Crunchy nut corn flakes: why you shouldn’t blame the food giants for trying to kill you

The trouble is they taste too good:

This campaign for Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes is one of the greats, from the golden age of British advertising. My agency, J. Walter Thompson, was rightly proud of it. It was much loved and hugely successful.

It also tells us everything about the working of the food business. And why that’s likely to be the thing that kills you.

Here’s how the food industry works:

Evolution over millions of years gave humans a brilliant system for regulating their eating. When their bodies needed energy, it made them feel hungry so they would eat. When they had eaten enough, it made them feel full, so they would stop. It’s brilliant. Physiologists talk about the stomach as ‘the second brain’ because this hunger – satiety mechanism is a self-regulating intelligence which ties in to all the body’s other functions – emotional and physical – to maintain its healthy working.

Over time, food scientists discovered that certain fatty, sugary, salty foods would undermine this physiology by making us crave food even when we’re not hungry and want more, even when we are full.

In a modern, capitalist market economy, these businesses are driven by an imperative to sell more food at a premium, in order to generate ever greater revenue and so to return shareholder value. So making us eat more is very much their business.

The result is an obesity epidemic which now extends even to second and third world economies. Globally, obesity now contributes to more preventable deaths annually than anything except smoking. That’s 2.8 million deaths (source: world health organisation).

In Britain, more than 30,000 deaths each year are attributed directly or indirectly to obesity.

But there’s no point blaming the food giants for this.

Businesses are driven by the need to return shareholder value. That means profit and growth. You can do that by (1) selling more stuff at higher prices (check), (2) by buying up your competitors – the concentration of businesses in this sector is incredible; pretty much everything is now owned by ten huge global organisations or (3) by extending into new territories (check).

If I’m a boss at one of these food giants, what options do I have?

If I don’t sell foods that trick my consumers’ physiology into wanting more – i.e. foods where, to replay Kellogg’s ad campaign, the trouble is they taste too good – then my competitor will create something more yummy, steal my sales and profits, my sales will suffer and I will rapidly be out of a job.

If the guy who replaces me continues to lose out to competitors’ too-good-to-resist food offers, then my company’s share price will suffer. Consequently we will be bought by a competitor, who is better at playing the trouble-is-they-taste-too-good game.

There really is no way out for the poor lambs.

But it’s not all bad news.

How to make things better? What all this tells us is that we can’t rely on consumers making better choices – you can’t fight the biology. We already know broadly what we ought to eat and what we ought to avoid. It just makes bugger all difference to most of us, when our bodies are telling us to eat that cake. And we clearly can’t expect food manufacturers to take it on themselves. Shareholder value may be a terrible way to incentivise corporate behaviour, but sadly it’s the one we’re stuck with.

In June of this year, having been commissioned by DEFRA, Henry Dimbleby, founder of Leon and the Sustainable Restaurant Federation masterminded the new UK Food Strategy. It very sensibly focuses on interventions that don’t rely on anyone making ‘the right choices’. It’s all about supply side solutions, penalties, interventions and regulation. Very dry. Lots of stuff about how food is produced. Ethical standards in agriculture. Sustainability. All those tedious bits that get in the way of filling people tummies with gunk.

So refreshing to hear about a solution that isn’t essentially either the whole nation going on a crash diet or every food business deciding to forego making a profit.

Those who complain about Nanny State will hate it, but it’s the only way forward.


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