Sauce from Mars
Last week a multinational food company told its customers to go easy on how much of some of its products they should eat. Mars made the announcement, saying it is planning to label some of its Dolmio pasta sauces, macaroni cheese and other products as fit for consumption only once a week due to high levels of salt, sugar or fat. If this isn’t a warning to all of us to consider more carefully what processed foods we are eating, I don’t know what is. As to Mars’ decision; “Brave and bold,” said some, “Brand suicide,” suggested others.
Some background to this extraordinary turn of events.
As I heard the announcement I recalled an article published in the New York Times Magazine from a couple of years ago. Written by Michael Moss, it was published in 2013 and is entitled The extraordinary science of addictive junk food. The Mars story inspired me to revisit it. I recommend everyone read it. You will find a link below.
My recollection proved to be relevant. The piece begins with a meeting that took place seventeen years ago in April 1999. The location was Minneapolis, more specifically the headquarters of Pillsbury and it was attended by the men who controlled some of the world’s largest food companies, including Nestlé, Kraft, Nabisco, General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Mars. The single item on the agenda for discussion was the emerging obesity epidemic and how to deal with it.
The article provides a wonderful description of the evening, including the clear exposition of the scale of the obesity and health related problems already facing America, as well as quotes drawing analogies between the behaviour of food companies and tobacco companies, specifically from a Yale University professor of psychology and public health, Kelly Brownell, “As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing. And we could make a claim that the toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco.”
A plan was presented specifically devised to address the obesity problem, based on the idea that “the industry should make a sincere effort to be part of the solution and that by doing so, we can help to defuse the criticism that’s building against us.”
What happened next was not written down, but suffice to say the plan was not implemented.
For seventeen years this position didn’t change. Now the wisdom of that evening has been questioned with Mars breaking ranks.
What’s suddenly changed?
Well for one thing we all now know – and certainly Mars and the other attendees have known for 17 years – that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities that are being consumed. The ballooning numbers of the obese, along with those suffering from diabetes II, continue to grow. During this period the processed food industry has had no qualms in developing and aggressively marketing foods that are engineered to be addictive, convenient and relatively inexpensive. It’s true that no one has ever been forced to buy these foods – the general fall-back position of the industry has been that companies are simply fulfilling demand and giving consumers what they want – yet now, for the first time a company has suddenly broken cover and come clean about the potential impact of its products.
“When’sa your Dolmio day?”
Watching the evening news the night of the announcement I listened to a mother being interviewed about Dolmio pasta sauce. She spoke about how her kids loved it a couple of times a week, but the horror on her face for fear of what she might have been feeding them was obvious. I recalled when my children were young, when I too had used pasta sauces, but my feeling was one of anger at the final admission of having had my trust abused.
Why did they not come clean before now?
I had read the labels, but more often than not I was confused by the “jargon”. The internet was still in its infancy back then, with reliable research less easy to access, but like most mothers today I would have been busy running a house and looking after a family while also working, yet it has now been proven to be too much to expect to be given accurate information about correct amounts of supposedly ‘healthy’ foods to feed our kids. Clearly processed foods such as pasta sauces have remained part of many families eating routines, with it not occurring to them that by not limiting their consumption they might be doing their kids harm.
So what’s changed?
What we do know is the Mars initiative is part of a larger scheme by the privately held U.S. food company (most likely a big corporate advantage in being able to take this step) which they describe as a “Health and Wellbeing Ambition to create and promote healthier food choices and to encourage consumers to cook and share healthier meals with others.” Interestingly the plan does not extend to Mars’ chocolate or sweets businesses, whose brands include M&M’s, Snickers and Starburst, but to products that are particularly high in salt, sugar or fat, including Dolmio lasagne meal kits and lasagne sauces. New labelling will advise “occasional” consumption, meaning once a week, but the company said most of its other products in the UK would still be for consumption every day (!!). I struggle to understand why after such an admission anyone would buy them at all. In any case, markedly, the company did not give details for other countries, but says it plans to introduce the labelling in all markets where the products are sold. Bear in mind that the UK has currently raised the regulatory bar with the announced intention of bringing in a sugar tax, so perhaps this has impacted upon the company’s thinking?
What to make of this?
Might this be a mea culpa – a simple honest admission as to the appalling impact of these types of processed foods, but perhaps as a result the company hopes to earn fresh trust from its customer base? Or perhaps it’s modelled on the alcohol industry, with their advertisements to “please drink responsibly”? Or a scheme to apply pressure on competitors? Grabbing the moral high ground within an industry now under pressure from potential regulation while benefiting from first mover advantage as others are forced to come clean about their products?
Who can say, but at a time when ‘Big Food’ is under increasing scrutiny from public health advocates and regulators as well as facing pressure from a concerned, better informed and more sceptical public for more simple honest food labelling, I believe it is going to be an interesting test case to monitor.
Do I think it might prove to be the moment that the global overlords of processed food are confronted by one of their own and as a result will come clean and reform their ways?
Not for a minute, you only need look at how limited a group of products Mars has singled out to take part in this experiment, which no doubt will also be watched closely by its competitors. But one thing is certain – everyone has now been warned. At the very least this is might be a sign how Big Food will try to shift responsibility for the impact these foods can have from their shoulders onto yours. So educate yourselves as a matter of urgency and grasp this fundamental point:
What you eat is more important than the calories consumed or energy burned.
Eat real foods – Foods with Benefits – and avoid industrial processed products.
Don’t just take my word for it – ask Mars…
Link to The extraordinary science of addictive junk food by Michael Moss, New York Times Magazine
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