How to Package Food: First, Cover It With Feel-Good Claims

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A packet of oats shows how companies hype flavor, mislead us about sustainability, and try to look better than they are

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If power abhors a vacuum, then food packaging can't stand a blank canvas. Look at a cereal box or anything else sitting on a supermarket shelf. You'll almost never see a simple wash of color; no side is ever print-free, or close to it. It's as if there'd be too many otherwise lonely and unused adjectives.

Take the sample package of flavored quick oats ("Old Fashioned Instant Oatmeal") that was deposited on my desk recently. I like oatmeal, and I hadn't gotten around to eating much that day, so I opened the box. Looking at an individual-portion pouch with heating instructions on one side, I read the following descriptions on the other. "Thick and hearty" (textural qualities). "Maple & brown sugar" (flavorings—both "natural and artificial"—noticeable, if wearing glasses).

Company X is guilty of Sin No. 2 as outlined in the "Six Sins of Greenwashing": the sin of Hidden Trade-Offs.

A list of nutritional claims followed: "Made with 100% whole grain oats" (should I expect something else?), "good source of fiber and calcium" (as opposed to what?), an "excellent source of antioxidant vitamins A & E." And I always thought it was sufficient to identify the actual vitamins. Now we have to legitimize ingesting vitamin fortifications—since processing often removes the original beneficial nutritional qualities, including vitamins and fiber—even if consumers have little clue about antioxidants except that they're "good for you."

These days, packaged-goods marketers have to find room in their crowded landscape for environmental messages, too, whether or not their statements are of any real importance. This one said: "Better oats means a better planet ... " (I was expecting something fuzzy about sustainable grain-growing practices?). " ... From our right-sized boxes without extra air space to using less packaging waste. YOU DESERVE BETTER OATS." (Emphasis theirs.)

Attention, consumers: "extra air space" is now officially an environmental evil!

Theoretically, having smaller packages means being able to load more of them onto one truck and using fewer trucks to ship the larger number of packages everywhere. But that's pretty theoretical. Lots of trucks pull out of a dock not entirely full. And more packages produced or loaded onto a truck aren't an environmental plus. They are more weight to transport. "Right-sized boxes" means less paper and ink were used to make them. True enough—both in resource reduction and in the company's cost to produce the packages.

But the packaging and the transportation of these products combined are a very tiny fraction of the overall environmental impact of the food product. Company X is guilty of Sin No. 2 as outlined in the "Six Sins of Greenwashing" (PDF): the sin of Hidden Trade-Offs.

Two things are going on here. The manufacturer is claiming cost savings as an environmental initiative. It's become a common practice. While I'm glad they're reducing their use of packaging resources, until they make changes to core products or significantly invest in resource reduction, they don't deserve credit. They are also reinforcing the notion that what we see, namely packaging, and the thing that's captured our imagination—transportation—are the major environmental impacts of food production. Nothing could be further from the truth.

What I want to know is: How much water are you using to produce the oats? How much fossil fuel-based pesticides? How much energy is used to process them into their "instant" state? Or, perhaps, something no manufacturer would answer: Why do we need yet another "instant" product?

Two gold stars for saving money and using fewer resources in packaging. Now tell me something of real relevance.

Image: Steve Snodgrass/flickr

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Helene York is the director of strategic initiatives for Bon-Appetit Management, an onsite restaurant company based in Palo Alto, California.

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