• Ali Tadlaoui

The more things change, the more things stay the same. The other day I read a fun piece on an IRI blog reflecting on twenty-five years of their New Product Pacesetters reports. Every year IRI puts a spotlight on those foods and beverages that sold the most during their first year on the shelf.


Remember SnackWell's? "Non-Fat" was a watchword in 1995. Not so much now, or not in the same way. In fact, we've been helping folks better understand how to market high fat yogurts recently. How about 5% fat!


The early 2000's brought a wave of low or no carb foods to capitalize on our newly-rediscovered object of abstention. I was at Unilever at the time the entire company seemed mobilized to launch CarbSmart. My team contributed two Wish-Bone formulas to the effort; I don't recall there were too many carbs in any of our salad dressings... We Americans are still worried about sugar intake. Interestingly, we are also helping a different yogurt client with low sugar, high protein consumer research.


But really, nothing has changed that much when it comes to what manufactured food products, especially well-marketed, branded food products, do for us beyond the concoction of ingredients declared on the packaging, and the convenient container itself that protects what's inside. Diet recommendations around macronutrients have pointed in different directions over the past twenty-five years. True north has been about removing fat, then removing carbohydrates, and more recently, boosting protein. Food companies respond (or initiate), and consumers respond. The specifics of what we eat and drink have changed for many, somewhat based on these diet recommendations, but the motivation driven by our emotional needs hasn't, and doesn't.


What doesn't change is the need to try to solve problems; problems of our own making which we believe eating right can fix, or challenges created by trying to conform to cultural norms. What seems important to our emotional well-being is to constantly try to address these problems. That makes us feel good about ourselves. Eating a high protein, low sugar yogurt appears to be the right thing to do these days, so it is, whether or not you really need the extra protein. It's a "sensible," or a "smart" choice in the minds of some of us. For others, it can give you a measure or control or power, or make you feel like you're ahead of the curve, even if that container of yogurt doesn't provide sustained energy better than lots of other foods, as promised, or really help you lose weight, or improve your longer term physical well-being in a tangible way.


Our physiological health, collectively, as measured by obesity levels, cardiovascular fitness, and rates of diabetes has deteriorated over the past twenty-five years despite the growing knowledge base that should be informing diet trends and guidelines. Even at an individual level, I wonder how many of us over 40 feel like our short-term health improved if/when we followed a low-fat regimen, or consumed mostly low carb food products. I don't think my long term health has been impacted either by how I've changed up my diet over all these years.


On some level, for most of us who are generally healthy, maybe that doesn't matter as much because we are constantly attempting to improve our health, and it's the steps we take - consuming products with good fats, less sugar, more whole grains, going to bed a bit earlier, and walking a few thousand steps a day (if not ten thousand) - that make us feel better about ourselves in discrete bursts over the course of weeks, months, and years.


My next Talk to Me About Food podcast will focus on personalized nutrition, yet another diet direction, and maybe a logical next step in the evolution of our understanding of the role of genetic pre-dispositions. One of the first threads I followed in researching the upcoming episode led me to a company that places you in one of 20 profiles based on your genetic signature. Gene Food provides recommended diet strategies for each profile. Are you a California Keto? A Pegan? An Okinawan? A Hunter Gatherer? I can see how this approach appeals to our taste for belonging to a tribe. One more tribe to identify with, for better or for worse, in our endless quest to find a better, or maybe the ultimate diet.





Image by MOs810 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22412609





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  • Ali Tadlaoui

"Unwinding" stew (a vegetarian stew). Beet and lamb stew. Lamb broth. A Yale museum curator and a digital imaging specialist brought these Babylonian dishes to life at an NYU event a couple of years ago. The other day I watched a recording of them following the steps of these ancient recipes; recipes captured on cuneiform clay tablets. The prepared dishes looked interesting. More than that, they were relatable, even though the recipes are 4,000 years old. Beets. Onions. Cilantro. Parsley. Leeks. Ale. Milk. Squab (tastes like chicken, right?). Lamb, not so much, but my palate holds the distinct flavor and texture of lamb in its memory. I'd venture to say that you remember lamb too even if you've had it only once.


Imagine sitting down to a meal with a Babylonian. You'd realize just how much you do not have in common well before getting to the food. What are they wearing when they open the door (is it even a door we recognize?) to welcome you? Definitely not khakis. How do you greet one another, since you don't speak the same language, and do you fumble through the non-verbal stuff? Do you sit on furniture or the floor to partake of this feast? Fingers or forks? Well, you'd have to have a spoon of some sort to eat the stews. And I haven't touched on how different our value systems are likely to be.


Still, after a few bites you will have found a common bond, especially if you like the taste of the "unwinding" stew or lamb broth. But there is a connection between you even if you don't. Your Babylonian host and you share a relatable experience of something salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. And satiating. Umami is umami, no matter whose mouth processes it. The Babylonian recipe is unfamiliar but the eating experience has got to be familiar.


This potential for food to bridge millennia got me thinking about other ways we experience history, and how they maybe fall short of how food can connect us with people of the past.


We dedicate expensive spaces to house the most interesting and important relics and records of history. Many of these art masterpieces are meant to accurately and precisely represent the reality of what the artist saw, and heard, and smelled. I do relate to these two-dimensional representations when I walk through a museum. To a point. But the interiors are often darker and gloomier. The fashion statement of yore is not likely to be in vogue. Domestic life is just too different. The chores, and the tools used for those chores. Our hobbies. Who reads anymore, and by candlelight? How many of us gather for the hunt anymore? And the tools of battle are no longer what they were even fifty years ago.


So art can connect us to history, but does it do it as well as food might help us feel what it was actually like to walk in a very distant ancestor's shoes or sit down for a meal in whatever garment they wore?


What about literature? Of course literature speaks to all our timeless virtues and vices. It is said that there are no new ideas. They've all been captured in oral or written histories. That's what makes reading Confucius, Plato, Ibn Khaldun, Homer, Rumi, Bocaccio, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Dickens, Tolstoy (some top of mind "documentarians") captivating still today,


No matter how masterfully descriptive and evocative the writing, though, I'm not sure I really can know what it was to be in the belly of the Trojan horse. Having to wade through Elizabethan english, or the endless, repeating poetic and thematic structure of the Iliad or the Koran makes experiencing history through these literature masterpieces less effective than eating a meal made from ingredients available then and now even if combined in an unfamiliar way.


Music is primal...but I don't feel transported to any particular time or space. The Blue Danube can soothe the savage breast but doesn't necessarily place you among waltzers on a nineteenth century Vienna ballroom floor. I can't say that I have even an idea of what Babylonian music sounded like.


We tend to discount history, I think, because of this difficulty in relating. We are so caught up in the here and now. Many of us sense that the most recent three generations - us, our parents, and grandparents - represent the most capable of any set of humans in history. Food can be a conduit to a distant, different era, like Babylonian times, that can maybe help revalue history. There's something of a lesson in that for how we find common ground today.

  • Ali Tadlaoui

After water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. Even in its most basic, original form, steeped in hot liquid, there are so many variations. The wide choice of beverages that are tea-based or that include tea as an ingredient illustrates both its versatility and the creativity of marketers exploiting the benefits harbored in the humble tea leaf.


I got to thinking about what makes tea ubiquitous after perusing an article this week in Food Business News; "Tea - the original plant-based beverage." The range of new ready-to-drink tea products underscores just how far afield from a "cuppa tea" innovators have ventured. Purified water with an essence of tea (no caffeine). An energy drink caffeinated with green tea extract. A kombucha-infused carbonated water (kombucha is twice-fermented tea). Bubble tea with tapioca pearls. Hard tea. Tea with hops (non-alcoholic). Sparkling wine infused with organic tea.


Tea offers a lot. It delivers a milder caffeine boost than coffee. Tea adds better-for-you credentials to any proposition because of the antioxidants. It helps that hot tea is imbued with the powers to cure the common cold. Its acrid flavor is "bracing" or "brisk" or "crisp" which makes iced tea a great thirst quencher.


I came to appreciate tea's versatility when I was a Lipton tea brand manager. I worked on getting America to try tea bags that brew in cold water; not a huge idea, but the convenience of it has made it stick. This was "real" tea. I also spent time marketing Lipton iced tea mix, which is on the other end of the "real tea" spectrum. Iced tea mix is mostly sugar, with enough ground up tea to give it a distinctive flavor and make it a step up from the belly wash served to keep kids entertained and hydrated over the summer.


What makes tea particularly intriguing to me is that it can both put a spring in your step and it can sit you down in a comfortable spot to mellow. There is, of course, enough caffeine (or theine) in a cup of black or green tea to make it the pick-me-up choice for a decent percentage of the world's population. The ability to calm or soothe is not only associated with herbal teas like chamomile or a mint infusion. Black and green tea seem to be able to put you in pause mode as well.


I'm not sure how much of this capacity to slow things down comes from its physical properties and how much flows from the rituals we've constructed around making and drinking tea. The elaborate tea ceremonies in Japan are very much about slowing down to appreciate the here and now. Drinking tea with friends at a sidewalk cafe (yes, coffee can do this too, but not as convincingly, I think, because so many of us rely on coffee to move us forward, to pick up the pace) makes you take the time to catch your breath and to catch up. The traditional English afternoon tea cements a break in the day. Time to decelerate. There are so many more rituals...I recall a Moroccan slipper merchant in the Rabat souk snapping fingers at his assistant to get him to bring us tea. It was ready. He brought out a small table and placed on it an ornate silver tray and teapot and two glasses. The mint tea (Gunpowder tea from China made specifically for the North African palate) was thick with sugar. The merchant wanted to sell me a story to go along with the slippers. Buying the slippers could have taken ten minutes. I stayed closer to an hour.


There's got to be something about tea that makes you want to pause. Just enough of a boost, but not too much, I guess. Your senses are sensitized to seize the moment and savor it.


So, which one is it for you most often? Does tea move you forward, or put you on pause? The magic of tea is that it facilitates both. Perhaps the magic is really in our ability to channel the raw, physical effects of drinking tea to whichever emotional or spiritual need the situation or our mood dictates. Mind over matter.

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