By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Haagen-Dazs's new line of ice cream, Five, doesn't hide the ingredients in tiny type on the back of the carton. Every one -- milk, cream, sugar, eggs and vanilla bean -- is prominently displayed in bright-orange capital letters. The fact that the brand's regular vanilla bean ice cream also has just five ingredients is beside the point. Food marketers have come to realize that simplicity sells.
Advocates for healthful eating have long tried to steer Americans away from highly processed foods that contain dozens of unnatural and unpronounceable ingredients. Now, driven by a drumbeat of food recalls -- ground beef, peanuts and, most recently, pistachios -- consumers may be more inclined to heed the call.
Last week, Snapple Beverage unveiled a reformulated line of drinks and an eight-figure marketing campaign emphasizing that its iced teas are made from green and black tea and "real" sugar. Frito-Lay is boasting that its potato chips, tortilla chips and even Fritos are each made with just three ingredients. The hope: that consumers will equate fewer ingredients with healthfulness, even when it comes to ice cream and chips.
"It's a convergence of health, food safety, taste and traceability," said Phil Lempert, a food and consumer behavior analyst who calls himself the Supermarket Guru. "People are reading labels more carefully than they were previously. When they pick up a product and it has 30 ingredients and they don't know what half of them are, they are putting it back on the shelves."
The message of simplicity and purity is just the latest in a long line of marketing strategies employed by food manufacturers. In the 1980s, product labels trumpeted low-fat credentials. In the 1990s, even packages of bread crowed about low levels of carbohydrates. "We've reduced fat and calories; that's reductive," said Aurora Gonzalez, a Frito-Lay spokeswoman. "Now we look at how can we add pluses. Whole grains are a good example of that. Another part that is complementary is the simplicity of ingredients."
On one hand, the move is a victory for those who have long preached the glory of simple, less processed foods. In his best-selling book "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto" (Penguin, 2008), Michael Pollan writes that the first rule is to avoid any food products with more than five ingredients and those that contain unfamiliar ingredients (or high-fructose corn syrup).
But such advice was not meant to suggest that anything that contains a large number of ingredients is bad. A home-cooked stew or a Spanish paella, for example, has dozens of ingredients but is what Pollan and others deem "real" food. Sugar, in contrast, is just one ingredient but can be harmful in large quantities.
"It is better that the food be simpler than more complex," Pollan said in an interview. "On the other hand, this is another case of food manufacturers reformulating to reflect whatever the latest critique of their food is and turning what it is a criticism into a marketing strategy to sell more food."
Five is not a great departure for Haagen-Dazs, which has always catered to consumers who value high-quality ingredients. But it approaches the message in a new way, stressing wholesomeness and purity over indulgence.
For Frito-Lay, a focus on real ingredients is a new way to help consumers overcome their guilt about eating snack chips. Last year, the company redesigned the back panels of bags of Lay's potato chips, Tostitos tortilla chips and Fritos. The Lay's bag shows a pile of fresh potatoes. On Tostitos' bag, an ear of corn has the husk pulled back to show it filled with corn chips. "It's anecdotal, but we've had people tell us that they didn't know there were potatoes in potato chips," Gonzalez said. "What it is trying to reinforce is our agricultural base. People forget corn chips come from corn."
A new series of television ads drives home the message of purity. In one Tostitos spot, a young woman at the grocery store reads the ingredients on the back of a bag of another brand of tortilla chips. "Thirteen ingredients. That's more people than I invited to the party." Instead she chooses a bag of Tostitos. "White corn, vegetable oil and salt. Three ingredients is good."
In a new multimillion-dollar ad campaign, Snapple also promotes natural ingredients. The decision, said spokesman Bryan Mazur, was prompted by broad consumer interest in where food comes from and company research that showed that most consumers, even those loyal to Snapple, had little idea what each bottle contained. According to one survey, only 32 percent of Snapple customers knew that its tea beverages were made with real tea leaves.
The new Snapple label boasts that the drink is "made with green and black tea leaves." "We don't consider it rebranding but continuing to deliver 'the best stuff on Earth,' " said Mazur, the company's vice president of marketing, quoting the company motto. "What the best stuff on Earth was then is not what the best stuff is right now."
Will such products help Americans to eat more healthfully? Pollan is not optimistic. Successful marketing campaigns have led many to feel virtuous about eating large quantities of low-fat cookies or low-carb pastas, even as obesity among U.S. adults continued to rise.
Some experts dismiss such complaints, however. Government figures predict food prices will increase between 3.5 percent and 4 percent in 2009. Fresh fruits and vegetables already tend to be more expensive than processed foods, a gap that is more pronounced for families during hard times. A recent survey showed that 81 percent of U.S. adults are making some effort to limit spending on groceries; 40 percent are eating less nutritious foods as a result. Low-income people were hit hardest, according to Multi-Sponsor Surveys, a Princeton, N.J., research firm. Of those categorized as "down and out," 65 percent reported they were eating less nutritiously. The figure was 59 percent for those categorized as "on the edge."
"Processed food -- whatever that means -- is not all terrible," says analyst Lempert. "The reality is that in the next 20 to 30 years we're going to double the number of people on the planet. We need to figure out how to feed people in a good, affordable way."
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.
For Pollan, a local pedigree and fewer ingredients may be better. But ultimately, he says, "It's still junk food."