First, a few disclaimers. I am not a nutritionist. I am not gluten-intolerant. I am not, according to the University of Chicago Hospital, part of the roughly 1% of the population that has Celiac Disease. I fully understand that wheat processed into highly-refined products like white flour are empty calories no better for us than any other source of simple carbohydrates. But what’s happening in food marketing today is not a common-sense campaign to single out simple carbs. Instead we’re seeing an all-out war on “carbs,” taking down with it even the complex carbohydrates, like whole wheat and other whole grains, that have sustained civilizations for millenia with a cheap and plentiful source of protein and other essential nutrients.
I’m sorry if you came here thinking that you would find some expert nutritional advice on wheat or carbs. This is not my expertise or intention. Instead, I hope to get people thinking about the massive image-building and branding machine that is so central to the food industry today — and yet so cunningly-veiled behind expert nutritional claims. As a former industry insider and marketing professional for 19 years, this is a subject I have become all too familiar with.
A little history. Before I cared about food, I actually worked on McDonald’s Happy Meal box designs. We had to weave colorful illustrations of the latest Disney characters into the box designs to make it even more enticing for children to demand that their parents buy them. One of the valuable lessons I learned from this experience was that the food industry needs to continually reinvent itself with frivolous product “upgrades” based on the latest nutritional and cultural trends. Failure to embrace these trends by pitching new and improved products means brand suicide.
If you’re a Mad Men fan, then you’ve seen how the advertising and image-building industry that emerged out of the 50s and 60s became increasingly more sophisticated at manipulating consumer perceptions about food and other products by appealing to their audience’s subconscious and emotions. The goal is to convince you that you’ve just got to have this product (not a need, but a want). One strategy for accomplishing this goal is to prop up heroes and villains.
Wheat and “carbs” are quickly becoming the modern day villains of food marketing.
In a more clandestine manner, the villainization of wheat and “carbs” actually promotes the products of the meat, dairy and egg industries. The fewer high-protein, nutrient-dense whole grain products like wheat that people consume, the more likely they will be led to believe that they must rely on animal products for protein and other nutrients.
The meat industry’s latest messaging strategy is to refer to animal flesh, not as “meat” but instead as “high quality protein,” a further attempt to disassociate the animal from the product in the minds of its consumers. It also works for the industry on a nutritional level. If getting enough protein is perceived as synonymous with eating meat, then the meat industry will have succeeded in propping up the biggest lie of all: the non-carnivorous human must get “quality protein” from animal sources to be healthy.
Another popular myth that helps promote animal products over plant based foods is the Paleo diet. The Paleo diet essentially relies on a historical perspective on what is natural for us to eat, claiming that our pre-civilization, pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors hold the key to human health. One problem with attempting to apply this theory to the world we live in today is that animal products today are not procured from hunting. They are procured from factory farms and slaughterhouses that artificially inseminate, breed and kill 60 billion genetically-engineered land animals every year. Following the Paleo logic, meat from modern agriculture is no more a part of our natural diet or natural order than is wheat. Neither are hunted or gathered.
Yet another way the gluten-free marketing movement helps promote animal products is through distraction. Distraction is an important marketing strategy. The objective is to focus one’s attention on one issue and away from one or more others. By keeping us preoccupied with wheat, gluten and carbs, the messaging serves to keep our focus on a health concern and, consequently, away from ethical issues, such as animal suffering, climate catastrophe and the environmental toll of animal agriculture. Or in some cases, distraction creates a “blur effect:” what is gluten free also somehow magically embodies everything else we should be concerned about. I was recently invited to a dessert party where the host greeted me at the door and informed me that he had made a few gluten -free desserts just for people like me.
While I fully sympathize and appreciate those who cannot tolerate gluten, I think the rest of us need to rise above the fabricated villains of food marketing and keep one principle of good eating constantly on our radar: a whole foods, plant-based diet is optimal. Wheat and other whole grains are important parts of that equation.