Why is it that crappy foods are so commonly and aggressively marketed as health foods? If people want to eat quality food, why not just give it to them? The answer lies in economics.
There are only a limited number of people in the U.S. market, and they will only eat a certain amount of food. This means that it is difficult for a company to increase profits by getting people to buy and eat more food than before. That can only work to a small degree. The real profit potential lies in getting people to spend more money on something that costs less to produce.
This can only be effectively done with processed food products because the ways to dress up and market simple whole foods are limited. A tomato is pretty much a tomato, and supermarkets don’t even have different “brands” of tomatoes. (The advent of organic produce has opened this possibility up somewhat, but that’s an entire other discussion.) Process and package a tomato, though, and suddenly you have a lot more potential for marketing.
The marketing term for processing a food is “adding value.” The more processing a food undergoes, the cheaper the raw materials become and the more it can feasibly be sold for.
I’m going to focus on just one example from my client’s misguided shopping trip from a recent post, because it’s a common pitfall in the American diet: Breakfast cereal. Now here’s a product that just has to have all sorts of health benefits. After all, the box is usually plastered with little cartoon hearts to denote cholesterol benefits, bright, attractive pictures of plump berries or ripe grains and claims of loads of extra vitamins.
The reality: Almost any breakfast cereal is a quick way to become that guy at the pool swimming with his shirt on. Even if it’s a box of cardboard-flavored bran pellets, it’s likely to be over-processed, low in usable nutrient value and fiber, and a high-glycemic bomb of carbohydrates devoid of a decent protein source or beneficial fatty acids. That's not even getting into the discussion of how ill-advised it is to eat grains in the first place.
Breakfast cereal is one of the food industry’s greatest innovations. It transforms approximately four cents of cheap grain into a four to five dollar commodity. This is why there is an entire aisle in grocery stores dedicated to marketing and selling different competing brands and styles of cereal, and the shelf holding plain oats is usually about four feet wide. The Institute of Cereal Technology, the R&D department for General Mills breakfast cereal, is a secretive institution located in Minneapolis and staffed by over 900 scientists designing new ways to create the next alchemy of “value added” cheap grain and chemicals converted into four dollars worth of shelf-stable food.
Of every dollar spent on processed foods like breakfast cereal, roughly four cents of it will make its way back to a farmer. The rest goes to factories, laboratories and scientists. By comparison, the eggs, bell peppers or plain oats you buy in the store will contribute about forty cents per dollar to the farmer’s pocketbook.