Thursday, February 28, 2013

What if food companies promoted actual food?

In April 2010, he met with three executives from Madison Dearborn Partners, a private-equity firm based in Chicago with a wide-ranging portfolio of investments. They recently hired Dunn to run one of their newest acquisitions — a food producer in the San Joaquin Valley. As they sat in the hotel’s meeting room, the men listened to Dunn’s marketing pitch. He talked about giving the product a personality that was bold and irreverent, conveying the idea that this was the ultimate snack food. He went into detail on how he would target a special segment of the 146 million Americans who are regular snackers — mothers, children, young professionals — people, he said, who “keep their snacking ritual fresh by trying a new food product when it catches their attention.”He explained how he would deploy strategic storytelling in the ad campaign for this snack, using a key phrase that had been developed with much calculation: “Eat ’Em Like Junk Food.” 
After 45 minutes, Dunn clicked off the last slide and thanked the men for coming. Madison’s portfolio contained the largest Burger King franchise in the world, the Ruth’s Chris Steak House chain and a processed-food maker called AdvancePierre whose lineup includes the Jamwich, a peanut-butter-and-jelly contrivance that comes frozen, crustless and embedded with four kinds of sugars. 
The snack that Dunn was proposing to sell: carrots. Plain, fresh carrots. No added sugar. No creamy sauce or dips. No salt. Just baby carrots, washed, bagged, then sold into the deadly dull produce aisle. 
“We act like a snack, not a vegetable,” he told the investors. “We exploit the rules of junk food to fuel the baby-carrot conversation. We are pro-junk-food behavior but anti-junk-food establishment.” - Michael Moss, New York Times
I just spent about an hour reading this article from the New York Times about the science of junk food I heard about it on NPR this afternoon. It took me an hour because I fell asleep repeatedly while reading it. Mom-hood means that sleep is a commodity that I don't always get and if I'm remotely warm and comfortable, I fall asleep easily, especially if the reading is just a little dense; this article was dense…but in a good way.
I am planning to make coq au vin for dinner tonight. And don't get your knickers all in a bunch thinking this is complicated. For those of you who don't know, it's just chicken stew with a whole lotta wine in it. I haven't gotten to it yet. I'm hungry but you know what I really could go for: chips. Salty, crunchy chips. I have given up  potato chips because of my acid reflux. But it was a hella hard thing to do because any kind of fried potato will cause me to sell a kidney in order to eat it. For a long time I only ate Utz unsalted. Then I started eating ripple cut and salt again became a part of my diet.  It hurt me in a special way when I understood that potato chips and hot, salty, delicious french fries messed me up royally in the digestion department. So now I eat Trader Joe's multigrain corn chips. I tried many different healthy brands but this one worked because…it had enough salt for me to suck on. Seriously.
Why have I gone on with this diatribe about chips? Because this article is an in depth report on the history and tactics the food industry has used to sell their products, resulting in the public becoming extremely unhealthy and making themselves very profitable at the same time. By essentially addicting people to the things that our body instinctively craves, we have consumed more of it and now have 12 year olds with Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and the beginnings of heart disease.
Though people can and should make their own personal choices, these business strategies heavily encouraged the behavior of eating processed foods. This article points out that industry insiders were well aware of what their foods were doing to people's health outcomes and some of them were trying to change it. But food companies are there to make money, not be healthy. More salt, fat, and sugar makes things good and in the heavily processed food world, that is gold. So what if they are incrementally causing people's deaths and harming society? Their job is to make money and they do that very well.
But it's a lot more complicated that that. People's lives are busy. These businesses are filling a niche that has been around since the 1940's: Working people. Convenience foods are extremely helpful in a lifestyle where both parents work and cooking has become a lost art for some. Now people have been trained generationally to crave certain foods and if they can't make it at home, it's incredibly easy and relatively cheap to get it. Advertising, food research and psychology are being used to entice people into thinking that their food is (insert whatever "they" think you think you want) -- therefore, you purchase it.
So back to my quote up at the top of this blog. The reason I chose this one, was two-fold: I wanted show just how much thought and effort was put into turning foods that shouldn't be good into good food, worthy of purchase. I also wanted to ask the question, what if food companies put all their research and psychology towards the marketing of healthy food? What if companies had a sense of community responsibility as well as a profit motive and came away from the dark side of the force, and marketed actual healthy food and not pseudo healthy food, i.e. yoplait-like yogurts, which have more sugar in them than a candy bar. What if there were basic standards for how much sugar, salt and fat could be used in mass processed foods? And the entire industry had to adhere to this so no one could gain market share over another? And if those foods didn't taste good without those additives, that we could think about not having those foods produced -- which would probably wipeout tens of foods including but not limited to colas, cereals, crackers(chees-its without salt and powdered cheese, probably disgusting), some chips, breakfast foods... 
Food might become quite a bit more expensive as you needed more "real food" in order to make…well…real food. Most processed foods are made with chemicals and processed sugar, fat, and salt, to make it taste good. (try this experiment at home: make a meal that sucks and then add a lot of sugar to it, and watch your children devour it. It actually does work. Not so well with salt…)That type of food may not last as long on the shelves because real food decomposes relatively quickly. However, we would be paying for food, not food product. There are all sorts of issues that come up for me economically and socially about higher food prices. Yet we as a society have to think about the long term health of our country's people. Do you want people to pay less for food and then get ill later on in life and create extremely high medical bills, or do we want to encourage responsible eating habits to hopefully avoid those issues en masse? 
Update: the Coq au vin was slamming and made in about 30 minutes! However, in true kid style, my kids were less than impressed...

Friday, February 22, 2013

The sequester and my family

I was just on the phone with my cousin who is in IT for a well known defense contractor. I was speaking with him about the various certification issues I have to deal with as a teacher and I knew that he had similar issues and then he brought up something unexpected: the sequester.  I had forgotten that he was vulnerable. Someone in my close family is facing the possibility of furloughs and being laid off. The sequester was quite honestly just a political exercise in the stupidity of government for me. I was watching the Rachel Madow show last night, and the conversation with Ezra Klein about the sequester was actually eye opening. Basically, since it's a man made crisis, it can be unmade just as easily as it was made.  The congress could just decide to not do it, understanding that a manufactured crisis is obviously not going to force them to make decisions. 

Yea! I thought to myself. Cause this stuff's really gonna hurt somebody, not really thinking about that the people it could hurt are MY people. My cousin has 4 children and his wife is a stay at home mom. They own their home. They have two cars. They have children in school. Fortunately, he has saved money in the eventuality that he will be laid off. "I've been laid off before, so I know what it's like. I can't change what could happen, and I'm not going to stress out over it," is what he essentially said to me.

I don't think I could look at the possibility of my job(s) being gone with such ease. And then I remember, my mother's pension is federal. If the sequester goes into effect, what happens to her? This was a major concern when there was a threat of a government shut down.  

Why am I writing this? Because this is not a game or a frustrating news story to me anymore. People that I love will be affected if the sequester happens. These people have real lives that will change significantly if they do not get paid or are laid off. The macro vision of this mess is scary, but the micro vision is even scarier. The regular people are not really being looked at. I know where I place some of the blame for this situation, but I really don't give a rats a**. The government should be ashamed of itself. We as people should be ashamed that we voted these people into office and they can't seem to figure out how to do their jobs. There's a lot of politicking and strategy that each side has to do, but if America is about the individual, then we need to actually see the individuals lives as important to the whole. The sequester is not just a political exercise; it's real and has real life consequences for real people.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

3-D Printers: A replicated gun in every household

This is the kind of thing that make the sci-fi nut in me get all geeky but scared at the same time. It's like Star Trek and Terminator mixed together. What am I talking about? The Washington Post recently posted an article about a 3-D printer that will create plastic guns -- right now. A 3-D printer? What is that you say? You tell the thing what you want and it creates it right before your eyes; layer by layer, like an inkjet printer. That's dope right? It's like living on board the Star Trek enterprise where you can just goto a food replicator kiosk and ask for whatever food you want and it just makes it right there for you. Well, we have that right now! The 3-D printer can be used to make almost anything. You want a certain type of shirt? Just add materials and feed the machine the pattern, and it will make it for you -- in your house! The implications on manufacturing alone are huge if you can make your disposable goods at home -- instantaneously. 

Here's the Terminator part -- someone is deciding to go around the proposed semi-automatic weapons ban and make a plastic gun that would be undetectable by modern equipment. This is in his house. He found the specs on, you guessed it, the internet.

Making guns for personal use has been legal for decades, but doing so has required machining know-how and a variety of parts. With 3-D printers, users download blueprints from the Internet, feed them into the machine, wait several hours and voila. 
"Restrictions are difficult to enforce in a world where anybody can make anything,” said Hod Lipson, a 3-D printing expert at Cornell University and co-author of the new book, “Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing.” 
“Talking about old-fashioned control will be very ineffective."... 
...working in his spare bedroom, is using a $1,300 machine called the Cube, which is made by a division of 3D Systems, a large publicly traded manufacturer of consumer and industrial 3-D printing machines. The cheaper, consumer versions of 3-D printers like the one Lerol uses are only capable of printing with plastics, while more expensive, industrial-scale machines can print sturdier materials such as high-grade polymers. 
Experts expect printer prices to fall as part of the normal technology curve. (Think about the price of flat screen TVs five years ago. Or a computer two decades ago.) 
And that makes Lipson, the Cornell expert, nervous because cheaper machines could help people make cheap guns for one-time use. 
“The threat is not of 3-D printing military-grade weapon components from standard blueprints on industrial 3-D printers,” Lipson said. “The challenge is that [do-it-yourself] 3D printers can be used by anyone to print rogue, disposable and shoddy guns that could be used to fire a few rounds, then be recycled into a flower vase.”

A flower vase!?!?! You can make a gun, shoot a person and then put said gun in the recycling bin to be made into vinyl flooring. And anyone -- anyone -- will be able to do this if you have enough money to buy an over the stove mounted microwave, because that probably how much it's going to cost. If you can buy the computer you are reading this blog on, you can buy a device that will make whatever you have specs to feed it. That, my friends, is Star Trek when the Borg come.  As that drone is coming to get you for not paying that parking ticket, you can just replicate a firearm to "protect yourself". Neat world, isn't it?