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Book Review: "Stuffed", by Hank Cardello

by: JayinPhiladelphia

Fri Feb 06, 2009 at 03:01:54 AM PST

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We all have our own ideas as to what will work best in order to begin to solve the obesity crisis.  Hank Cardello, a former food industry executive who spent 3 decades working for companies such as General Mills and Coca Cola, presents his own in the new book "Stuffed: An Insider's Look at Who's (Really) Making America Fat".

The general theme throughout this book seems to be that Americans aren't going to change the way we eat, nor do we want to do so.  Therefore, only the food companies can solve our problems through gradually replacing certain ingredients in processed foods with 'healthier' ones in a low-key, under-the-radar manner which Cardello terms "Stealth Health".  

Years ago, when I set out to ensure that my daughter ate healthier when she was with me, at first I'd do things like sneak tiny pieces of broccoli into homemade tomato sauces.  Cardello is basically proposing something along the same lines here, and this is where we differ.  I don't believe that the same methods I once used to introduce a 5 year-old to vegetables is going to be the ultimate solution to our problems.

Now, the above paragraph seems slightly unfair as I read it again...because I did enjoy this book.  I really did.  But I disagree with Cardello's proposed solutions; and even if one were to ignore what ultimately got us to this point in the first place, Cardello's own arguments to the contrary in parts of the book make it hard for us to believe that these very same food companies are soon going to take up the cause of providing healthier food for Americans.

More below the fold...

JayinPhiladelphia :: Book Review: "Stuffed", by Hank Cardello
Cardello begins the book with the story of C.A. Swanson & Sons, an Omaha frozen food company.  Post-Thanksgiving 1953, the company found themselves with over 500,000 lbs. of turkeys remaining that they couldn't sell.  Running short of refrigerated warehouse space, one salesman came up with a plan.  After a brief period of skepticism on their part, the company eventually launched a national television and print ad campaign for their new 'complete frozen turkey dinner on a tray'.  The products turned out to be a huge success, and the TV dinner was born.  This is the point from which Cardello draws the line to where we are now.  Cardello argues that the key here was that, for the first time, food companies were able to push their leftover food on us in a novel way through clever marketing -

"The TV dinner marked a lot of firsts: the first time that we embraced en masse convenience over cuisine; the first time that it was better to be easy than to taste good; the first time that a prepared (frozen) meal was served ready to heat and eat at home.  But of all these firsts, perhaps the most important, the one that has affected our waistlines and our taste buds the most, is that the Swanson TV dinner marked the first time that a food industry marketing gimmick seduced what might have been our better judgment.  After all, the TV dinner was just a way to boost a company's struggling bottom line and cut its losses.  On the surface, from a food perspective, there appeared to be little benefit to the consumer.  The taste was awful, the food unappealing, and the choices limited.  I mean, seriously, who wants to eat frozen Thanksgiving turkey in February?"

Soon after, the trend in the food industry leaned more and more towards convenience, slick packaging and easy cleanup.  Food shopping became less a local endeavor, and more a national enterprise based upon seeking out brands from the television commercials.  From there, it's not hard to see how our expectations for food were lowered to the point where McDonald's, Burger King and Pizza Hut were able to become a major part of the mainstream American diet.

Cardello argues that from this point, the food and beverage industry (split into three categories - packaged goods manufacturers, supermarket chains and restaurants) focused heavily on convenience and marketing, to the exclusion of pretty much everything else.  Leading up to where we are now, which he sums up in this quote -

"Our culture of excess consumption, poor-quality ingredients, unhealthy products, supersize burgers, party packs of potato chips and 64-ounce Double Gulp soft drinks have catapulted us into the middle of a health and nutrition crisis.  Two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and the nation's enormous collective girth is getting larger and younger every day."

Over the next couple of chapters he gives us some great insight into his time at various corporations, and the dominant mindset in those places at those times.  On his time at General Mills in the late 1970's, just prior to the introduction of Honey Nut Cheerios -

"The questions we worried about revolved around what packaging colors would attract kids' attention in supermarkets.  Could we persuade them to beg mom to buy two with a toy (called a "giveback" in industry parlance) gimmick?"

Cardello also touches on his involvement with the shortlived "Michelob Malt" malt liquor experiment in the 1980's, during which an increasing loss of market share to imports led the company to shift their focus to inner-city neighborhoods of Detroit, placing 40 ounce bottles of their new malt liquor in delis and convenience stores in an attempt to compete with Colt 45 and Schlitz, ultimately seeking to make up lost sales in one market with those from a new set of "target users".  In this case, African Americans in low-income neighborhoods with high rates of unemployment.  He freely admits now that their actions in that case were exploitative and highly irresponsible.

Cardello also lays out how "supersizing" works in terms of a company's profits.  Despite the perceived value to the customer in purchasing a larger sized soft drink, the massive amount of product purchased in bulk by fast food restaurants ensures that even a slight price increase by size still means more profits for the company, as the rise in ingredient costs is still much smaller than the rise in price which the customer pays.

An interesting discussion on how supermarkets are laid out also takes place in the middle of the book.  The lesson in short, as always - shop the perimeters!  Another interesting topic brought up is how sit-down restaurant menus are designed for places such as Applebee's, with the most profitable items 'highlighted', 'boxed' and standing out in various ways on the menu, while the least profitable items are tucked somewhere in the middle of menus.  There are "menu engineering" companies that provide these services for the restaurants...

Now, I don't doubt that Cardello honestly believes the food companies are capable of doing what he hopes they will.  But after correctly diagnosing our current situation and what led us here, this is where I begin to disagree with him.

He starts off a late chapter in the book by setting up the two 'extremes' of the current debate about food issues as Michael Jacobson and the Center for Science in the Public Interest on one side, and Richard Berman on the other.  From there, we're supposed to assume that both "extremes" are equally wrong, and the real solutions lie somewhere in the middle.  

That's nonsense, and only serves to push the 'middle ground' more in the direction of the only true extremist in the 'debate', Richard Berman.  There is simply no 'yang' to the 'yin' of the man who once led an organization set up specifically to combat Mothers Against Drunk Driving.  Also, it's laughable to suggest that CSPI has the same influence and resources as Richard Berman and his food industry funders.  As Cardello himself says a bit later in the same chapter, reflecting on his time spent in the early-80's as a group brand manager for Coca Cola -

"Our goal was to make Coca Cola ubiquitous.  At all times, at all places, even in the Amazon Forest (though this was technically not in my territory).  It was the Real Thing.  Coke was It.  My job was to keep this logo in your face, and present it in the most positive light.  And I had access to a huge warchest with which to accomplish this: a $250 million annual marketing and advertising budget.  As you might imagine, this wielded a considerable amount of influence in the supermarkets of America.  The nutrition-minded corps of activists could not compete with us."

Cardello focuses heavily on 'neutraceuticals', bottled waters, 'vitamin waters' and 'low calorie soft drinks' as a way forward.  Many words have been written here and elsewhere as to the problems with those products, and I won't get deep into that here right now besides to say that proposals such as inserting green tea compounds into chewing gums are not going to solve our obesity problems.  Nor will replacing vending machines in schools with "mini vending machines" serving containers sized at 8 ounces or less.  Vending machines in the schools are a major contributing factor to how we got here in the first place, and they need to be removed altogether if we're going to be serious about taking on childhood obesity.  School is for learning, not for corporations to build "brand loyalty" in susceptible captive populations.

Also, nowhere in the book does Cardello address the very real related problems of agricultural policy and environmental issues as they relate to our current food system.  The ubiquity of high fructose corn syrup in processed foods and the end of the cheap oil bonanza that is the very base of the industrial food system is glossed over if mentioned at all; and for that matter, towards the end of the book he relates a story where he seems absolutely stunned that a high school principal recently brought up the environmental and ecological (and not to mention the very real health) concerns related to all kinds of plastic bottles currently available in school vending machines in the first place.  Almost as an aside, Cardello over-simplifies the issue as a false choice between 'recycling concerns vs. public health'.

Now granted, the title of the book is what you're going to get.  Hank Cardello is not an advocate for local food systems, and he doesn't seem to think there's necessarily anything wrong with the way we eat.  He believes minor tweaks here and there can go a long way towards solving our obesity problem.  Of course, I believe a much better way to accomplish the same goal would be a return to more traditional ways of eating; and ensuring that everybody has access to fresh, healthy whole foods.  There's no need to chemically insert plant compounds into frozen hamburger patties when you could just eat the foods that contain those nutrients in their natural state in the first place.  And as Michael Pollan and others have said many times, who knows what's really going on inside a carrot?  Just because we think we've successfully isolated a nutrient or a vitamin that can deliver a certain health benefit, doesn't mean that it's going to work the same way mixed in amongst an artificial stew of chemicals in processed food form as it will in its whole state in kale or blueberries or etc...

Hank Cardello, as he sees the future of food on Page 209 -

"I'm looking forward to the day when I scan my hand and I'm told that I'm getting that 50-cents-off omega-3 reduced-fat, low-calorie quad burger - and I don't have to worry that it's leaving any deadly plaque in my arteries."

I'm looking forward to the day when food is food again; rather than various laboratory concocted, chemically enhanced, corporate-trademarked versions of heavily subsidized corn products floating thousands of miles across the continent on an ever dwindling sea of cheap fossil fuels.

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Good critique, Jay (4.00 / 5)
Thanks for writing this.

The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found. -- Calvin Trillin

Beautiful Jay (4.00 / 3)
Amazing, perfect review. Love it. Agree that there is no comparing Michael Jacobson to Rick Berman as two "extremes" - not if you're arguing that the right path is in the middle, at least. And I can totally see how it would be very enlightening and enjoyable to read about the insider view of corporate food without agreeing that the solutions will ever be found in corporate food as the author seems to think.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

painting the roses red (4.00 / 3)
Very well done, Jay. When the tree is rotten, a little light pruning just won't do the job.

I especially like the idea that if people could afford to buy good quality food, and had the time to prepare it, they would choose to do that instead of buying junk food. This gets away from "blame the victim" mentality, which is the basis of saying that the corporations should become good daddies and mommies of the bad children who are incapable of making the right choices themselves, when in reality the people who are making these choices are in many ways trapped into them.

"If God were to appear to starving people, he would not dare to appear in any other form than food." - Mahatma Gandhi

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