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Who's making America fat? Hank Cardello on un-stuffing the nation

February 11, 2009 |  3:51 pm

Stuffed by Hank Cardello Author Hank Cardello was a food industry insider for 30 years, holding executive-level positions at some of the nation’s largest food and beverage companies, including General Mills and Michelob.

Jacket Copy caught up with the author to talk to him about his new book, "Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s Really Making America Fat," which takes a historical look at the power of the food industry. The book describes how the American public is swayed by their mega-marketing machine, the current controversies surrounding America’s eating habits (i.e. how we got this fat and why we argue over cupcakes) and how we can turn this whole thing around for good (i.e. how we all lose the weight and keep it off!).

JC: What was the impetus for writing this book? You write about a personal health issue (possibly being diagnosed with cancer) in your preface. Can you talk a bit about that?

Cardello: It’s unusual. I really didn’t want to write about this. But it helped people to understand. I made myself one of those proverbial promises at that time. I wanted to make an impact and help people live a little longer through food.

JC: You were in the food industry for 30 years, holding various executive-level positions, witnessing marketing tactics and general practices. Was there ever a moment that struck you as odd? Or shady? Or strange?

Cardello: When I first got into the business, obesity wasn’t on the radar. They want cake? Give it to them. Those rules are long gone … two-thirds of this country is waddling around.

People have changed, their waist lines have changed, so we have to change.

When I was at Michelob — the world’s greatest job for a 30-year-old guy — we came out with a malt beverage. It was marketed in inner cities. Looking back, I don’t think I would have done that. You're selling to groups of people and communities who a) can’t afford it and B) shouldn’t be drinking it.

JC: How is your book different from "Fast Food Nation"?

Cardello's answer comes after the jump —

Cardello: First of all, that’s a great book. Eric Schlosser took more of a muckraking, John Updike-type of role, peeling back the layers. He came at it from an investigative-journalist perspective.

I’m coming from both inside and outside the industry. I was in the industry, and now I’m a consumer, just like everyone else. I’m aiming at what’s really going to solve the problem. I’m here to say that the food industry is the only thing that can fix the problems because it is for people like me to show them how to make money doing so.

JC: In your first chapter, you point to Operation Smash, in which the first frozen TV dinners came about via Swanson. Do you believe that the TV dinners of 1953 America shifted this country’s eating habits forever?

Cardello: Yeah, I do. I looked really hard at that. Some people like to look at McDonald’s or early burger chains. But as a teenager, I’d go buy six or seven of those things. They were small.

But Swanson offered mothers an option not to cook. It was kind of like a collision of events: the TV came about, we’d sit in front of the TV and eat a meal.

They [Swanson] didn’t realize how brilliant it was initially. They only made 5,000 at first until they realized they had a homerun.

Obesityarticle JC: Why was the American public so swayed by the food industry’s marketing machine?

Cardello: When you have that much money to market and you have a consumer-driven society. ... Their purpose is to get you to do something. With that kind of advertising budget, clearly you’re going to have influence over people’s decisions.

I think the real problem involves companies offering what I call these weapons of mass consumption. It is tough to resist, and people want value. Blame the industry or the consumer. I don’t care. We just have to reach a solution. It’s time for new rules.

JC: In your chapter “Let Them Eat Cupcakes,” you point out that cupcakes have become the poster child among parents, pundits and schools for all that is wrong with our kids’ eating habits. Why is that? 

Cardello: How ridiculous, when you think about it. It’s a cupcake! I think what happened is that it becomes a kind of symbol. They are in schools, and they are for special occasions, and they have frosting.

We don’t need to ban everything we touch just because it has a little fat and sugar. The cupcake is the ultimate single-serve product. Ideally, you have just one (as long as the cupcake is regular size — not the 400-, 500-calorie version). I’d really hate the joy of eating to be taken out of America. We shouldn’t move to a state where there is banning.

JC: What about the vending machines in schools nationwide. How did that happen?

Cardello: As a brand manager, your goal is to sell more product. Vending is flexible. You don’t have to build a grocery store to have a vending machine. Schools are aching for money, and basically here comes the saviors. We’ll help you out. It was an easy quid pro quo.

In schools now you have vending machines and it’s your classic captive audience (like a movie theater) and the food companies are able to build some brand loyalty.

JC: From a 2007 CNN report, you quote a Chicago woman who started an urban farm in her neighborhood as saying: “You can probably buy right now, if you want to, illegal drugs.… If you wanted to buy a gun, you could buy a gun  in this community. But if you wanted to find an organic tomato in this community, if you didn’t come to our urban farm site, you wouldn’t be able to buy one.” That’s striking. In larger cities like Los Angeles, is that our future? Will more and more people grow their own food? Do you think that’s a good idea?

Cardello: I think there’s a movement afoot. People’s living situations make it really difficult to do that, though. With urban cities, you see the flight of grocery stores to the suburbs. So people in inner cities go to bodegas — small grocers. And they don’t offer the same access to the same foods. That’s why the food industry has to get in there.

JC: What’s the No. 1 thing contributing to America’s fatness right now? And how can we reverse what we have done to ourselves?

Cardello: It’s a collision between weapons of mass consumption in combination with Americans' want for value. That’s your epicenter right there.

If we were all as disciplined as Navy SEALS, then we’d all know when to say no. So, we have to be realistic. There’s a half-step we have to take. First, we need to un-stuff. Then we can go to healthy. To go all the way to healthy right away for most people ... that’s where you lose them.

Un-stuffing as a first step: Let’s take a look at what people like and make sure they are just eating less of it. Make sure they don’t feel deprived, though. Because once people feel deprived, it’s game over.

One thing I really like are these 100-calorie packs. … I’m a big fan of those. I still get to enjoy my Oreos or my Goldfish. Even if I have two of those packs, that’s only 200 calories. It’s portion management without feeling like there’s a penalty box.

JC: You mention “future foods” like probiotics, omega-3s, green tea, even “space age taffy.” What will food be like in the future? Ten years from now?

Cardello: Great question. There are some things that are showing up on the radar now that make you feel fuller. Those will start to show up in foods. These are called satiety ingredients. So, that’s exciting.

I like gum as a carrier. Some studies show that gum does seem to cut down on people’s appetites. Gum could be a delivery system for nutrients.

I envision we’ll almost have memory cards just like the ones you stick in your computer. You’ll have that for your personal health. You just plug it in at the grocery store and you find out what to get that’s good for you. It will give you recommendations on what you might like.

— Lori Kozlowski

Cover photo credit: Harper Collins

Lower photo: A woman in Los Angeles, 2008. Credit: Reed Saxon /Associated Press

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