Can't they just lay off the Red Bull? Or meditate?

"With a 24/7 technological lifestyle, people don't have time for meditation," Murray says, almost ruefully. Then she points out an additional advantage to taking your sleep supplement in the form of a piece of candy as opposed to a pill: There's no water involved, so you don't have to get up in the middle of the night to pee! (There is, however, a nasty-tasting residue that sticks to your teeth.)

"Sleep Squares?" marvels Nestle. "That's really funny!"

Professor Sauernoggin works the Toxic Waste Candy booth at the recent Sweets & Snacks Expo at McCormick Place in Chicago.
William Rice
Professor Sauernoggin works the Toxic Waste Candy booth at the recent Sweets & Snacks Expo at McCormick Place in Chicago.
Jill Robbins developed HomeFree cookies so that her son, who has multiple food allergies, would be able to enjoy snacks with his friends.
William Rice
Jill Robbins developed HomeFree cookies so that her son, who has multiple food allergies, would be able to enjoy snacks with his friends.

Even more miraculous is Maramor Chocolates' Functional Chocolate, which contains probiotics. "Probiotics are healthy bacteria," sales rep Doug Ferrell instructs. "It's a powder that's blended into the chocolate. It also has omega-3s. There was a guy with cirrhosis who said the candy helped clear it right up!"

Is it legal for candy marketers to say stuff like that?

In 1994 the FDA decreed that you can't add vitamins to junk food in order to make it appear healthier, thus settling an intense debate about whether foods that contain no fat or sodium but also no nutritional value whatsoever could be labeled "healthy." But the "Jelly Bean Rule," as it came to be known, suffers from a significant flaw: It has proven virtually unenforceable. "There are so many companies doing it," Simon says. "The FDA doesn't have the proper funding and oversight — it does what it can, but it can't stay on top of marketing claims." Perhaps it's only fitting, then, that we can, if we so choose, stave off fatigue with Sport Beans, "energizing jelly beans" fortified with vitamins, electrolytes and carbohydrates proven through scientific research (performed on one lone group of sixteen bicyclists — but hey, still research!) to enhance athletic performance.

Some companies have gone to court to defend their right to extravagant marketing claims, citing the First Amendment. One notable example: Pom Wonderful, whose pomegranate juice prevents heart disease and prostate cancer and cures erectile dysfunction.

As ridiculous as some of these claims might sound, the fact remains that people want to believe them.

"It's a problem now," says Steve Gardner, litigation director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer watchdog group known to its detractors as the "Food Police." "Food companies are trying to make foods into drugs, things that will prevent heart disease — all sorts of things. People really believe those ads. There's a health crisis. People can't afford to go to the doctor, but they can afford to buy Cheerios."

Gardner is referring to a warning letter the FDA sent to General Mills, manufacturer of Cheerios, admonishing the company to stop claiming that eating its breakfast cereal would lower one's cholesterol. (General Mills complied.)

Last year Gardner was part of a team of lawyers that successfully took Coca-Cola to U.S. District Court to force the company to lay off asserting that its vitaminwater — a product Gardner dismisses as "sugar water with a dusting of vitamins" — can prevent disease. He's a habitual reader of nutrition labels. He doesn't believe in vitamins. ("If you're eating properly," he says, "you're getting enough nutrients. Except calcium if you're an old person or folic acid if you're a pregnant woman.") He understands that you'd have to eat a ridiculous quantity of Cheerios or probiotic candy to enjoy any perceptible health benefit. And even he has been taken in.

Not long ago he bought a bag of "natural" marshmallows at his local Whole Foods in Dallas. It wasn't till he got home that he noticed that the product was made with — of all things — high-fructose corn syrup — a substance that the grocery chain includes on its own website's page listing "unacceptable" ingredients.

"I got snookered by 'em," Gardner says sheepishly. "I wasted money on marshmallows! And I know! I'm a careful, skeptical consumer!

"People will catch on if someone tells them the truth," Gardner continues. "But if food marketers told the truth, they wouldn't sell anything."

Which reminds him of a famous line from Animal House:

"You fucked up. You trusted us."


Saving the World

Spend two days listening to people telling you how nutritious and good their sweets and/or snacks are, and you might begin to wonder if anybody out there actually cops to being, you know, unhealthy. Surely there's no shame in selling a little slice of decadence if it tastes good.

Like pork rinds, for instance.

"Pork rinds have zero carbs," protests Greg Stanton of Rudolph Foods, the world's largest pork-rind producer. "They're gluten-free. They're a relatively healthy snack."

What Stanton really wants to chat about, though, is National Pork Rind Day. If you go to voteporkrinds.com and cast a vote — be it yea or nay — on whether to establish National Pork Rind Day, Rudolph will donate a dime to Wounded Warriors, an organization that helps injured U.S. soldiers readjust to civilian life. "It's an outstanding cause," Stanton points out.

Unlike the health benefits of pork rinds, that's a difficult claim to dispute. The voting will continue until Rudolph has doled out $10,000.

If the dream ever comes true, Stanton's hoped-for holiday will coincide with the annual contesting of what he cagily refers to as The Big Game. "That's the Super Bowl, but we can't say that because of trademark reasons," Stanton says. "Pig skins and pigskins go together."

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