Stouffer's Fit Kitchen Steak Fajita

The Evolution of an Obesogenic Food Supply

Why do we have so much obesity? One possible answer is evolution. By this, we don’t mean human evolution. Rather, we mean commercial evolution – of an obesogenic food supply. Many have suggested that the problem lies with addictive foods. Michael Moss tells a slick story about the evil food industry engineering hyperpalatable food that hits a “bliss point.” So people simply can’t resist it. But we have our doubts.

A much more plausible explanation is that we’ve gotten here in tiny steps. Basic principles of food marketing have brought us a wonderful supply of foods that we really like. We like them enough that we consume more of them. So we keep on buying them. It’s how marketing and innovation work to meet consumer needs.

Allow us to explain.

New Product Development 101

Except when they’re drinking a beer and telling tales with Michael Moss, marketers and food scientists don’t sit around talking about bliss points. Instead, they study consumer behavior and preferences. They look at market trends. What’s appealing? What’s not?

Based on that, they come up with new product concepts. These are ideas they can depict with words and pictures. Then they test them with consumers. That’s called a concept test. The first critical hurdle for a new product concept to clear is appeal. How likely is the consumer to give this a try? If enough consumers say “yes, I’d definitely try this,” then the concept can progress to the next stage.

That next stage is a consumer trial experiment. Consumers who express purchase intent can take the product home and give it a try. Afterward, they tell the researchers how much they liked it. The critical hurdle at this step is how likely they say they’d be to buy it again – plus how much the expect they would buy.

Trial and Repeat

Based on those two hurdles – validated measures of trial and repeat purchase potential – consumer researchers have gotten pretty good at figuring out which new product concepts will fly off the shelves. It’s not perfect. Marketers launch plenty of flops even with great consumer research. But it helps improve the odds.

Evolutionary Forces in the Marketplace

After launch, marketplace magic comes into play. The most appealing products become big winners. People keep buying them. They’re not addicted. They just enjoy them.  Other products become boring and loose their place in distribution.

It’s survival of the fittest, where fitness is defined by consumer appeal. Not addictiveness, just appeal. Ironically, some of the features that add to a food’s appeal these days are flimsy claims of health benefits. Eat more of this or that, say well-intended public health folks. They lead marketers and food scientists to develop products that sound like whatever the experts are saying you should eat more of. The resulting products appeal to consumers and consumers do what they do best – consume them.

A Way Out?

This is how we suspect our food supply has evolved to promote obesity – with products that appeal, but don’t satisfy. Consumption is the holy grail. Everyone is complicit, not just evil big food. Have more of the good stuff, say co-conspiring nutrition experts.

To get out of this pickle, we will have to change the model. Not by promoting more consumption of good-for-you foods. Instead by promoting pleasure in the quality of food. By developing a food system that puts a premium on the quality, not the quantity, of foods that we buy. Not by making food cheap to buy in huge quantities. But by making good food aspirational and highly valued for everyone to enjoy in moderation.

It took us a long time to evolve a food system that buries us in cheap, appealing, but unsatisfying food. It will take time to evolve toward a system that emphasizes quality, value, and satisfaction instead. However, it’s an aspiration we  should take seriously.

Click here for more on how our ultra-processed food supply evolved. For a primer on food product development, click here. And finally, click here to consider some of the appealing and yet unsatisfying options that the current regime feeds us.

Stouffer’s Fit Kitchen Steak Fajita, photograph © Nestlé / flickr

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February 17, 2020

One Response to “The Evolution of an Obesogenic Food Supply”

  1. February 18, 2020 at 3:41 am, Mary-Jo said:

    So many great points made here, Ted, thank you. I couldn’t help but think of ‘all you can eat buffets’ that started appearing in so many restaurants from around the 1960’s(?). In my foods studies, we were taught the list of determinants for food choice — taste, convenience, cost, access, satiety, nutrition (or similar passim combo, but nutrition, nevertheless always came in 5th on list), thus, as dietitians, we always had to realize we had challenges ahead to help people maximize their nutritional status. If only taste was still the most important quality determining food choice. As we evolved into beings where ‘our stomachs are bigger than our eyes’, complete fullness has crept onto the list. Fullness does not equal satiety.