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

In the trove of records that document the rise of the Lunchables and the sweeping change it brought to lunchtime habits, one item drew my attention perhaps even more than the memos detailing the tactical pursuit of moms and kids or the nudging and gushing praise from Philip Morris executives. It was a photograph of Bob Drane’s daughter, which he had slipped into the Lunchables presentation he showed other food developers. The picture was taken on Monica Drane’s wedding day in 1989, and she was standing outside the family’s home in Madison, a beautiful bride in a white wedding dress, holding one of the brand-new yellow trays.

I kept coming back to that photograph over the months that I spent researching the Lunchables. Something about it kept nagging at me. Was she really that much of a fan? I finally decided I had to ask her about it. “There must have been some in the fridge,” she told me. “I probably just took one out before we went to the church. My mom had joked that it was really like their fourth child, my dad invested so much time and energy on it.”

As we started to talk about the Lunchables, however, she said a far different moment in her life came to mind. It was the day a few years later, when she had moved to Boston to work in a district office of Congressman Barney Frank, and she was having lunch with a few other staffers and volunteers. “I came in with a Lunchable, feeling some measure of pride that my dad had created this cool, nifty package. And one woman there, a volunteer, was horrified. ‘Do you realize all that plastic is going into the landfill? And all those nitrates in that ham?’ ”

“I had gone to a liberal arts college in Minnesota, and I had maybe the beginnings of an interest in healthier food, but not really. I shrank to about the size of a Lilliputian, thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s right. Look at this awful yellow plastic. Look at the ingredients.’ And I don’t even know if there were ingredient lists then, but I had enough awareness to think, ‘Oh wow, this really is pretty awful.’ ”

Monica Drane had three of her own children by the time we spoke, aged ten, fourteen, and seventeen. “I don’t think my kids have ever eaten a Lunchable,” she told me. “They know they exist and that Grandpa Bob invented them. But we eat very healthfully.”

After the Boston incident, Monica said she used to get after her dad, berating him for “how junky Lunchables are, and now that I’m older I realize how thoughtless that was. For him, it was an effort to create jobs in the Madison community. He was deeply committed to finding ways to employ people. That drove a lot of his pursuit. He also saw it from a cultural standpoint, that there was a need for something like a Lunchable for people who didn’t have the resources that I have. And maybe the outcome wasn’t the most desirable product, but the impulse was right.”

Bob Drane didn’t strike out entirely with his kids—one of his two sons became an enthusiast, Monica said, sending his own kids off to school with the trays, but Drane said it was not unusual for product developers like him to find little in the way of inspiration in their own households. There is a class issue at work in processed foods, in which the inventors and company executives don’t generally partake in their own creations. Thus the heavy reliance on focus groups with the targeted consumer.

“People who work in these companies have very little in common, frequently, with their audience,” he said. “They’re super-educated, and their incomes are much higher, and their lifestyles are frequently very different. They’re the folks that invent things for the middle of the market, and they frequently are clueless, so the voice of the consumer is the voice you have to pay attention to, and that’s one of the principles of success. Don’t listen to the senior vice president. Let the people that you’re going to sell something to tell you what they want.”

Having done just that—delivered what people wanted, saved a few hundred jobs, and eased the morning crush of harried families—Bob Drane paused only briefly when I asked him if, looking back today, he was proud of creating the trays. “Lots of things are trade-offs, of course,” he said. “And I do believe it’s easy to rationalize anything. In the end, I wish that the nutritional profile of the thing could have been better, but I don’t view the entire project as anything but a positive contribution to people’s lives. On balance, it did a lot of things within the convenience world that served people, and the benefits outweighed, I think, the negatives. It established the model of a preprepared, prepacked lunch. And one of the things I love about innovation is for subsequent generations to go back, having a model, and continuously improve it. I’m still believing that model will long endure and will serve society, kids, and moms, in various ways, and that over time, people will adjust in the direction it needs to be adjusted.”

Today, Bob Drane is still talking to kids about what they like to eat, but his approach has changed. He volunteers with a nonprofit organization based in Madison that seeks to build better communications between school kids and their parents who are less well off financially, and right in the mix of their problems, alongside the academic struggles, is childhood obesity. Drane has also prepared a précis on the food industry in discussing obesity with students at the University of Wisconsin. And while he does not name his Lunchables in this document, he holds the entire industry accountable for the epidemic, citing the “rise in corporate cooking, processed and preserved foods, often high in sugar/fat/salt/etc. More calories in, less calories burned, obesity up.

“What do University of Wisconsin MBA’s learn about how to succeed in marketing? 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 (scarce and high energy). So, formulate products to deliver these. Perhaps add low cost ingredients to boost profit margins. Then ‘supersize’ to sell more (# users x amount/user). And advertise/promote to lock in ‘heavy users.’ Plenty of guilt to go around here!”

There is no magic pill to resolve the nation’s weight problem, Drane writes. Rather, he proposes a long list of partial solutions and pokes the manufacturers of processed food as hard as his daughter used to poke him. The industry, he writes, must recognize that “ ‘corporate cooking’ now plays a dominant role in our diets and ‘whatever sells’ can no longer be a stand-alone yardstick.” It must start reducing or removing ingredients that cause obesity, and “invent more products with less sugar, fat, salt, etc.” It needs to fund research “to discover how ‘corporate cooked foods’ might come closer to delivering the nutritional benefits of old fashioned scratch cooking. We need some across-the-board breakthroughs here, in ingredients, and processing/preservation systems, and shorter/faster distribution.”

In holding the industry accountable, Drane’s list of ways to fix the obesity problem had one notable gap: the federal government’s own role in tempering the processed food industry’s zeal. But there was a reason for this. As food manufacturers know very well and as I would find out by moving the reporting for this book from Madison to Washington, when it comes to nutrition, the role the government plays is less a matter of regulation than it is promotion of some of the industry practices deemed most threatening to the health of consumers.

* The low-nicotine cigarette, dubbed the De-Nic, turned out to be short-lived. Within a year of its release in 1992, Philip Morris pulled it from the market, citing slow sales.