The sales figures of a leading toothpaste manufacturer were falling steadily. The three top executives in the sales division were summoned by the CEO.
“Do something. Each of you has to come up with a plan. It should increase the sales. Otherwise I don’t have to tell you what is on the line.”
With their backsides in the line of fire, one went in for aggressive advertising. It had no effect. Another recruited people and did door to door campaigning. There was no spike in the profits.
The third guy came up with an ingenious plan. He made the production team to agree to increase the diameter of the opening of the tube by a fraction of a millimetre. Every month they increased it bit by bit. The final toothpaste tube had an opening one and a half times the original.
Sales picked up substantially and our hero kept his job. The other two were, in corporate speak, ‘let go’. Part of the dismissed person’s salaries was added to the perks of our hero.
The other day I was watching a TV programme on American farmers. One farmer was crying in front of a truckload of onions he had produced. They were big, but not big enough for the major shopping mall chains. It was their policy to buy only onions above a particular size. “It is a trick to make people buy more”, lamented the farmer.
These things went through my mind as I sat in front of my friend Avinash at the local cafe. He had gone to the US for a fellowship of one year. He had put on ten kilograms. He was fat now.
“It is very expensive to eat healthily in the states. Burgers, fried chicken and Coke are very cheap. And you should see the size of each burger. It is double the size of these things in India. Like the people there. And there are double servings of cheese and butter with everything you order. How can you allow food to go waste when it is put before you?”
The cafe owner Karunettan came by with two huge glasses of foaming coffee. I tasted it. It was very sugary and creamy. I stared at the man. Usually it was quarter the size, and different.
“What happened to the Kappi, Karunetta?” I asked.
“It is Kappichina. It is the ‘passion’ now”. He meant Cappuccino. And ‘fashion’. But that is not the point here.
Is there a conspiracy to make us consume more? To make us devour unhealthy food by the plateful till our eyes bubble and our coronaries clog? You bet there is. Making us unhealthy is not their primary objective, of course. It is only the market relentlessly aiming at the bottom line- more profits. They end up expanding our bottoms and waist lines in the process.
Why does the food industry cater to our most depraved tastes? Because we demand it, of course. We evolved in the unforgiving plains of Africa, constantly wondering where our next meal was coming from. Famine followed times of plenty. Food was a luxury. We are evolved to gorge whenever food was available. The excess fat was stored in subcutaneous deposits and around the internal organs like the liver and around intestines. Practically nobody became fat, we can presume. The frequent lean times ensured that our ancestors used up our stores periodically. Then they were really hungry for the next buffet. This evolutionary strategy helped them overcome various ice ages and worse. Never in their wildest dreams would they have imagined that their successors mere 50000 or so years later would wallow in so much food.
Our taste buds can distinguish sweet, salt, sour and bitter tastes. Sour and bitter originally were designed to warn us about potentially poisonous substances. ‘Hot’ is not a taste. It is brought on by the irritation of free nerve endings by certain chemicals. So ‘sweet’ is one thing that is really designed to encourage us. Sweet means ‘good’ at a very visceral level. The only sweet things our ancestors ever ate were fruits, and the rare sweet things like the earlier versions of sugar cane and sweet potato. We artificially bred the sugarcane to produce more sugar. Then we got the juice out. After that we took the essence of the sweetness and made it into a fine powder. So we successfully threw out the fibre, the vitamins, the whole lot. The rarity was made into a commodity. Concentrated calories plus taste.
Sodium is an essential mineral we need in bulk. We evolved to value the saltiness of natural foods. Man discovered that it can be mass produced cheaply by evaporating sea water in the sun. Now we routinely ingest five to ten times the required amount of sodium every single day.
We are missing something here. What about fat? And proteins? The puzzle was solved by Japanese researchers when they discovered a new taste bud in humans that is turned on by fat and amino acids from proteins. This new taste was called “Umami”. Some have dubbed it ‘Savoury’. Even if we didn’t know this, we were already catering to this in a big way. Animals were bred into fatty, bulky brutes. Nuts and seeds were ground up and squeezed to take the oil out. The meat was fried in the oil. Monosodium Glutamate or Aginomoto was used before this scientific discovery. It fires our Umami taste buds. Glutamic acid is an amino acid found in many animal proteins. Our present day food is like pornography. Designed to turn us on. No wonder we can’t resist it.
Researchers have found that eating sweet or fatty food turns on our endogenous opioid system, giving us a high akin to having taken a shot of a drug like morphine. The reward centres in our brains exhort us to repeat the experience. Modern day consumerist culture eggs us on. We follow like hungry wolves, with drooling tongues hanging out.
A friend of mine, a noted environmentalist and scholar and his daughter came visiting. I accompanied them to the big supermarket nearby. The daughter looked at all the fancy foodstuffs packed and displayed.
“It is their job to display these things so temptingly. It is their job to try to make us buy and eat them.” My friend said to his daughter. She looked at him questioningly.
“And it is our job to choose only what is good for us.” He completed.