Jan. 24, 2009 -- Author and healthy eating expert Hank Cardello has some advice for eating nutritiously, regardless of your economic standing.
The secret, he said, lies in understanding the way the average consumer thinks and buys.
Check out an excerpt of his book "Stuffed" below, and then ask him your own questions in a live chat by clicking here and going to the comments section.
It all started with a turkey. Well, actually, not one turkey but many turkeys. The year was 1953. Thanksgiving had passed, the economy was booming, and Christmas shoppers around the country were getting ready to throw down some of their hardearned cash for a little bit of Christmas cheer.
But the mood wasn't so great at C. A. Swanson & Sons, an Omaha- based frozen food company. Somehow, Swanson had overestimated America's hunger for turkey that Thanksgiving, and they found themselves with more than half a million pounds of unsold turkeys. This would have been a lot of food in any era, but back then it was astronomical. Not to mention that Swanson didn't have enough refrigerated warehouse space to keep the turkeys from spoiling. Facing the prospect of having to write off all these birds as a huge loss, Swanson piled the turkeys into refrigerated boxcars while they searched for a buyer. As the boxcars traveled back and forth from Nebraska to the East Coast, the company's owners looked for a solution that would save them millions of dollars. As the legend goes, one of their salesmen, Gerry Thomas, had been in Pittsburgh, checking out the catering kitchens of Pan American World Airways when he heard about the company's problem. On the flight home, he began doodling, thinking about the hot tray the airline used to keep food warm. Why not use it to keep food cold, he wondered. In his sketches, Thomas ended up designing a three-compartment tray—a sort of takeoff on the old army mess kits, but also something that drew upon the airline's reliance on serving different foods steaming hot. The food in these trays would be kept in the freezer until it was ready to be eaten, at which point it would be heated up and served. In a matter of minutes dinner could be served with little to no preparation. Initially, nobody at Swanson's headquarters was bowled over by the idea, and they produced only 5,000 of the meals. But eventually they warmed to the concept. They initiated Operation Smash, a national marketing campaign consisting of a blitz of television and print ads. Two headlines read: "Swanson's fixed it for you! Complete turkey dinner on a tray." "My boys are crazy about Swanson TV Dinners." Soon enough consumers responded with a demand that far outpaced the supply. The company was blindsided by the fact that Americans seemed fascinated by the prospect of eating this new, convenient meal in front of their televisions. And just like that, the TV dinner was born. Though Swanson did not invent the frozen food concept, its multiple compartments and use of leftover food changed the way the food industry made money and the way America ate its meals. Almost overnight, it seemed that millions of kids were plopped in front of the black-and-white televisions with the aluminum pan in front of them. A few slices of bland turkey in gravy with some cornbread stuffing, sweet potatoes, and perhaps the sorriest-tasting— certainly the sorriest-looking—peas on the planet. It wasn't very appealing, but it was convenient, and the postwar generation quickly and steadily bought into this new concept of convenience foods. Mom and Dad had the evening out, and the babysitter stood in as cook and waitress. In its first full year, more than 25 million tins were served in living rooms and kitchens across the nation. A phenomenon was born, and in one single moment, the face of food in this country began to shift. There are many people who trace the beginning of our national obesity epidemic to the start of the fast-food chain, to a man named Kroc and the Golden Arches that he started in Des Plaines, Ill., in 1955. While I'm the first to admit that fast food and all of its offshoots played a big role in our current situation, for my money, the story of the Swanson TV dinner holds the real key to understanding why we're so fat. The TV dinner marked a lot of firsts: the first time that we embraced en masse convenience over cuisine; the first time that it was better to be easy than to taste good; the first time that a preprepared (frozen) meal was served ready to heat and eat at home. But of all these firsts, perhaps the most important, the one that has affected our waistlines and our taste buds the most, is that the Swanson TV dinner marked the first time that a food industry marketing gimmick seduced what might have been our better judgment. After all, the TV dinner was just a way to boost a company's struggling bottom line and cut its losses. On the surface, from a food perspective, there appeared to be little benefit to the consumer. The taste was awful, the food unappealing, and the choices limited. I mean, seriously, who wants to eat frozen Thanksgiving turkey in February?
And yet it turned out that was exactly what a lot of people wanted, and they wanted to do it because of how it had been sold to them. They had been sold on the idea that the convenience of this product was their ticket to a happier life. It had nothing to do with the actual food, and everything to do with the image of the food that had been projected. It had to do with the convenience, the slick packaging, and the easy cleanup. Anytime, anywhere, you could have a meal that you knew. It might not have been a good meal, but at least it was familiar. The Swanson TV dinner appeared at a moment when our culture was changing how it thought about food. Televisions were making their way into people's homes, and food companies had begun to use this new medium to advertise their products, feeding consumers hungry for new ideas with spoonfuls of new ways to spend money on food. The idea that convenience trumped taste played right into the mind-set of that moment and it was all too infectious— from the boardrooms of the nation's food consortiums to the glass doors of Madison Avenue. Food shopping, which up until then had been more of a local endeavor, started to become a national enterprise, and when people went to the store, there were certain brands they expected to see—the brands from the television commercials. Swanson TV dinner was a turning point, not so much because of what it was, but because of what it represented: Our expectations for food were lowered. It proved that convenience was king. McDonald's, Burger King, Stouffer's, Wendy's, the prepared food in your supermarket, takeout pizza, cheap Chinese food—none of these ideas could have taken off as they did if Swanson hadn't paved the way with a simple equation that millions of Americans embraced: TV dinners = more free time. Who cared if it tasted bad? Who cared what was in it? It was easy to buy and even easier to make. It wasn't gourmet, but hey, few things were. The one upside to that first batch of Swanson TV dinners was that they were humble in their portion sizes. Although high in sodium, the classic roasted, carved turkey dinner weighed in at a modest 250 calories. There was no way that a nation gorging itself on TV dinners would become overweight. The servings of turkey and peas were not only foul tasting, they were anemic by any of today's standards. That was soon to end. For over thirty years I held various executive posts at some of the country's largest food and beverage corporations, and while I wasn't there for Swanson's revolution, I was certainly there for its wake. During the second half of the twentieth century, America ate like there was no tomorrow, consuming all manner of restaurant fare, prepared food, and packaged goods, and in the process making a handful of well-heeled, well-funded companies like Swanson incredibly profitable. Every day during those thirty years, the ideas and methods we employed came straight from the example that Swanson had set, even if Swanson itself was not explicitly mentioned. The names of the game in the food business became convenience and marketing. With these two concepts employed in just the right way, you could sell almost anything. Swanson was never used as a case study and never spoken of as the definitive moment in food history that it was. In truth, it was a story that I'd heard passed around for years, but it was rare that people referred to it as a paradigm shift. Nevertheless, the lessons it represented and the implications it offered were clear to the entire industry. Cut losses and maximize profit through creative marketing and attractive packaging. If you can accomplish this, all else is secondary. Today these ideas of packaging and marketing don't seem revolutionary, but at the time they were precisely that. Before Swanson, most meals were prepared in the home, not purchased in a readyto- heat-and-eat form. That's the way it was. Swanson set the stage for convenient meals at an acceptable price and passable taste. No longer would poor-tasting products be rejected out of hand. Swanson inverted that tried-and-true thinking. They dropped product quality—and by extension, health—from the equation and found large-scale results. It paved the way for a whole new means of gauging consumer satisfaction when it came to eating habits. If the consumer demands bigger portions, you don't raise the price; you use lower-grade ingredients and adjust the taste to a manageable level. If the consumer demands a lower price, you don't sacrifice the product's gimmick; you rejigger the recipe to compensate for shifts in palate. If you manage to make it taste good in the process, great. If not, leave it to the marketing department. It's their job to come up with a way to make it sell.
While some of America's obesity problem can be explained by our lineage, some of it can also be explained by where you live. Regionalism is also very apparent in the overweight sector. In the Midwest, we know that meat and potatoes are American staples, and fried chicken and biscuits tend to rule in southern kitchens. Regional cuisine is a wonderful and defining characteristic of American food, but as it has been practiced, it is also woefully heavy. According to the Centers for Disease Control's Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System, the East South Central states (Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee) had the highest obesity rate. Mississippi has been fingered as the fattest state. The West South Central states (Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas) were only a percentage point behind. To be fair, several other regions were right up there on the "fatness" scale. Shifting the focus from the regional level to the city level, the numbers change little. Men's Fitness magazine publishes an annual study of the cities in the country with the most people who are overweight. The editors use several criteria including air and water quality, availability of parks and open spaces, drinking alcoholic beverages, length of commute, percentage of overweight and sedentary residents, smoking, and sports participation. And the magazine added number of fast-food restaurants as an additional factor for the first time in 2006. Though the magazine's results are not based on strictly scientific study methods, they are worth noting because they offer a different array of data. While Las Vegas earned the number one ranking in 2007, four of the top ten of the fattest cities were in Texas again: Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and El Paso. In New York City, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found a lack of healthy foods in the Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Those areas have some of the city's highest obesity rates. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, for example, 30 percent of adults are obese, while the average city rate is 20 percent. The agency reported that only one in three bodegas (small corner Hispanic markets, which are often the main food shopping locations in neighborhoods that lack larger supermarkets) in Bedford-Stuyvesant sold reduced-fat milk, even though 90 percent of the surrounding supermarkets stocked alternatives like Lactaid or 1% or 2% milk. Alarmed at the makeup of the standard bodega's offerings, the city began promoting a milk program in neighborhoods like central Brooklyn, the South Bronx, and Harlem. The report also revealed that bodegas were much less likely than supermarkets to stock fruits and vegetables. While the majority of bodegas and supermarkets carry some kind of fresh fruit, only 21 percent of the bodegas in Bedford-Stuyvesant offered apples, oranges, and bananas. Leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale were found in only 6 percent of the bodegas surveyed. When asked, bodega owners were honest in their replies: They did not carry healthier foods because they didn't sell well. "Not their fault" was the explanation. And we wonder why our Hispanic neighbors suffer disproportionately from obesity and diabetes.