Paranoia, Purity and Profits

One of the deeply amusing aspects of food politics in America is how easy it is to identify anti-industry stances and market to them. There is pretty much no limit on how operations – from local food stands to multinational corporations – will quickly seize on the moral outrage of the week to make buck. From locavores to additive paranoiacs, someone stands ready to sell you what you want.

As I was cruising around the Ralphs today, getting my usual Sunday shopping wrapped up (cheap organic kale, check; small apples, check; yogurt for breakfast, check), I kept noticing something about the food packaging, especially on the promotional endcap areas. First, there is a massive increase in the color combination of bright eco-symbol green text (usually with some organic symbology like trees, grasses, a sun, etc.) (not to be confused with J.R.R. Tolkien’s great observation about writing a green sun and the craft of fantasy writing, but I digress…) on a crisp white background, often with a coffee brown band or bottom to invoke earth and dirt. It’s all freshness and greeness and stuff that just grows, tra la! Even your box of shredded, processed Wheat Thins imitator crackers must seem to be newly harvested by organic elves under a super moon whilst performing interpretive dance. Or whatnot.

Next, I noticed that the products themselves are promoting what they aren’t more than what the are, in a clear appeal to paranoia about food impurities and “toxins”. They are gluten free, sugar free, wheat free, pesticide free, containing only organic chicken waste parts, organic coconut flavorings, and so forth, often touting the absence of a food ingredient that has never been a part of the product, but which has become a buzz word.

(I’m fully expecting any day now that someone is going to market a box (100% post-recycle waste, of course, and printed with biodegradable, non-toxic soy-based inks, naturally) that contains only air, the product being completely free of all substance and is, thereby, “pure” and “free” of toxins. You simply open the box, mime emptying the contents onto your plate, start meditating, and focus on the concept of the perfect product, avoiding empty calories, sugar, gluten, animal products, soy, and unfair labor practices.)

Ralphs’ in-house brand for this kind of marketing is “Simple Truth,” a name that captures the dual nature of the current upper-income food obsessions. It wants to evoke emotional reactions that translate into unsubstantiated belief about the simplicity and truthfulness of the products being sold. Simple = natural = not processed. Truth =  = personal relationship and connection = local. It’s a marketing facsimile of a simpler, more natural and friendly time, when everyone was a denizen of Lake Woebegone, and we were all nice, solid, yeoman farmers who dealt with each other honestly.

The restaurant culture’s version of this is touting local sourcing (or just sourcing) of menu ingredients, with the haughty sniff that if you won’t go to these places and pay their rather steep prices, you not only don’t care about your own health, you also don’t care about the health of local food producers. Will nobody think of the baby eggplant!  That the food may be grossly overpriced, taste like Fresno, and be served in a desultory and arrogant manner doesn’t seem to register.

The point here is that paranoia is profitable. The neurotic obsession with being opposed to the operations of the food industry (which, when you get right down to it, is the real complaint) which manifests itself in specific health claims about the presence or absence of certain qualities in food items (it is organic, it does not contain HFCS, etc.) simply creates a new market segment to sell to. A few strident wackos on the fringe may refuse to buy these products, but most consumers will simply go as far up market as their wallets will allow and will buy the most exclusive, expensive and (seemingly) “healthy” product they can find – whether it’s Ralphs Simple Truth brand canned beans or a locally produced raw milk cheese that possesses the “terroir” of the creamery that produced it. Identifying the general market of paranoia and confusion of media “health” claims with actual science creates new profit opportunities. This new market then gets segmented base on consumer profiles and shopping use cases. The food industry will sell us the food that will save us from the evils of the food industry.

As long as you can pay for it, they will sell you whatever you want.


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Posted in Culture, Economics

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