fruit." Or, more precisely, low-hanging Crunch.
These insipid food fights are also about real estate. (Then again, isn't everything?) "Every inch of shelf space you have is an inch your competitor doesn't," says Swarthmore College social theorist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice. "They're torturing consumers through all this choice, showing there's no limit to what you can mix and match."
Given that these companies have copious marketing intelligence and consumer testing at their disposal, it can be no accident when we're introduced to such phenomena as Eggo Maple Syrup Stuffed French Toaster Sticks — because pouring maple syrup on the toaster sticks would be, you know, too much work.
These products put the lie, a death sentence, if you will, to the idea that people are eating healthier. "Health doesn't sell," Golden says, without hesitation. "Consumers talk thin but eat fat."
People know better, and yet will rationalize that Chocolate Lucky Charms with whole grains constitutes a healthy breakfast.
Pollan labels this the "American paradox," that is "a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthy." Which results in supermarkets the size of football fields, questionable food products, an oversized diet industry, and an oversized populace to consume all.
We're obsessed with food, yet most of us aren't consuming the right food the right way. "A national eating disorder," Pollan calls this. Our junk is flooding into other countries, whose citizens are now emulating our bad eating habits, and dealing with similar obesity and health consequences.
Perhaps while you stand there trying to figure out which of the 16 Herr's chips to buy, or 40 varieties of Oreos, it might dawn on you that this is no way to eat. That you're paying for packaging and marketing and injected nutrients, chemical solutions, and shelf real estate, and that the produce aisle or the butcher shop, the fish store or the farmer's market is a far better place to find real food and happiness.
The solution is to eat better, consume more fruits and vegetables, spend more on better- quality food but buy less of it. Cheesesteak or wings, or baby back ribs for that matter, aren't healthy solutions to begin with, but they have no business propagating with the chips.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Karen Heller is a columnist for Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at the Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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