Commentary

Processed Foods See Boom Times Again As Shoppers Hunker Down

With restaurants closed except for takeout, grocery stores proving to be a challenge for maintaining social distance, and online shopping carts sitting jam-packed for days until a doorstep delivery time opens up, processed foods have been flying off production lines.

“Many large food businesses like the Campbell Soup Company, which had seen steady declines in soup sales the last two years, are now ramping up production and temporarily increasing wages for hourly employees to meet the higher demand. In the last month, sales of Campbell’s soup soared 59% from a year earlier. Prego pasta sauce increased 52%, and sales of its Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers climbed nearly 23%,” Julie Creswell writes  for The New York Times.

“Similarly, Kraft Heinz, whose products had fallen far out of favor with consumers, resulting in massive write-downs in the values of its Kraft natural cheese and Oscar Mayer cold cuts businesses a year ago, told investors last week that some of its factories were working three shifts to meet high demand for products like its macaroni and cheese. The company’s stock rose on Tuesday after it said first-quarter sales would be up 3%,” Creswell continues.

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Indeed, “if the coronavirus has brought much of the world to a standstill, you wouldn’t know it inside the huge Kraft Heinz factory in Champaign, [Illinois], where production lines are running around the clock to meet surging demand for the company’s legacy brands,” Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz writes  for the Chicago Tribune

“We can’t make enough mac and cheese right now,” Dilton ‘Dee’ Gibbs, plant manager at the facility that makes half of the Kraft Macaroni & Cheese sold in the U.S., as well as A-1 steak sauce, mayonnaise and salad dressings, tells Elejalde-Ruiz.

Panic buying “began with people stocking up on staples such as cereal, flour and soup, yet more recently there has been ‘broad-based demand,’ for a wide range of foods,” Minneapolis-based General Mills said while reporting double-digit sales gains for products like Cheerios cereals and Green Giant canned vegetables during the first two weeks of March, Alistair Gray wrote  for Financial Times last month.

“Jonathon Nudi, the company’s head of North America retail, said the crisis would allow it to showcase an improved product line-up and ‘hopefully drive penetration for the long term.’ In a call with Wall Street analysts, he said: ‘We do believe it’s an opportunity, perhaps as consumers come back and try our products again after several years to see the products and the improvements that we’ve made. We’ve worked hard over the past few years to renovate the majority of our product lines,’” Gray added.

The fact is, “by definition, most times we engage in food preparation and cook, we are in fact processing foods,” writes  Anne Harguth, a registered dietitian, for the Mayo Clinic’s “Speaking of Health Blog.” But they “range on a scale of minimally processed to mostly processed,” according to the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It’s the difference between a bag of roasted nuts and a carton of frozen, ready-to-bake pizza.

Although canned goods have been staples on grocer’s shelves since the late 19th century, processed foods really boomed after World War II.

“Post-war economic prosperity encouraged conspicuous consumption. Processed foods, easily and quickly assembled into meals using electric appliances, became standard fare. Grocery bills went up as women happily purchased more and more convenience foods. Food company marketing materials assured women that their products were both high quality and healthy. And products like Tupperware, Saran Wrap, and GE refrigerators encouraged saving and repurposing leftovers, claiming that the savings off-set the higher price of processed, packaged food,” according to an article titled “How Highly Processed Foods Liberated 1950s Housewives” published  by the National Women’s History Museum.

But, the article also points out, “a 2016 study found that nearly 60% of the calories consumed in the modern, American diet come from processed foods.” 

“Processed foods and added sugar have been linked to chronic health issues like type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. They can also cause inflammation, putting your body under added stress. For this reason, [Caroline Apovian, director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at Boston Medical Center, recommends] avoiding processed items, as well as fried foods and those high in saturated fat,” writes  Gabby Landsverk for Business Insider.

“But again, evidence links these types of foods to health issues over time, so there’s no evidence that a single donut is going to raise your risk of coronavirus -- it’s an infectious disease, and the best precautions are still washing your hands and keeping other high-touch surfaces germ-free,” Landsverk adds.

Go ahead. Just one. I dare you.

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