Marketing being used to drive food decisions – October 2019
In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet states that “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Of course, this saying refers to different words for the same thing. But what happens when you try to create a “rose look alike” and call it a rose? How do we describe it then?
That’s what’s been happening in the food industry. We’ve seen, for a long time, the description of milk made with almonds, oats, soy and probably a bunch of others sold as “milk.” Recently with the advent of new vegetable-based products we’ve seen them labeled as Beyond Burger™ and Impossible™ Burgers.
When artificial butter was developed, it was called margarine and not “beyond butter” or impossible butter and the consumers were aware they were not getting butter. There were even laws in Wyoming which prohibited margarine from being that “butter color” and so when you bought margarine, it came with a color packet that was mixed into the product to give it a more acceptable color.
With the advent of recent vegetable-based products however, the manufacturers utilize “burger” in the description which for most people would probably lead them to believe it was derived from some animal product, probably beef, at least in the USA. But now we find that meat and burger are becoming separate in the ever-creative advertising process. These companies are no doubt aware of the push back by those in animal agriculture so are trying to also paint their product as better than hamburgers because they believe they are healthier and more sustainable.
In an article in Business Insider, they state that “companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods aren’t aiming to produce a product that is necessarily better for you.” When you compare the nutritional labels between an Impossible Burger patty and a Burger King beef patty you find that you basically will trade cholesterol in the beef patty for sodium and carbohydrates in the Impossible Burger.
Even so, the idea that something is healthier for you than something else, is increasingly becoming suspect. An article in The Atlantic deals with the credibility crisis in food science. The article focuses on Brian Wansink, a professor at Cornell University who has published scientific papers on how our environments determine what and how we eat. Mr. Wansink, a marketing professor, has been cited by numerous institutions and organizations including the American Medical Association and served on the Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. However after questions started being raised about some of his studies, Cornell had to issue a statement that said a faculty committee had investigated Wansink and found that he had “committed academic misconduct in his research and scholarship, including misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship.”
This leaves the marketers with trying to advertise that the products are “more sustainable” but again that depends on which part of the equation on which you want to focus. In a paper in Elseiever (a global information analytics business) on global food security entitled Science-based intensive agriculture: Sustainability, food security, and the role of technology the authors first adopt a definition of sustainability agriculture from a previous review paper by Jeffrey Sayer and Kenneth Cassman. The author’s adopted four objectives: 1) Ensure production of an adequate food supply 2) Alleviate poverty 3) Achieve better health and nutrition for a growing population and 4) Conserve natural resources. The authors point out that if we were only worried about one of the objectives say conserving natural resources, we could accomplish the task but then some 80-300 million people would be under-nourished.
But we hear livestock are contributing to global warming. The authors also point out that complete elimination of animal agriculture in the United States would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.6 percent.
Given the trade off, this may not be a wise choice. Of course, the reduction in nourishment will probably be suffered by those who have less disposable income than we in the United States have, so we would have to ignore objectives 2 and 3 in order to accomplish this task.
In the end, however, people need to understand that many of the marketing concepts we see daily are little more than just that “marketing.” If you want to change your eating habits because you think you are making a sustainable or healthy choice you should be careful of those marketing claims.
By Ken Hamilton, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Executive Vice President