Food marketers have been at it for nearly a century. They’re saving us time, making it ever easier for us to consume their products, and all they ask in return is to charge us a little extra for the “convenience.” Bless their hearts.
When pressed, most of us will acknowledge that the top priority of food marketers is not to make our lives easier or tastier, but to get us to eat (and spend) more. What’s truly remarkable is that despite knowing this, we still parrot and defend their ideas as ardently as if we’d thought of them ourselves.
Do you really believe Krispy Kreme makes the best doughnuts, Ben & Jerry’s makes the best ice cream or life is impossibly difficult without pre-sliced bread? My guess is you probably do, or at least did at some point.
But the reality is none of these things are true, and that we think they are is just a sign of brilliant marketing.
Food isn’t like other products. There are people who buy every single gadget that Apple creates, and if Apple started making twice as many products per year those people would still buy them all. But humans can only eat so much food, which makes it difficult for food companies to expand their market and be competitive.
Enter “added value.”
Sliced bread, instant oatmeal and single serving Go-gurt are all examples of foods designed to be easier to eat. And companies correctly assume that we are happy to pay more for the free time these conveniences allot us.
But does this freedom really make our lives better?
I would never argue that time doesn’t have value. Though I think there is a strong case for slowing down and taking time to eat mindfully, I certainly see the appeal of fast and portable food. As a PhD student, writer and website owner I know what it means to be busy.
But convenience is not the only thing you get when marketers sell you on their products. You also eat more, and you eat worse.
Because sliced bread is easier to eat, people tend to eat more of it, along with whatever they choose to put on top. Additionally, since real bread quickly becomes stale when cut into smaller pieces food companies have had to find new (non-ecofriendly) packaging and add preservatives, dough conditioners and other chemicals to keep breads soft.
The ingredient list on a loaf of Wonder Bread is truly remarkable:
Wheat Flour, Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup or Sugar, Yeast, Contains 2% or Less of: Ferrous Sulfate (Iron), B Vitamins (Niacin, Thiamine Mononitrate (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Folic Acid), Barley Malt, Soybean Oil, Salt, Calcium Carbonate (Ingredient in Excess of Amount Present in Regular Enriched White Bread), Wheat Gluten, Dough Conditioners (Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Mono and Diglycerides, Calcium Dioxide, Datem and/or Azodicarbonamide) Vitamin D3. Calcium Sulfate, Vinegar, Yeast Nutrients (Monocalcium Phosphate, Dicalcium Phosphate, Ammonium Sulfate, Ammonium Phosphate and/or Ammonium Chloride) Cornstarch, Wheat Starch, Soy Flour, Whey, Calcium Propionate (to Retain Freshness), Soy Lecithin.
In contrast the bread I buy at Acme, my local bakery, is made of flour, water, yeast and salt. Special loaves may contain olives or herbs, but you get the general idea.
I have to cut it myself and it doesn’t last long if I leave it on the counter (it freezes absolutely beautifully), but the bread at Acme is also some of the best tasting bread I’ve had in my life.
Are you shocked that my Acme loaf costs around $2, while Wonder Bread costs close to $4?
I don’t eat much bread, because it is not particularly healthy. But I enjoy burgers, pizza, sandwiches, naan and other traditional foods way too much to cut it out completely. Reasonable quantities of bread can easily be incorporated into a healthy diet, particularly if you exercise regularly. But bread is not health food and eating as little as you’re comfortable with is generally a good idea.
We do not need unhealthy foods to be more convenient or less expensive. And if you’re going to put health aside and eat them anyway they should also taste absolutely amazing, not good or even pretty good.
Does pre-sliced bread really make the cut? I don’t think so.
Sliced bread was never a great invention, it was great marketing. “The best thing since sliced bread” was derived from an ad campaign claiming it’s invention was “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.”
The phrase may be perfect for describing brilliant marketing (“The best added value campaign since sliced bread”) but do we really need to continue propagating the message that low-quality convenience food is the best invention of the past 100 years?
If we want a true benchmark for greatness, maybe we should change it to “the greatest thing since the iPhone.”
Just for fun, here’s a video of Seth Godin’s TED talk about marketing and the sliced bread campaign.
How great is your bread?
Originally published September 1, 2010.