The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food… Part 3: My Bologna Has a First Name

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By Michael Moss

This article is adapted from “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” which will be published by Random House this month. Michael Moss is an investigative reporter for The Times. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for his reporting on the meat industry. Editor: Joel Lovell

‘Lunchtime Is All Yours’

Sometimes innovations within the food industry happen in the lab, with scientists dialing in specific ingredients to achieve the greatest allure. And sometimes, as in the case of Oscar Mayer’s bologna crisis, the innovation involves putting old products in new packages.

The 1980s were tough times for Oscar Mayer. Red-meat consumption fell more than 10 percent as fat became synonymous with cholesterol, clogged arteries, heart attacks and strokes. Anxiety set in at the company’s headquarters in Madison, Wis., where executives worried about their future and the pressure they faced from their new bosses at Philip Morris.

Bob Drane was the company’s vice president for new business strategy and development when Oscar Mayer tapped him to try to find some way to reposition bologna and other troubled meats that were declining in popularity and sales. I met Drane at his home in Madison and went through the records he had kept on the birth of what would become much more than his solution to the company’s meat problem. In 1985, when Drane began working on the project, his orders were to “figure out how to contemporize what we’ve got.”

Drane’s first move was to try to zero in not on what Americans felt about processed meat but on what Americans felt about lunch. He organized focus-group sessions with the people most responsible for buying bologna – mothers – and as they talked, he realized the most pressing issue for them was time. Working moms strove to provide healthful food, of course, but they spoke with real passion and at length about the morning crush, that nightmarish dash to get breakfast on the table and lunch packed and kids out the door. He summed up their remarks for me like this: “It’s awful. I am scrambling around. My kids are asking me for stuff. I’m trying to get myself ready to go to the office. I go to pack these lunches, and I don’t know what I’ve got.” What the moms revealed to him, Drane said, was “a gold mine of disappointments and problems.”

He assembled a team of about 15 people with varied skills, from design to food science to advertising, to create something completely new – a convenient prepackaged lunch that would have as its main building block the company’s sliced bologna and ham. They wanted to add bread, naturally, because who ate bologna without it? But this presented a problem: There was no way bread could stay fresh for the two months their product needed to sit in warehouses or in grocery coolers. Crackers, however, could – so they added a handful of cracker rounds to the package. Using cheese was the next obvious move, given its increased presence in processed foods. But what kind of cheese would work? Natural Cheddar, which they started off with, crumbled and didn’t slice very well, so they moved on to processed varieties, which could bend and be sliced and would last forever, or they could knock another two cents off per unit by using an even lesser product called “cheese food,” which had lower scores than processed cheese in taste tests. The cost dilemma was solved when Oscar Mayer merged with Kraft in 1989 and the company didn’t have to shop for cheese anymore; it got all the processed cheese it wanted from its new sister company, and at cost.

Drane’s team moved into a nearby hotel, where they set out to find the right mix of components and container. They gathered around tables where bagfuls of meat, cheese, crackers and all sorts of wrapping material had been dumped, and they let their imaginations run. After snipping and taping their way through a host of failures, the model they fell back on was the American TV dinner – and after some brainstorming about names (Lunch Kits? Go-Packs? Fun Mealz?), Lunchables were born.The trays flew off the grocery-store shelves. Sales hit a phenomenal $218 million in the first 12 months, more than anyone was prepared for. This only brought Drane his next crisis. The production costs were so high that they were losing money with each tray they produced. So Drane flew to New York, where he met with Philip Morris officials who promised to give him the money he needed to keep it going. “The hard thing is to figure out something that will sell,” he was told. “You’ll figure out how to get the cost right.” Projected to lose $6 million in 1991, the trays instead broke even; the next year, they earned $8 million.

With production costs trimmed and profits coming in, the next question was how to expand the franchise, which they did by turning to one of the cardinal rules in processed food: When in doubt, add sugar. “Lunchables With Dessert is a logical extension,” an Oscar Mayer official reported to Philip Morris executives in early 1991. The “target” remained the same as it was for regular Lunchables – “busy mothers” and “working women,” ages 25 to 49 – and the “enhanced taste” would attract shoppers who had grown bored with the current trays. A year later, the dessert Lunchable morphed into the Fun Pack, which would come with a Snickers bar, a package of M&M’s or a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, as well as a sugary drink. The Lunchables team started by using Kool-Aid and cola and then Capri Sun after Philip Morris added that drink to its stable of brands.Eventually, a line of the trays, appropriately called Maxed Out, was released that had as many as nine grams of saturated fat, or nearly an entire day’s recommended maximum for kids, with up to two-thirds of the max for sodium and 13 teaspoons of sugar.

When I asked Geoffrey Bible, former C.E.O. of Philip Morris, about this shift toward more salt, sugar and fat in meals for kids, he smiled and noted that even in its earliest incarnation, Lunchables was held up for criticism. “One article said something like, ‘If you take Lunchables apart, the most healthy item in it is the napkin.’ “Well, they did have a good bit of fat, I offered. “You bet,” he said. “Plus cookies.”The prevailing attitude among the company’s food managers – through the 1990s, at least, before obesity became a more pressing concern – was one of supply and demand. “People could point to these things and say, ‘They’ve got too much sugar, they’ve got too much salt,’ ” Bible said. “Well, that’s what the consumer wants, and we’re not putting a gun to their head to eat it. That’s what they want. If we give them less, they’ll buy less, and the competitor will get our market. So you’re sort of trapped.” (Bible would later press Kraft to reconsider its reliance on salt, sugar and fat.)

When it came to Lunchables, they did try to add more healthful ingredients. Back at the start, Drane experimented with fresh carrots but quickly gave up on that, since fresh components didn’t work within the constraints of the processed-food system, which typically required weeks or months of transport and storage before the food arrived at the grocery store. Later, a low-fat version of the trays was developed, using meats and cheese and crackers that were formulated with less fat, but it tasted inferior, sold poorly and was quickly scrapped.

When I met with Kraft officials in 2011 to discuss their products and policies on nutrition, they had dropped the Maxed Out line and were trying to improve the nutritional profile of Lunchables through smaller, incremental changes that were less noticeable to consumers. Across the Lunchables line, they said they had reduced the salt, sugar and fat by about 10 percent, and new versions, featuring mandarin-orange and pineapple slices, were in development. These would be promoted as more healthful versions, with “fresh fruit,” but their list of ingredients – containing upward of 70 items, with sucrose, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup and fruit concentrate all in the same tray – have been met with intense criticism from outside the industry.

One of the company’s responses to criticism is that kids don’t eat the Lunchables every day – on top of which, when it came to trying to feed them more healthful foods, kids themselves were unreliable. When their parents packed fresh carrots, apples and water, they couldn’t be trusted to eat them. Once in school, they often trashed the healthful stuff in their brown bags to get right to the sweets.This idea – that kids are in control – would become a key concept in the evolving marketing campaigns for the trays. In what would prove to be their greatest achievement of all, the Lunchables team would delve into adolescent psychology to discover that it wasn’t the food in the trays that excited the kids; it was the feeling of power it brought to their lives. As Bob Eckert, then the C.E.O. of Kraft, put it in 1999: “Lunchables aren’t about lunch. It’s about kids being able to put together what they want to eat, anytime, anywhere.”Kraft’s early Lunchables campaign targeted mothers. They might be too distracted by work to make a lunch, but they loved their kids enough to offer them this prepackaged gift. But as the focus swung toward kids, Saturday-morning cartoons started carrying an ad that offered a different message: “All day, you gotta do what they say,” the ads said. “But lunchtime is all yours.”

With this marketing strategy in place and pizza Lunchables – the crust in one compartment, the cheese, pepperoni and sauce in others – proving to be a runaway success, the entire world of fast food suddenly opened up for Kraft to pursue. They came out with a Mexican-themed Lunchables called Beef Taco Wraps; a Mini Burgers Lunchables; a Mini Hot Dog Lunchable, which also happened to provide a way for Oscar Mayer to sell its wieners. By 1999, pancakes – which included syrup, icing, Lifesavers candy and Tang, for a whopping 76 grams of sugar – and waffles were, for a time, part of the Lunchables franchise as well.

Annual sales kept climbing, past $500 million, past $800 million; at last count, including sales in Britain, they were approaching the $1 billion mark. Lunchables was more than a hit; it was now its own category. Eventually, more than 60 varieties of Lunchables and other brands of trays would show up in the grocery stores. In 2007, Kraft even tried a Lunchables Jr. for 3- to 5-year-olds.In the trove of records that document the rise of the Lunchables and the sweeping change it brought to lunchtime habits, I came across a photograph of Bob Drane’s daughter, which he had slipped into the Lunchables presentation he showed to 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.

During the course of reporting, I finally had a chance to ask her about it. Was she really that much of a fan? “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.”Monica Drane had three of her own children by the time we spoke, ages 10, 14 and 17. “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.”Drane himself paused only briefly when I asked him if, looking back, he was proud of creating the trays. “Lots of things are trade-offs,” 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.”

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 that seeks to build better communications between school kids and their parents, 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 that he used with medical students at the University of Wisconsin. And while he does not name his Lunchables in this document, and cites numerous causes for the obesity epidemic, he holds the entire industry accountable. “What do University of Wisconsin M.B.A.’s learn about how to succeed in marketing?” his presentation to the med students asks. “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. . . . So formulate products to deliver these. Perhaps add low-cost ingredients to boost profit margins. Then ‘supersize’ to sell more. . . . And advertise/promote to lock in ‘heavy users.’ Plenty of guilt to go around here!”

By Michael Moss

This article is adapted from “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” which will be published by Random House this month. Michael Moss is an investigative reporter for The Times. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for his reporting on the meat industry. Editor: Joel Lovell

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