Warning: American snack food looks healthier all the time — but it really isn't

Even though we're seeking out healthier, more natural options, the junk food industry is sneakier than we think

Published February 27, 2015 1:30PM (EST)

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Americans are finally beginning to figure out that they're too good for junk food, and the industry is feeling the burn. Bloomberg Businessweek's latest cover story -- "They're Gr-r-ross" -- takes the form of a premature eulogy to Tony the Tiger, and portrays the beloved mascot sporting a gas mask.

Big Food itself isn't even denying it anymore: Denise Morrison, CEO of Campbell Soup, recently acknowledged the monumental challenge of consumers' renewed interest in healthful food, coupled with a growing suspicion that the sought-after fare can't be found in cans or packages; what Morrison characterized as our “mounting distrust of so-called Big Food, the large food companies and legacy brands on which millions of consumers have relied on for so long.”

Hearing Morrison's distress cry, food and agriculture writer Tom Philpott asked, "Is the junk-food era drawing to a close?"

To which I would respond: maybe. But maybe it just wants us to think it is.

True, there are signs Big Food's offerings aren't flying off the shelves the way they used to. As Philpott details, a number of major convenience food companies -- the owners of brands like Reddi-Wip, Chef Boyardee, Oscar Mayer deli meats and Velveeta cheese -- are reporting sluggish sales and diminishing profits, while Kellogg's is attempting to reverse its slump by releasing new products, with an emphasis on simpler ingredients. The amount of calories Americans consume from sugary drinks, moreover, has been declining for more than a decade. New dietary recommendations  reinforce that trend toward the healthful, advocating for a diet high in plants and low in sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, even suggesting taxes on the latter to further influence behavior.

There are other indications, though, that we're less enlightened than we'd like to believe. For one, there's that whole problem of Americans snacking so much, our days have basically turned into one giant meal. In a Nielsen survey from last August, 91 percent of respondents said they snack daily, 25 percent do so three to five times per day, and 17 percent of respondents said they snack more now than they did a year ago. Food companies say they are "very focused" on this positive market trend. We want to eat healthier, but we still want to eat a lot -- that's an open invitation for Big Food to come in and offer us somewhat improved variations on the same old crap.

* * *

I was thinking about all this while munching on a selection of "snack better" treats sent to me by one of those subscription box services, which delivers "wholesome," "all-natural" packaged foods like fruit chews and flavored nut mixes to my doorstep. The offerings are a better option than workplace donuts, sure, but not quite as good as if I were to eat an apple or, God forbid, go a few hours resisting the overwhelming temptation to shove something delicious into my mouth. (My own issue, to be sure, but one I -- and experts -- believe is partly influenced by the culture of instant gratification, in which treats are constantly available, at best, and more often aggressively pushed on us.)

Junk food, and the massive amount of money behind it, isn't necessarily going away. It's adapting. To take just one example: We distrust high fructose corn syrup, so marketers try to convince us that foods containing "real" sugar are somehow more natural, even though both types of added sweetener are just about equally unhealthy. Meanwhile, the super-high fructose — processed sweetener agave — was until very recently embraced as the most wholesome of them all.

Even though that ingredient is now falling out of favor, there are more additives lined up to take agave's place. "Starting about six or seven years ago, we started seeing a huge spike in the amount of fruit-juice concentrate that was added to foods," University of North Carolina nutrition professor Barry Popkin told the Atlantic's James Hamblin, arguing that juice still has added sugar, and is therefore just as dangerous, when consumed in excess, as all the others. Of the trend, Popkin asked, "Is that because people think it’s quote-unquote natural?”


The new dietary report, for what it's worth, recommends that added sugars, regardless of what we're calling them, comprise no more than 10 percent of our daily caloric intake, or about 12 teaspoons per day. That's a big step down from the current average of 22 to 30 teaspoons of added sugars currently making it into our diets. Just because we're falling out of love with Velveeta, in other words, doesn't mean we've entirely escaped junk food's sway.

And outside the U.S., it's another story entirely. Even if Americans are moving toward some level of enlightenment, our snack and soft drink manufacturers have refocused their attentions on poor and middle-income countries, and are spending heavily to target children -- ensuring the age of junk food will continue to live on elsewhere.

A desire to eat better and a distrust of Big Food are first steps, and important ones at that: The word "natural" may be largely meaningless, but PepsiCo didn't get away with slapping it on bags of Cheetos for very long. Next might be making sure that we're replacing the junk food-size hole in our stomachs with food that comes directly to us from the source, with as little time spent passing through the industry's hands as possible. This is an argument food experts have been making for a while now, and which Mark Bittman reiterated after what must have been an exhausting romp through all 571 detailed pages of the new dietary guidelines. What it comes down to, he concluded, is this common-sense takeaway: "that we need a diet more oriented toward plants, that we should reduce calorie consumption in general, and that less sugar would be a good thing." It's a variation on Michael Pollan's directive to "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants," the anti-marketing slogan for a truly post-junk era.

I canceled my subscription to that snack service, by the way. I think I'll take my money to one of those 8,268 farmer's markets Philpott writes are now open across the country, and which are the real thing that could leave Big Food shaking.

By Lindsay Abrams

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Added Sugars Big Food Dietary Guidelines Food Junk Food Public Health