Technology and marketing have revolutionized desire and made us crave salty, fatty foods

By Gary S. Cross / University of Chicago Press
November 13, 2014

Reprinted with permission from Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire by Gary S. Cross and Robert N. Proctor, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2014 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This excerpt first appeared on Salon.

Supersized Soda and Overflowing Shopping Carts

Packaging has the prosaic but still astonishing ability to contain stuff that would otherwise decay, dissipate, or disappear, while also advertising contents to consumers far and wide. In the short space of just over a century, this double role of packaging gradually reached almost every corner of human experience. Consider again the modest case of sugared fizzy drinks.

Bottled soda began as something sold and consumed in restaurants or drugstore fountains, but through the packaged pleasures revolution became widely available to the person on the go. By the early 1920s it was widely sold in vending machines and for home use in six-bottle “homepacks,” bought at newly emerging supermarkets. Coin-operated vending and domestic consumption reaffirmed the same kind of unmediated access and private enjoyment already set in motion by the gumball machine and the phonograph. The process advanced apace: from 1913, motor-powered trucks delivered soda over a much wider territory than was ever possible by horse-drawn wagons, and metal coolers introduced to stores in 1924 offered chilled refreshment at will (a process advanced with the home refrigerator, introduced in 1916 and widely disseminated only a generation later). The cumbersome glass bottle began its long decline in 1936 with the invention of the soda can, first awkwardly shaped like a bottle with a neck and cap, but from 1940 on as a flat-top cylinder. Lightweight aluminum cans came in 1957, followed by can-dispensing vending machines in 1965. In 1970, plastic bottles replaced much heavier and more easily broken glass bottles that had also been slower to cool. By 1965 nonreturnable bottles challenged the expensive and inconvenient (but eco-friendlier) consumer routine of paying a deposit for and then returning used bottles.

All this made shipping soda cheaper and drinking it more convenient. The never-ending quest for convenience hit stride with self-contained can opening, first with the ring pull tab (first used for beer in 1962) and then the less troublesome stay-on-tab in 1974. More-to-drink-packages went along with easier-to-drink-packages. In 1936, Pepsi Cola cut into Coke’s dominance by offering a twelve-ounce bottle for the same price (5¢) as Coke’s six-ounce bottle, the first of many supersizings. By 1960, annual per capita consumption of soda pop in the United States had risen to 185 bottles and by 1975 would reach 485.

More important still for intensification was the substitution of high-fructose corn syrup for sugar from the late 1970s. Unlike sucrose, this cheap sweetener does not produce insulin secretions (that make people feel full), but unfortunately, it does stimulate fat cells. The success of the seemingly innocuous soda pop has played no small role in the increase in average daily caloric intake by Americans—from 3,300 to 3,800 over the last three decades of the twentieth century. This trend in drinking empty calories (and often caffeine) coincided with the decline in milk consumption—and a dramatic increase in childhood obesity.

Other upgrades in packing foods were more benign. Flash freezing allowed the shipping of otherwise fast-spoiling seafood over long distances and offered a better-tasting way of preserving peas, corn, and soft fruit than in cans. Though the technique was developed in the 1920s by Clarence Birdseye and sold to General Foods in 1929, fast-frozen foods were rare in American kitchens until after World War II—because of the expense and thus rarity of retail and domestic freezers. The United States Air Force introduced frozen individual meals on overseas flights during World War II and, in 1947, Carl Swanson’s frozen turkey business exploited this innovation, developing what became known as the TV dinner. If not noted for fine cuisine, Swanson at least provided nearly effortless home dinners and, more important, the individualized meal reinforcing a retreat from the shared bowl.

Freezing and other modern packaging techniques required centralized manufacturing and distribution but also new retail outlets, especially the chain grocery store and the supermarket. The neighborhood grocery store with its barrels of flour and walls of shelves containing jars of generic foodstuffs behind a sales counter was already on its way out in the late nineteenth century with the rise of the chain grocery and variety store. By 1870, the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (later shortened to A&P) of New York distributed tea and coffee to an expanding string of small retail outlets, adding canned and boxed goods in 1912. A&P had about fourteen thousand stores by 1925, with customers benefiting from a new type of store layout, invented about a decade earlier. In 1916, Clarence Saunders of Memphis had introduced self-service with Piggly Wiggly, a new type of grocery store with checkout aisles and open shelving, eliminating the counter between the customer and the goods that required a clerk’s assistance. In the 1920s, Southern Californians took this one step further by inventing what we now might regard as the familiar modern supermarket (Ralph’s, for example), complete with parking lots and the promise of one-stop shopping. Other retail innovations took place on the East Coast, as, for example, in 1930, when Michael Cullen opened his first bare-bones warehouse-style grocery store in the New York City borough of Queens with the promise of rock-bottom prices for Depression-stressed shoppers, anticipating big box stores like Costco, Walmart, and Sam’s Club.

Many of the foods sold in these new supermarkets were essentially snacks, quick-energy foods one could eat anytime anywhere outside of traditional meal times. Of course, candy and ice cream already had a long history in urban areas, and cakes and other “goodies” had been common delights at seasonal fairs. But the variety of and access to snacks expanded dramatically in the second half of the twentieth century—and not just confections, but myriad other kinds of fat- and salt-laced treats. “Street foods” were already being denounced by nineteenth-century dietary authorities as a threat to the family meal, but many families still snacked on pretzels and other salty treats at special events like county fairs. Yet, in the 1890s, when Cracker Jack was sold at retail stores as an impulse purchase, we see an early step toward the routine snack treat. Improvements in cellophane and other plastic packaging in the 1930s led to an explosion of fatty snack foods. Potato chips were available in the late nineteenth century, but were not terribly popular because they were sold out of barrels and quickly became soft and soggy. The new plastic wrapping was exploited by Herman Lay of Atlanta, who founded his famous brand of Lay’s potato chips in 1937. Partnering with Elmer Dolin, the maker of Frito Corn Chips, Lay’s and Frito merged in 1959, offering a continuously expanding array of salty snacks (the whole of which was then sold to Pepsi in 1965). The cumulative trend was anytime snacking (aided by personalized packages), easily accessible and often consumed during personal or unoccupied time like driving a car, reading, or watching TV. Packaged snacks supplemented and sometimes even replaced the effort and sociability of the prepared meal.

One quintessential food package was the fast-food meal, especially the hamburger. The ground beef patty, introduced in German-American restaurants in the 1870s, was sold on a bun by American city street vendors from the 1890s. By 1921, the hamburger stand had morphed into a retail chain known as White Castle. These ultraclean, boxlike restaurants, containing a grill, counter, and white-clad hamburger flippers, were the invention of Wichita hamburger-stand owner J. Walter Anderson. The White Castle chain spurred many imitators, often with “white” in their names. In 1940, an even more momentous shift came when Richard and Maurice McDonald opened a hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California (60 miles east of Los Angeles). By 1948, the brothers had revolutionized the drive-in restaurant with their reduced menu and assembly-line preparation, offering bagged food purchased at a window for consumption in the car. All this proved to be more profitable than the old-style service with individually prepared orders on plates with cutlery, delivered to table (or car) by waiters. The concept was quickly copied by Burger King (1952), Kentucky Fried Chicken (1952), Carl’s Jr. (1956) and Taco Bell (1962), with each becoming a multibillion-dollar franchise chain. McDonald’s was sold to Ray Kroc in 1954, leading to a new, tightly controlled franchise system. Indoor seating would return to the franchise drive-in restaurant in the 1960s, but in 1969, Wendy’s reintroduced in-car eating with the drive-through window. The merger of fast food with the mobility and privacy of the car was seemingly unstoppable.

As fast-food restaurants accommodated the time constraints of the two-income family, the convenience of the drive-through also increased demand for faster home cooking. Convenient preprepared foods like cake mixes saved the time of gathering and mixing ingredients from scratch. But more recently, even these have begun to disappear from shopping carts, as fewer and fewer people are willing to spend even thirty minutes waiting for a baked cake. Today, many boxed or frozen meals are still on the market only because the microwave has radically reduced cooking times.

Of course there has always been resistance to sugared and fatty snacks and fast food. There is a long history of opposition to packaged fare, and vociferous movements to return to natural and organic forms of eating date from the nineteenth century. One commodified expression of distrust of super-sugars was the push to produce low and eventually no-cal sodas, introduced nationally with Diet Rite (a cola) in 1958. This was followed quickly by other low-cal drinks like Tab, Diet Coke, and many others sweetened by diverse sugar substitutes. Low-fat processed foods have filled store shelves since the 1960s, offering the taste and comfort of fat, sugar, and salt, presumably without the consequences of weight gain and other health-threatening conditions. And, of course, news of how cigarettes caused cancer and other diseases prompted tobacco companies to introduce “filtered” cigarettes in the early 1950s—with the false promise of a “safer smoke” (false because smokers inhaled just as much smoke that was no less deadly). Tobacco companies also manipulated the chemistry and physical design of cigarettes, allowing smokers to extract however much smoke they needed to achieve “satisfaction.”

More subtle were efforts of packagers to optimize the pleasure dose in tobacco and superfoods. This took many forms, most of which were designed with the goal of increasing consumption and therefore profits. The eternal quest for ever-milder cigarettes, begun with flue curing, flavoring, and eventually mentholation and other tricks, encouraged youth initiation and chain smoking. Consumed throughout the day, these relatively mild cigarettes served as mood stabilizers for millions, “lifting” them when tired or bored, calming them when nervous or stressed (from not having gotten their “fix” of nicotine), again a consequence of optimization.

Less deadly was the discovery by candy and later snack food makers that the simple “jolt” of sugar and fat could be augmented by adding ever more complex flavor “profiles.” The carefully designed and complexly layered Snickers bar is one classic example of optimization. Eaters biting into the semisweet chocolate shell encounter the contrasting tastes of supersweet caramel with salty peanuts, followed by the smooth nougat reward of the candy bar’s core. This was not just a matter of appealing to ever more sophisticated palates or moving beyond the hard candies once given to children. David Kessler and others have shown how the food industry has learned the arts of “loading and layering”: slathering potato chips with coats of (real or artificial) cheese, spice, or sour cream, for example. The net effect has been to increase the fat, sugar, and salt content of even formerly simple foods like crackers and salads (with calorie-packed “dressings”), while simultaneously creating novel sediments of flavors. The goal of these new foods is not so much to overwhelm or intensify sensation as to optimize flavor mixes—by enhancing “mouth feel,” for example. Fat is also used as a lubricant and vehicle for carrying flavors, just as sugar or caffeine are used as stimulants. The “dynamic contrast” of flavors and textures so successful with the Snickers bar has become common in a wide range of processed pseudofoods, revving up the attraction. The key is not just larger portions or even more complex flavors, but rather a balance in which the mix of salt, fat, sugar, and flavors are optimized for appeal (i.e., sale). Food companies sometimes even mask their incorporation of sugar or salt into foods (like ketchup or salad dressing) by giving the sweetener a new name—fructose, brown sugar, molasses, high-fructose corn syrup (now “corn sugar”), and so forth. Sugar and saturated fats are also used to extend the shelf life of foods, and other modifications are designed to ease their transport. Food makers are thereby able to make eating more appealing but also less nutritious and, in ways not previously possible, more habit forming.