When the chips are down and out

04/18/2012 03:19:00 PM
Mike Hornick

Mike Hornick, Staff WriterLast year’s congressional appropriations debates introduced us to the concept of pizza as a vegetable. Could chips be next?

Probably not.

But the nutritionally challenged category earned at least a grudging nod of respect at the Produce for Better Health Foundation annual meeting March 29-31 in Monterey, Calif.

“Look at messaging that’s being put out about Doritos chips, processed milk or red meat,” said Rich Dachman, vice president of produce for Sysco Corp., Houston.

“They figure out a way to make it look really good. It’s hard to make that stuff look good.”

Dachman’s plea was for the clamor of commodities to yield some ground to broader marketing of fresh produce.

“The competition is the chip aisle — it’s not each other,” he said.

Jason Riis, professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, took a crack at chips in his turn at the mic.

“Naturalness really is a category produce should own,” Riis said.

“But as Rich mentioned, even the chip category tries to make some claims here.”

But as the meeting went on, it turned out that ads aren’t the only place where the line between chips and vegetables is getting blurred.

At a consumer panel discussion, parents and their kids were quizzed on each other’s favorite produce items.

One mother — Naz Whipple Emmett — was more than a little surprised when her son, Joshua, told about 130 foundation members that chips are her favorite vegetable.

Nobody laughed harder than Naz herself. She was a good sport, though I wonder what the conversation was like on the ride home after.

Eater inertia

The ability of advertisers and consumers to rationalize food choices may be limitless.

It’s an issue close to the heart of Riis’ research in behavioral economics, which lately has focused on fast food and quick-service restaurants.

“Consumers know portions are too large,” he said.

“It’s also the case that they almost never ask for less food.”

One study took place over two weeks at a Panda Express outlet and targeted chow mein and rice.

“The clerk was trained to ask, ‘Would you like to cut more than 200 calories from your meal by taking a half portion off your side dish?’” Riis said.

“When prompted about one third did so, whether there was a discount or not.

“Would that replicate (industrywide)? No, but the numbers would be higher than you’d expect. You’re reminding consumers in a slightly delicate way they’re eating too much.”

Riis’ observation gives pause for thought.

I left the conference wondering: What’s a slightly delicate way to remind restaurant owners they’re serving too much?

mhornick@thepacker.com

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