A current advertising fad in the food industry advocates substituting prepared foods for whole vegetables. Using images of slyly smiling moms and happily clueless children, companies proudly promote their products as masking the presence of a “full serving of vegetables” in a can of salty soup, a massive meat sandwich or a bottle of sugary juice. These advertisements should give us pause for two reasons. First, with the stubborn and growing problem of American obesity, is it wise to “sneak” vegetable nutrients into childrens’ stomachs as these ads suggest, or should we work hard and unabashedly to give vegetables a front-and-center role in their (and our) diets and help them to form healthy eating habits? To be sure, it is not only children whom the advertised foods mean to “trick” into healthful eating; it is adults as well who are being told to buy certain products so they can consume more vegetables without having to actually taste them. Second, are these products actually all that healthy, and can they really be equated with vegetables in their more usual forms? The ingredients listed on their containers would suggest not.
Clearly the companies creating these commercials know well of Americans’ anxiety over getting better nutrients (or perhaps just over losing weight). We are constantly told that we do not eat enough fruits and vegetables, but with our manufactured taste for highly palatable foods fruits are far more likely than vegetables to make it into the American mouth without heavy doses of less healthy ingredients. Thus the food group of “vegetables”, rather than representing an alternative to mass produced, pre-packaged meals, serves as a prime advertising tool for companies who make and sell processed foodstuff. The message sent by their advertisements is essentially “You hate the taste of vegetables but know you need to consume them, so purchase this product that tastes nothing like a vegetable but has the same nutrients!”
At first this message seems at worst innocuous and at best terrific. No doubt it is an ingenious advertising strategy that aims to exploit a few psychological attributes of the American consumer. One is the mainstream distaste for vegetables that stems in part from ignorance of how to prepare them in a delicious way (more on this later) combined with memories of poorly prepared vegetables (soggy, tasteless broccoli for example – we’ve all eaten it). Next is the desire to live for a long time and to look attractive, and perhaps the genuine desire to be and feel healthy and to have healthy children; as we have been told time and again, vegetables are essential to creating and maintaining a healthy, vibrant body. Then there is the issue of time; no one has enough of it, certainly not enough to do the cooking required to make a vegetable taste good.
Regardless of whether the foodstuff they sell is actually as healthy as “vegetables”, companies tailor their commercials to these mental states hoping to motivate consumers to buy their products. Take the example of Hunt’s “Manwich” advertising campaign. The commercial begins with a group of elementary-school students putting on a Farmer John’s Vegetable Patch play. Most of them are dressed as the usual suspects, carrots, peas etc. but one girl is wearing what looks like a hamburger costume, carrying a “Manwich” sign. “Hey, you’re supposed to be a vegetable!” says her classmate in a corn costume. “There’s a full serving of vegetables in every Manwich” she replies and adds “besides, you’re a grain anyway.” The next shot is of a happy family at the dinner table munching on their Manwiches (essentially Sloppy Joes, where the Manwich mixture has been combined with ground beef on a bun). The commercial ends with the Manwich slogan, “Meat your vegetables”.
But let’s look at what a serving size of “Manwich” actually contains. The Manwich container and commercial state that a quarter cup of its contents equals a half cup of “vegetables”, 20% of the daily recommended amount; I’m not sure how that adds up, but moving on… Listed first of the ingredients is “tomato puree” followed by high-fructose corn syrup, vinegar, salt, and sugar. The product contains less than 2% of “dehydrated red and green bell pepper” and garlic. So the serving of “vegetables” consists essentially of a scoop of tomato puree and nothing else. And while botanically tomatoes are fruits, legally (and conveniently) they are vegetables. (Nix v. Hedden, 1893). Perhaps the kid dressed as corn in the Manwich commercial should have pointed out that the Manwich girl is actually a fruit.
It is certainly not the case that tomato puree is unhealthy, though it begins to look less nutritious when combined with the whopping 800mg in Manwich Bold (33% of the recommended daily intake of sodium). The can of Manwich also instructs the consumer to combine the product with meat to recreate the delicious Sloppy Joes eaten by the family in the commercial. Still, despite the nutritional value of tomato paste alone, the marketing ploy of calling a dollop of tomato puree a “full serving of vegetables” is misleading, especially since the Manwich product contains less than 2% of the additional vegetables (dehydrated bell peppers, garlic) that supposedly justify Hunt’s’s use of the plural “vegetables” rather than the singular “vegetable”.
Chef-Boy-R-Dee products, also claiming to have a “full serving of vegetables”, similarly consist of primarily tomato paste and less than 2% of “carrots, onions and garlic”. The advertisement for their meals-in-a-can is more disconcerting than that of Manwich, and speaks more loudly of a growing cultural ailment here in the United States. One of their commercials begins with a father sitting down next to his son in the kitchen, holding a can of Chef-Boy-R-Dee. He turns to his son and says “Did you know there’s a full serving of—” until his wife starts the garbage disposal to muffle his words, giving him a stern look. He waits until the garbage disposal stops and begins again, “I was just reading on here that there’s a—” and again the wife cuts him off by knocking pots and pans with a wooden spoon, then shushes him. The commercial finishes with an image of the Chef-Boy-R-Dee can and a woman’s voice saying “There’s a full serving of vegetables in every bowl of Chef-Boy-R-Dee!” Then she whispers “Just don’t tell them.” “Them,” of course refers to children. The product’s slogan is “Obviously delicious. Secretly nutritious.”
Chef-Boy-R-Dee has more than one commercial like this, where the point is to convey that the can of food contains vegetables while acknowledging that this information should not be shared with children lest they refuse to eat the bowl of ravioli. The message here speaks volumes of the rather unsettling attitude Americans have toward food and even child-rearing. Are parents really so beholden to their children’s still-developing tastebuds? And more importantly, is their fear of temporarily upsetting their child with (gasp!) vegetables stronger than their desire to help them form healthy eating habits?
In terms of teaching children how to feed themselves, sneaking children vegetables is just as bad as never feeding them vegetables at all. It’s like brushing their teeth for them while they are sleeping, something a parent would presumably never do. The fact that “vegetables are good for you” should be repeated to children early and often, as often as telling them to brush their teeth or what their name and birthday are. This information should not be withheld from them because instructing them to eat vegetables and then showing them how to prepare them can literally save their lives, and at the very least it can send them into adulthood with the knowledge of how to nourish their bodies properly. As the wonderful Alton Brown wisely said: if you are unwilling to show your kids how to feed themselves, “then you shouldn’t have [children].”
“But my kids hate vegetables and absolutely refuse to eat them,” a parent might complain. Aside from enforcing the usual and often effective rule, “No dessert until you eat that broccoli”, parents should learn to prepare vegetables in a delicious way or integrate them into part of a meal where they are visible, not hidden. And “vegetables” should not mean “a scoop of tomato puree” — at least not every night. Variety is the spice of life and a key to healthy eating, as different vegetables have different nutrients. Think quiche, pasta dishes, homemade soup, fried rice, or even a sandwich. All of those meals can feature a wide range of vegetables and still taste delicious.
Another complaint might be “But I don’t have time to cook; my husband/wife/partner and I both work full time and simply do not have the time or energy to prepare a full meal. Throwing ravioli in the microwave is so much easier.” If parents would be willing to spare even fifteen extra minutes a night, they could drastically broaden their and their children’s diets. Quiche and casseroles in particular come to mind because they can be prepared in advance, say on a weekend, and then frozen. Then all you have to do is come home and throw it in the oven, and use the time while it bakes to take care of other things. An excellent resource for cooking healthy meals is The New York Times series “Recipes for Health” (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/health/series/recipes_for_health/index.html), where Martha Rose Shulman offers healthy, easy and delicious recipes featuring a wide range of nutritious ingredients. Indeed, the internet in general is a great source for recipes; all you have to do is search the ingredients you want to use (or get rid of, if you’re cleaning out the pantry).
Finally, a little more food for thought: it is likely that rather than speaking only of Americans’ genuine attitude toward food, the commercials we discussed may betray an anxiety on the part of the large corporations that produce meals-in-a-can. Their efforts to make Americans think that their products are healthy are efforts to dissuade Americans from moving toward a more holistic diet, a trend that is no doubt gaining ground. Healthy, varied diets, the diets that can curb obesity and promote longevity, probably would not include high-sodium ravioli from a can. Just sayin’.
Jackie Colvin is a freelance writer living in Chicago.
If readers are interested in viewing the afore-mentioned and other such commercials, here are some links:
Mott’s (“Invisible Vegetables. Magical Taste.”)
V8 (“What’s your number?”)