Sleight Return: Mustard’s Comeback and Why You’re Addicted to Packaged Food

If there’s an example of the impact food marketing has on our buying choices—and our culture—we need look no further than Grey Poupon mustard. Those of us ancient enough to remember how the Kraft brand built up its mustard sales in the 1980s will easily summarize it in two words: Pardon. Me.

The brand recently revived its classic television commercial (for the 2013 Oscars) to critical acclaim, modifying it to our modern fondness for ridiculous action scenes. But it also offers us a look back at a bygone era and another aspect of our food system: just how much food has changed.

Mustard is a rarity in today’s supermarket. It remains one of those products with the simplest ingredients, often just: mustard seeds, vinegar, salt, spice. There’s really no need or room to squeeze in high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, colors or modified food starch (but I’m sure, if food scientists really tried…). The same cannot be said for its condiment counterparts ketchup, mayonnaise, barbecue sauce or even most salsas.

Stroll out of the condiment aisle and through the rest of the supermarket, and you’re inundated with more clever product packaging just the way you saw it on television. Grey Poupon created an unexpected lasting meme most brands can only hope for. But, as Michael Moss points out in with excerpts from his new book Salt Sugar Fatfeatured recently in the New York Times, most of the food industry relies on other tactics to get your attention, mainly the overuse of certain ingredients designed to make you crave them even more. He writes, “What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort—taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles—to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive.”

And while brands may keep their images relatively unchanged on the outside of the product, and treasure their effective marketing campaigns for decades, most of the ingredients have dramatically transfomed over the past 30-some years (coincidentally right around when Grey Poupon aired its first “Pardon Me” commercial).

Food and flavor experts like Howard Moskowitz got into the art and science of developing the “perfect” product in the 1970s. Moss says Moskowitz is known for “optimizing” products for brand giants including Campbell’s Soup, Kraft and Pepsi. And these last several decades have seen rapid changes to many staple food brands that dominate grocery store aisles. One of the first to take food in this direction, Moskowitz uses science to identify that ideal target range that will make a product not only more desirable than its competition, but also desirable enough to warrant consistent repeat purchases. Most of the science has to do with optimal sugar levels (it’s called “the bliss point”), that unmistakable taste our mouth craves with every corner, not just one singular, imaginary tooth.

Sugar, whether from beets, cane or corn is known to cause health problems ranging from obesity and diabetes to cancer. And yet, it’s still the touchstone ingredient for most food products, even the ones that seem un-sweet, like spaghetti sauce. Cheaper than adding, say, more tomatoes to a pasta sauce, sugar and artificial flavorings helped experts like Moskowitz direct food manufacturers to tweak recipes that would save the brands millions of dollars on ingredients while also developing a stronger relationship with consumers and their inability to eschew sugar, even when they weren’t aware they were eating it.

It’s not just sugar, either. Moss explores the way excess sodium can make a product more desirable despite the fact that current consumption levels pose serious health risks including heart disease, and how added (usually hydrogenated) fats can improve the “mouthfeel” of products so consumers come to crave more than just the taste of a food, but the texture, creaminess and meltability, as well. These three target ingredients have also been paralleled by a rise in artificial colors and flavors, chemical additives and preservatives, and of course most all of it is now genetically modified—a controversial development in just the last two decades that has dramatically altered the food industry, likely forever.

Grey Poupon’s newest commercial ends inside a grocery store right in front of a giant display of its product after an exhaustive caviar and Champagne-fueled battle. The protagonist looks up at the pyramid of mustard and wonders if he’s dead, and, presumably, in heaven (because he’s flthy rich or because he’s surrounded by Grey Poupon mustard?). But, ahem, pardon me, the way things are going with our food system, it’s more likely that in the afterlife, supermarkets and the branded food products that fill them will only be found in hell. Even an innocent jar of mustard.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: Grey Poupon