What If Consumers Just Want to Buy Junk Food?

Americans may say they’re seeking out healthier fare, but sales figures tell a different story.

A hamburger with french fries and a milkshake
Dominick Reuter / Reuters

Earlier this week, the Pew Research Center released a study that analyzed over 40 years of American dietary habits. For the Bittmans, Pollans, and public-health junkies alike, the results were baffling and, by many possible interpretations of the word, disheartening. Using decades of data from the USDA, Pew found that Americans are consuming less milk, but more cheese; much less sugar, but much more high-fructose corn syrup; and 23 percent more calories in 2010 than in 1970. “Americans’ eating habits, in short, are all over the place,” concluded Drew DeSilver, a Pew writer.

To this mirepoix of contradictory news, add another Pew survey from earlier this month, which found that 54 percent of respondents said they believe that Americans are seeking out more-healthy food than they did 20 years ago—even though they are eating less healthfully than they did in that same timeframe. And, they’re convinced that high-protein products are good for them, even if most nutritionists say that Americans, if anything, are eating too much protein. Meanwhile, Americans also remain heavily split on the relative virtues and perils of genetically-modified foods (GMOs) and organic products. Given these contradictions and a general lack of consumer consensus, what are mass-market food manufacturers to do?

Apparently, thread the needle with kitchen twine. Around this time last year, Kraft took an extraordinary gamble with one of its most beloved foodstuffs—the iconic blue box of Mac & Cheese. After several years, Kraft replaced its classic recipe, laden with its fair share of artificial dyes and preservatives, with a new version. To replicate the taste and color of those increasingly unpopular synthetic ingredients, the company incorporated more familiar substitutes, such as paprika, annatto, and turmeric. But, despite all this work, Kraft didn’t publicly announce the change.

In March, after waiting three months (and selling 50 million boxes), the company finally came clean in a series of ads. The grand reveal had a built-in taunt: that seemingly no one had noticed a difference became part of the campaign. “Our first advice to them was not to tell anyone about it, which is unusual for an ad agency,” one marketing executive involved in the campaign told The New York Times. “We’re going to focus on the fact that things are still the same.”

While plenty of food manufacturers have made a show of removing artificial ingredients from their products, Kraft’s ambivalence about broadcasting its revamped mac and cheese was both strategic and cautious. After all, as the minds behind sugarless Haribo gummy bears or New Coke can attest, tinkering with the formula of a treasured entity can be damaging, particularly if consumers are primed to detect a difference. And though Kraft’s gambit may have satisfied those who collectively made artificial color the third-biggest consumer concern in a 2014 Nielsen global food survey, Kraft mac and cheese is still not terribly healthy. The new blue box still bears the exact same nutritional data, including 1,710 milligrams of sodium, nearly 75 percent of the recommended daily intake.

As I noted back in October, the quest to formally determine what makes something “healthy” and “natural” has beguiled food manufacturers, federal regulators, and consumers alike. (It’s also set off a spate of class-action lawsuits in recent years.) In lieu of comprehensive definitions and in a nod to what consumers increasingly say they want, many food manufacturers have started producing more wholesome (or wholesome-seeming) offerings that go beyond removing objectionable ingredients and actually reduce calories, sodium, and sugar contents.

But the results, in terms of sales, have been mixed. For example, take PepsiCo, whose efforts to diversify its snacking fare beyond Doritos, Cheetos, and sugary drinks were the focus of a recent Wall Street Journal examination. “Despite an expanding stable of ‘good for you’ brands like Quaker oatmeal, Naked juice and Sabra hummus, PepsiCo Inc. fell behind the goal it made in 2010 to triple revenue from nutritious products to $30 billion this decade,” wrote Mike Esterl, a Journal reporter. “Its new 2025 goal, announced in October, is that sales growth of its nutritious products ‘will outpace’ the rest of its portfolio.”

In the meantime, Esterl adds, PepsiCo’s profits and stock prices have continued to boom on the strength of the company’s saltier and fattier trademark items, and its ambitions to reduce the fat and sodium contents in products have fallen behind their 2020 targets. Other food giants such as Nestle SA and General Mills have seen similar disappointments in their health-themed initiatives. “Everybody is looking for this transformation,” Zein Abdalla, a former PepsiCo executive, told Estrel, “and yet the big wheels of commerce don’t support this transformation.’’

Beyond sides and snacks, there may be no aspect of the national diet where more faith is misplaced than in American attitudes about meat. Writing in The New York Times back in 2012, Mark Bittman took aim at a livestock-industry report that partially blamed a 12 percent reduction in meat consumption in the U.S. on higher prices and a government war on “meat protein consumption.” Bittman wrote, “The flaw in the report is that it treats American consumers as passive actors who are victims of diminishing supplies, rising costs and government bias against the meat industry. Nowhere does it mention that we’re eating less meat because we want to eat less meat.”

The problem with Bittman’s assessment is that, despite trends like Meatless Mondays and flexitarianism, the decline in American meat consumption doesn’t appear to be ideological or permanent. With Americans’ hourly wages, on net, increasing during the economic recovery and  with retail prices dropping, “consumption of meat in the United States rose by 5 percent in 2015—the biggest increase in 40 years,” Eliza Barclay noted at Vox. And while the Pew study shows how chicken consumption has supplanted beef as the top protein among American carnivores in the last decade—a moderate victory for health advocates, apostles of vegetarianism, and environmental activists—everything from paleo diets to restaurant promotions centered on cheap meat have steered beef back into focus.

Beyond the fact that habits of any kind are particularly hard to change, the vacillations in American consumption patterns may be influenced by short-term and long-term trends. In the course of a given week or month, anything from coffee, chocolate, fiber, or red wine may swing from heavenly ambrosia to death accelerator based on a new study or report. Meanwhile, diets featuring margarine and low-fat foods have steadily gone in and out of fashion in the course of a generation. What remains constant is delicious confusion.