The Shell Game

It’s amazing how much of a shell game the modern, processed food industry has become.  You expect marketing and half-truths from people like car salesmen or television evangelists but not the people we buy our food from.  We expect those that provide the food that line the endless shelves of supermarkets everywhere to be at least honest about the ingredients and benefits of the product.  Unfortunately, if you’ve spent any time really thinking and investigating, you’ll know that’s a completely wrong assumption.  This really came into focus for me last night at the dinner table.  I’m aware of the extents to which the big agri-food companies are willing to go to sell their product but the insidiousness of it really kind of struck me.

We were finishing up supper when my eye happened to catch the back of the rogue bottle of ketchup left in our house.  You all can appreciate how hard some habits are to break.  Condiments in particular seem to be clinging to that last thread of survival around here.  I still can’t resist that little bit of ketchup on a burger.  Remember, Paleo is a journey, not a destination.

But I digress.

As I picked up the bottle and read the ingredient list, a little bit of text just below the UPC symbol drew my attention.  Gluten-free it exclaimed.  But not in an attention-getting typeface for anyone to see.  Slightly bolded and only a bit bigger than the surrounding text, it was calculated for a very unique viewership.  Only someone who had picked up the bottle, turned it around, and read the ingredient list or nutrient breakdown would have noticed.  In other words, someone who actually cared it was free of gluten in the first place.

To my mind though, that isn’t even the interesting part.

The interesting part is that someone in marketing probably had a brainstorming session with a bunch of food engineers at some point in the last year.  At that meeting the food engineers were mandated to come up with a flip chart full of product benefits that aren’t normally associated with tomato ketchup.  They probably hummed and hawed for a morning, writing down factually accurate bullet points about the product and then left after their fill of coffee and muffins.  The marketing person probably went back to their desk and cross-referenced these with a spreadsheet of trendy product claims and a spreadsheet of desirable product claims gleaned from a  focus group.  What that marketing person found is that they could capture a certain, desirable demographic if they positioned a claim of Gluten-free in the exact position I viewed it last night.  Not higher, not lower.  Not in a bright blue explosion on the top left corner of the front label.  In that exact spot, in that exact font, on that exact label design.

Does that seem as crazy to you as it does to me?

Buying and selling the food we eat shouldn’t be a shell game based on product placement, factually accurate claims that don’t reveal the whole story about a product, and a marketing department intent on selling you something you may not really want to buy.  It’s a world of focus groups, brainstorming sessions, and shiny glass office towers that care about profit and industrial efficiency.  It’s just another reason why I will be moving away from supporting these big corporations.  I have options, it’s time I started to exercise them.  What about you?  Do you have options?  May be the first option is to just stay out of the middle aisles of the supermarket as much as possible.  That’s a good start.  May be you live near a Whole Foods or other chain store dedicated to selling organic, ethical, or items produced by local farmers?  That would be even better.  Want to really go off the map?  Check out your local farmer’s market.  It’s a change I know I need to make in my life.  May be you should think about making it as well.

Let’s put an end to the shell game that’s being played with us.  Let’s tell the big food companies that we don’t care if something is solely gluten-free, salt-free, low fat, or sugar-free strictly because the marketing department told us it was.  It’s time to start eating whole foods that come as directly from the source as possible.  Let the marketing department have their focus groups and brainstorming sessions, we’re just going to eat well.

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