How Food Giants Have Consumers Hooked

Recently, Michael Moss wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine that unveiled the secrets behind how processed food giants, such as Coca-Cola, General Mills and Oscar Mayer, keep consumers buying their products.

“What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort—taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles—to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive,” Moss writes.

Other critics of the processed food industry include Kelly Brownell, a Psychology and Public Health Professor at Yale University who compares food-industry to tobacco companies.

“As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing. And we could make a claim that the toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco,” Brownell states.

Why do consumers buy products that contribute to health problems such as obesity and Type II Diabetes, which affect 40 million and 24 million U.S. adults respectively?

Food industry legend, Howard Moskowitz mentions “Product Optimization,” which creates the perfect product using food engineering. Consumers spend hours sampling various products and flavors and a computer sorts the data through the process of conjoint analysis.

“The mathematical model maps out the ingredients to the sensory perceptions these ingredients create,” Moskowitz tells Moss, “so I can just dial a new product.”

According to Moss, there are several components that create Product Optimization. Below are some key ideas the processed food industry employs to keep consumers buying products, no matter the cost.

The “Bliss” Point

Otherwise known as “when in doubt, add sugar” the “Bliss” Point refers to the point of greatest craving. Like Prego discovered with its spaghetti sauce, when a product reaches a certain level of sweetness, it appeals more to consumers.

Adding sugar is particularly effective when foods linked to health, such as Yoplait yogurt, increase their sugar content. Some Yoplait yogurts now have two times the amount of sugar in Lucky Charms cereal and annual revenues have risen to $500 million dollars.

Sensory Specific Satiety

Sensory Specific Satiety refers to strong flavors that overwhelm the brain and signal the body to stop eating. Food companies like Coca-Cola discovered a way to create formulas distinct enough to appeal to the body without signaling the brain to stop.

Along with “Vanishing Caloric Density,” which allows foods to dissolve on the tongue and tricks your brain into believing that few calories were consumed, these approaches convince the body that you are not full and that, in fact, your body needs more calories.

Mouth Feel

Mouth feel is a food-science variable that studies how a product interacts with the mouth, including factors like dryness and moisture release.

Dr. Pepper discovered that instead of using the traditional 2 milliliters of Dr. Pepper flavoring, they can use 1.69 milliliters and create the same effect on the drinker. This discovery saved the company millions.

Psychology Today

With the invention of Lunchables, Bob Drane and Oscar Mayer radically altered lunchtime. By developing a pre-packaged lunch convenient to working moms, Lunchables sold $218 million worth of products in their first year. Even though the products contained about 9 grams of saturated fat, the daily maximum for kids.

While convenience spurred Lunchables’ success, other factors kept the brand selling. Pulling information from Adolescent Psychology, Lunchables started marketing during Saturday morning cartoons, which increased sales to $1 billion.

The Snack Factor

Snack food companies have maximized on the hectic lives of average Americans. As fewer people eat regular meals when busy more consumers turn to snacks like cookies and crackers.

Lay’s spends $30 million per year on research that studies crunch, mouth feel and aroma to determine what the consumer wants from snack time. This research resulted in line extensions including Salt and Vinegar, and Cheddar and Sour Cream chips, among others.

Feeling the Pressure

While many companies, including salt suppliers such as SaltWorks, based in Washington and offering specialty salts to wholesale, retail, and consumer markets across the world, profit from marketing and food-science strategies, the processed food industry is under pressure.

Today one-fourth of U.S. adults are clinically obese and children’s obesity rates have doubled since 1980.

With the Obama administration, the Center for Disease Control, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society cracking down on obesity issues, many companies have adjusted their marketing strategies. Coca-Cola increased advertising for their low calorie drinks and bottled water.

But with the food industry raking in billions of dollars annually, is there real incentive to change their strategies, or does a larger shift in the marketing mentality need to occur first? As Bob Drane tells his students about marketing experts:

“Discover what consumers want to buy and give it to them with both barrels. Sell more, keep your job! How do marketers often translate these ‘rules’ into action on food? Our limbic brains love sugar, fat, salt….So formulate products to deliver these. Perhaps add low-cost ingredients to boost profit margins. The ‘supersize’ to sell more….And advertise/promote to lock in ‘heavy users.’”

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