Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
Author:Moss, Michael

“If you had lunch with Michael Jordan tomorrow, what would you eat?”

That was the question Bob Drane put to kids in the mid-1990s, as his team began searching for tricks to keep the Lunchables sales growing. “And guess what came back?” Drane told me. “Pizza.”

It made sense. Pizza, back then, was booming. Throughout the country, sixty thousand pizza restaurants were turning out $26 billion worth of the stuff each year. Pizza had become the hottest convenience food in the country, which, in turn, only helped fuel the entire fast food market. The big chains—from Pizza Hut to Domino’s to Jack-in-the-Box—which had generated $6 billion in sales in 1970, were pulling in nearly $93 billion by 1995, or roughly a third of all restaurant sales nationwide.

But what did this pizza insight possibly have to offer them, the Lunchables team wondered. All those pizzas and burgers sold by restaurants and craved by kids had something the Lunchables could never replicate: They came out of an oven. They were hot. Lunchables came off the shelf of the cooler section of the grocery store and then went into kids’ lunches from the fridge at home. Pizza would never be a possibility for them, right?


“We went through the Montessori School process again, asking, ‘What could a pizza be like that would fit into the Lunchables world?’ ” Drane said. “We started to make them, and they had this characteristic of being cold. They could have been heated but not as a carried lunch. It was impractical, so we created little crusts and little sauces and toppings and stuff and stuck them in a package and showed them to moms.” Not surprisingly, he said, “the moms told us, ‘This is an awful idea, a really awful idea.’ It was a disaster in the making, who would ever eat cold raw pizza, on and on. I think, in our testing, the concept got the worst score in our history.”

And yet, Drane wouldn’t let go of the idea. The potential windfall was just too huge. Not only were Americans buying $26 billion worth of pizzas from restaurants, they were spending another $1.7 billion on frozen pizzas they heated up at home. It was these frozen pizzas that gave Drane hope. Even when cooked, the crust on many of these was pale and soggy and tasted like cardboard. Surely, they could do better. So Drane and his team persevered, and a few months later, they encountered some good news. Moms may have been revolted by the idea of serving their kids a cold, raw pizza, but kids were a different story. The team whipped up a prototype; according to Drane, when “we showed it to kids, they said, ‘Wow, that’s really cool. I love it!’ ”

This disconnect between moms hating the idea of cold raw pizza and the kids loving it had to do with their distinct approaches to eating in general. Adults use their mouths when they eat, tasting whatever it is they are eating. By contrast, kids tend to use their eyes, judging the food—initially, at least—by how it looks. In a Lunchables with cold raw pizza, they saw nothing but fun. And to amp up the fun quotient, Drane’s team didn’t lay out the pizza in slices, as if it had been cut from a pie. They put it into the trays unassembled, in order to maximize the fun. The crust went into one compartment, the cheese, pepperoni, and sauce into others. That way, the kids got to make their own pizza right at school, while their schoolmates looked on with envy.

Kids weren’t the only ones being targeted, however. Lunchables, in all of its incarnations, were powered by some potent psychology aimed at moms as well. In the beginning, the trays were wrapped in a cheerful, yellow cardboard sleeve that evoked the image of a gift, giving working moms who felt guilty for leaving their kids something special to give them in the morning as they headed out the door. “The box was there as a gift, something precious to elevate its specialness,” Drane said. A few years after the launch, the cardboard sleeve was dropped in response to environmental criticism that the Lunchable was overpackaged. “It was one of those hold your breath moments,” Drane said. But the impression of gifting was already so well established, it seemed to work just as well with a sleeveless box. “People tend to buy out of the right side of their brain, using emotions, and so we learned over time that for moms, this was a gift for their kids, and for kids it was a badge for their classmates.”

Ultimately, it was the kids themselves who would make or break the Lunchables, so Kraft honed in on this concept of self-empowerment with all the marketing power it could muster. A few years later, the CEO of Kraft, Bob Eckert, put his finger on the psychology of this phenomenon of self-empowerment. “Lunchables aren’t about lunch,” he said in 1999. “It’s about kids being able to put together what they want to eat, anytime, anywhere.” Drane added, “Kids like to build things and play with food.”

In response to this targeting of kids, Kraft shifted its advertising strategy. (The first campaign had targeted mothers with a theme called “The Bad Week.” These ads proffered the trays as the solution to their mad dash to get out the door in the mornings.) As the focus swung toward kids, however, Saturday morning cartoons started carrying an ad that offered a different message, one of independence and empowerment.

“All day, you gotta do what they say,” the ads said. “But lunchtime is all yours.”

With this powerful marketing strategy in place and pizza Lunchables proving to be a runaway success, the entire world of fast food suddenly opened up for Kraft to pursue. Chains like Taco Bell were hooking America on the speedy, cheesy nature of “Mexican” food, so Lunchables came out with a Mexican Lunchables called Beef Taco Wraps. (Like the pizza, the taco filling was packed separately so that kids could be their own chefs at school.) Hamburgers, of course, were still the most popular fast food of all, and McDonald’s reigned supreme for kids with its Happy Meal, so Lunchables went after that too. It created the Mini Burgers Lunchables, packing the tray with two meat patties, Kraft processed cheese, two buns, and a choice between ketchup or mustard, soft drink, and a candy bar. The Mini Hot Dog Lunchable was not far behind, which also happened to provide a synergistic way for Oscar Mayer to sell its wieners. This was followed by a line of Lunchables that extended the product’s reach beyond lunch to other times of the day, including breakfast. By 1999, pancakes—which included syrup, icing, Lifesavers candy, and Tang, for a whopping 76 grams of sugar—and waffles were part of the Lunchables franchise as well.

This entire array was meant to be eaten cold, and the kids weren’t bothered by cold pancakes any more than they were by raw pizza. Annual sales kept climbing, past $500 million, past $800 million; at last count, it was close to $1 billion. In food industry parlance, the Lunchables became more than a hit: It became a category. And it sustained Oscar Mayer at a time when its red meats were flagging.

Eventually, more than sixty varieties of Lunchables and other brands of trays—including Armour’s Lunchmakers, which included a processed ham and cheese item called Cracker Crunchers and a Nestlé Crunch bar—were showing up in the grocery stores, mostly aimed at kids. In 2007, Kraft even came out with Lunchables Jr. for three-to five-year-olds.

Not surprisingly, much of this chilled processed food has been found lacking nutritionally. Convenience, of course, does have a price. Loads of salt, sugar, and fat are used not only to boost the allure of the foods; they are needed to make them safe for eating weeks or months after they were manufactured. And by 2009, when an advocacy group took a look at the explosion of fast foods in the grocery store, the price of this convenience was no longer being measured only in surging rates of childhood obesity. Children were succumbing to diabetes in greater numbers, a trend that was marked by some shocking studies. Nearly one in four American adolescents may be on the verge of developing type 2 diabetes or already have it, compared with one in ten in the 1990s. Type 2 is the most common form of diabetes, with obesity cited as the primary cause. In 2008, doctors who used ultrasound to peer inside the bodies of seventy children, many of them obese, found that kids as young as ten had the stiffened, thicker-walled arteries of forty-five-year-olds and other abnormalities that greatly increased their risk of heart disease.

The group, called the Cancer Project, that examined the prepackaged Lunchables-type meals, sized up nearly sixty ready-to-eat meals sold by grocery stores and found a nightmarish mix of salt, sugar, and fat in nearly all of them. Among the five rated worst by the group was a bologna and crackers kit sold by the Armour company, which delivered 9 grams of saturated fat, 39 grams of sugar, and 830 milligrams of sodium. Three of the worst-rated meals were from the Lunchables line, including, in the number one spot, a ham and cheese tray from the Maxed Out line. It had all the fat of the bologna tray, but with 57 grams of sugar—nearly 13 teaspoons—and 1,600 milligrams of sodium, which is two-thirds of the daily recommended maximum for kids. Under pressure from attacks like this, Kraft has dropped the Maxed Out line and is lowering the salt, sugar, and fat in other Lunchables to improve their nutritional profiles.

Bob Drane had moved on to other projects before many of these Lunchables lines were developed. But looking back to the earliest days, when he secured the funding he needed from Philip Morris to ramp up production, he said that he was not surprised by their success. “All things started to become clear,” he said. “The volume goes up. The revenue goes up. The costs come down. The margins go up. The returns turn from red ink to black ink. You get what we call a platform, which becomes what we call a growth engine, and it goes on from there for a long, long time.”