Recently I was looking through my high school yearbook, and a couple of things stood out: (1) our fashion sense was atrocious in those days, and (2) only a couple of students in each class were overweight. While teens today wear equally hideous outfits, there is a huge difference in the size of those clothes. In the days of my youth, we still ate mostly home-cooked meals and turned to baseball or other sports for recreation. Is the video-game, fast-food culture to blame for the obesity epidemic and all its associated health problems?
According to Hank Cardello author of Stuffed: An Insider's Look at Who's (Really) Making America Fat, the cause of the problem is actually a combination of factors, and the solution is even more complex than we think. Cardello comes from a marketing background, having pushed beer, soft drinks, and sugary cereals on the unsuspecting public. (In fairness, the food companies and marketers were largely unaware of the health dangers of what they were selling, as well.) Today Cardello chairs the Global Obesity Business Forum and heads a consulting firm that works with businesses seeking to solve various social issues. Cardello, then, is in a unique position to present different sides of this issue.
He brings to light some “questionable practices” of the food industry but makes it clear that he doesn’t “intend to join the ranks of those who attack the food industry as if it were the Evil Empire.” Nor does he hold consumers responsible for making unwise choices about their own health. Instead Cardello uses this book to explain the symptoms of stuffing to examine how “…perceived value seduces you to buy more” and to lay out a possible solution to the problem that should be an acceptable and collaborative effort between business and consumers.
Taking full responsibility for the part he played in convincing us to buy (and eat) calorie-dense, nutrient-deficient foods, Cardello says,
“We manipulated you because… you were so docile and easy to sell…. It’s not your fault. We’re just clever. We have the playbook and you don’t.” That playbook is full of fascinating exercises in psychology, too. Consider the layout of your favorite grocery store. Meat, bread, and other staples aren’t likely to be found right inside the door. Those items are stocked at the back of the store or in the middle of interior aisles, forcing you to walk past mouthwatering yummies to get to the one or two relatively healthful foods you want. What are the odds that you’ll make it out of the store without impulsively purchasing a snack cake? Don’t think that grocery list in your hand can save you, either: “Those with a list buy on average 30 percent more, because the list brings them into more aisles.”
In chapter after chapter, Cardello explains why psychology is more important in capturing consumers than either quality or taste of a product, and therefore a better return on manufacturers’ investments than producing a more healthful product. Beyond the marketing, however, there is a host of factors involved in producing more nutritious foods for profit, ranging from the public’s perception to lack of customer interest:
“The reality is that consumers say they want healthy food, but what they say and do are two different things.”
If consumers aren’t interested in taking care of themselves, can obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other lifestyle-related diseases really be blamed on junk food manufacturers? Of course not, but Cardello isn’t assigning blame in his book. His goal in Stuffed is to help create a culture of good health in any way possible. “The solution,” he writes, “must come from the food industry, not because they are to blame, but because they are the only ones who can do it.”
Stuffed is an eye-opening exposé, not only of how food companies manipulate consumers but of our own complicity in the plot. A natural successor to Fast Food Nation and Supersize Me, Hank Cardello’s Stuffed should be required reading in every school and every home.