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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

Pushing water uphill

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,

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