OREO. Craving the cookie
The brain is wired to love sweets, but are they addictive? America’s iconic cookie captures the nation’s burgeoning dietary dilemma.
By Jeremy Manier, Patricia Callahan and Delroy Alexander
Tribune staff reporters
Published August 21, 2005
Chapter 2: The primal pull of sweets
Chapter 3: Kraft's taste for brain research
Chapter 4: Wrestling with the `A' word
Part 2 How to sell Addictive Foods
CHAPTER 2: Going on a cookie binge
CHAPTER 3: Revenues go on a diet
CHAPTER 4: Nibbling at change
How Kraft Makes a new version of the Oreo
CHAPTER 3: Profiting from confusion
CHAPTER 4: Inside the cookie factory
The Oreo seems so innocent--two dark, chocolate wafers held together by a dab of sweet, white filling. It is an icon of Americana, a throwback to the days of cookies, milk and childhood.
Churned out in ovens the size of football fields, the Oreo reigns as the best-selling cookie in the world and a signature snack of Kraft Foods Inc.
In recent years, though, the treat has become a symbol of
another sort. To some it is a nutritional time bomb, emblematic of the junk food
fueling America's obesity crisis, particularly among children. It is the kind of
sugary snack that research suggests can trigger the same brain impulses as
The Oreo, of course, is only one of the many indulgent treats that now make up nearly a quarter of the calories American children consume. It didn't create America's dangerously expanding waistline, nor did Kraft. M&Ms, Doritos, Coke--all play a role in this national gorge that threatens to undermine life expectancy.
"The rise of obesity in America is a complex story of many factors," said David S. Johnson, Kraft's North America chief, "including diet, exercise, lifestyles, social behavior and attitudes, community development, and government policy. It is decidedly not the story of any particular food product."
But the fact that Kraft, the nation's largest foodmaker, sees itself as a leader in addressing obesity makes the Oreo a fitting guide to explore the issue. The Northfield-based company wields enormous clout in the grocery aisles, and its marquee cookie has evolved into a commercial juggernaut.
The Oreo's primary ingredients--sugar, flour and fat--are at the center of current dietary debates. And the company's quandary is one most foodmakers face: How can Kraft serve shareholders and employees, ensuring that its more fattening brands thrive while still responding to consumer concerns that it is feeding the obesity epidemic?
Earlier this year, the company became the first among its industry peers to stop advertising its most indulgent fare to kids. "We want to be part of the solution in addressing this important public health issue," Johnson said.
The ferocity of the debate over the American diet, though,
suggests the scrutiny of foodmakers won't diminish soon. Trial lawyers who won
billions in settlements from tobacco companies believe they could do it again if
they could prove foodmakers hid any addictive qualities of their foods.
Kraft said it does not conduct research "aimed at creating consumer dependency upon any of our products." At the same time, internal memos show the company has a history of sharing brain-research expertise with scientists from its corporate sibling, cigarette-maker Philip Morris.
Navigating these difficult issues is crucial to the future of Kraft. With hundreds of millions of dollars in profits at stake, the company is pitching an ever-increasing mix of Oreo products, from a lower-calorie version to one of Kraft's most fattening Oreos yet, a chocolate-covered spin-off.
The approach mirrors the contradictions buried in the national mind-set: Americans express worries about their health but still want to indulge their guilty pleasures.
Perhaps that is because the allure of junk food never
"When we eat that pie at the end of a Thanksgiving meal, it has nothing to do with hunger," said Allen Levine, an obesity researcher at the University of Minnesota. "It has everything to do with the reward our brains get."
Chapter 2: The primal pull of sweets
Studies on Oreos and other snack foods suggest that the same brain chemicals that create the rush of narcotics also keep people coming back for sugary treats.
The controversy over the
American diet in recent years has centered on how much obese consumers are
stuffing into their mouths. But the root of our overeating lies not in our
stomachs, but in our brains.
Moments after a person eats an Oreo or any other sweet, the brain's pleasure centers release opiatelike compounds--chemical cousins of morphine. The result bears similarities to addiction, though many researchers say it is more like turning on a built-in craving.
Such work supports the controversial notion that our eating habits stem from brute physiology as well as free choice.
"This is a very ancient motivation," said Ann Kelley, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin. "Even bacteria will swim toward sugar."
That primal appeal of sugary, fatty foods has profoundly shaped the outsize American diet. Strip away the decades of marketing and ingredient tinkering, and all sweet snacks have a similar way of catering to our most primitive appetites.
Even lab rats had a ravenous taste for Oreos in a late 1980s experiment Levine ran at the University of Minnesota. They poked the cookies, sniffed them, ate them to excess. Many even tore apart the two dark wafers and licked away the creamy filling.
That was just what a human would do, thought Levine.Around 1980, scientists began uncovering how rich, sweet tastes make the brain go wild.
Researchers in many laboratories found that giving rats morphine made them eat more fatty and sugary food. Later experiments would show that injecting opiates directly into one of the brain's main pleasure centers, the nucleus accumbens, prompted rats to eat up to six times as much sweetened lard as they normally would.
Reversing the binges was simple. Scientists gave the rats opiate-blocking drugs such as naloxone, used in people to counteract heroin overdoses.
Blocking the brain's ability to use opiates dulled the appeal of fat and sugar, while giving opiates magnified food's rewards.
That led to a startling conclusion: The same sort of opiates that create the high of drugs such as heroin also shape how the brain gets pleasure from food, especially those high in fat and sugar. Eating-related pleasure seemed to come from chemicals known as endogenous opioids, produced within the brain itself. Putting rats on a fat binge was one thing. The challenge was to see whether sweet snacks had similar opiatelike effects in humans.
In the 1990s, Adam Drewnowski, now director of the University of Washington's nutritional science program, led a University of Michigan study showing that Oreos and other sweet snacks act on the same brain pleasure centers that respond to addictive drugs.
Drewnowski said he got the idea from a line in the 1986 Bob Hoskins' movie "Mona Lisa," in which a heroin junkie talks of craving ice cream. The notion that sweet taste could quench an addict's longing sounded right to Drewnowski's colleagues, Dean Krahn and Blake Gosnell, who had studied opiates in rat brains with Levine at Minnesota.
The pattern they had found in rats also applied to people. Bulimia patients in the 1995 study who were injected with opiate blockers ate less of the sugary foods they liked to binge on--including Oreos, Snickers, M&Ms and chocolate chip cookies, Drewnowski said.
Such work didn't show that snacks were addictive; the effect in Drewnowski's study was strong only for binge eaters. But it proved that the allure of such food goes beyond being tasty.
Other scientists found that blocking opiates in the brain changed even healthy people's basic perceptions of sugar."They said they could taste that it was sweet, but it wasn't quite as interesting," said Levine, who led some of the research.
In a brain-scan study last year, scientists found that the thought and sight of ice cream set off the same neurological pleasure centers in healthy subjects as the images of crack pipes did for drug addicts.
Food companies and many
nutritionists note that such research doesn't negate the need for consumers to
take responsibility for what they eat.
Oreo fans agree, saying they choose the cookie simply because it has a taste they can't find anywhere else.
"They're obviously not a health food, and they don't market themselves as such," said Ryan MacMichael, 29, an Internet specialist from northern Virginia who said he eats about four Oreos a day.
Yet MacMichael and other consumers compared the cookie's appeal to that of a drug. "It's some kind of rush that once you get a taste of it, it's hard to not eat it," he said. Harder for some than for others. Just as many people can stop at one glass of wine and others become alcoholics, genetics and family dining habits make certain individuals more vulnerable to overeating, according to new research.
"I think what's going to be coming out is that food is like alcohol," said Marcia Pelchat, who studies food cravings at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. "There are some people, who for genetic or environmental reasons, can't handle it very well. But the vast majority of people aren't like that."
Most biologists believe the tendency to put on fat in times of plenty helped humans thousands of years ago, when famine was a constant threat. Sweets were so rare and alluring that Australian aborigines would tie small leaves to bees and chase their flight to the honey-filled hive.
Now that overindulgence is easy, that biological heritage has become a millstone. Americans today have greater access to calorie-rich, intensely craved foods than any people in history, putting willpower to the test.
"There's an illusion that you have complete control over how much you weigh--in contrast to how tall you are, or what color your eyes are, or all the other things we have to accept," said Jeffrey Friedman, a researcher on the genetics of obesity at New York's Rockefeller University. "The notion that there might be a biological system that evades our conscious control is not attractive to a lot of people."
Chapter 3: Kraft's taste for brain research
To understand food's effects, Kraft studies the brain. At times the company has shared expertise with nicotine researchers.
The implications of brain science are of great interest to food companies such as Kraft. The company has turned to experts such as Princeton University psychologist Bart Hoebel, who said that about three years ago he presented to Kraft scientists his work suggesting that sugar can have addictive properties.
One of Kraft's top research executives, James Andrade, received his doctorate in neuroscience at Howard University studying obesity and how opiate-blocking drugs affect rats that overindulge. In his 1986 dissertation, Andrade concluded that future research should seek to pinpoint "opiate receptors which might mediate the hunger drive."
At Kraft in the early 1990s, Andrade helped organize meetings between brain scientists at the food company and their peers studying nicotine at a corporate sibling, Philip Morris.
Documents made public through litigation against the tobacco industry show that in March of ’91, the Philip Morris scientist who led studies on nicotine's impact on the brain met with neuroscientists at Kraft's sprawling research center in Glenview. The scientist, Frank Gullotta, discussed with Andrade and others "the possibility of collaborative studies in areas that would be of mutual interest" to Kraft and Philip Morris, according to a Philip Morris memo describing the visit.
Gullotta, whose nicotine studies used electrodes attached to the scalp of human subjects, compared techniques with Kraft neuroscientist Pamela Scott-Johnson. She was using a "Brain Wave computer system" on rats to see how nerves that transmit tastes responded to fat and fat substitutes, the memo said.
In an interview, Scott-Johnson said her work at Kraft
focused on only the biology of flavor perception. "We never had discussions
about addiction," said Scott-Johnson, now chair of the psychology department at
Morgan State University in Baltimore.
Andrade and other Kraft scientists continued to take part in meetings with Philip Morris researchers, leading to a 1988 memo that suggested applying their combined expertise in brain science and flavor perception to develop products.
The "possible business implications" of such work included ways to shape people's perception of hunger and fullness, known as satiety. The memo stated that applications could include "food/drinks whose aroma/flavor are engineered to influence satiety, drinkability, perceived freshness, mood, behavior, purchase intent, etc."
Andrade declined to comment, referring questions to Kraft.
Company spokeswoman Nancy Daigler said Kraft "has conducted extensive research into literally thousands of aspects of food science, especially regarding which flavors and smells are appealing to consumers. Clearly, our brains play a role in our sensory experiences, so some of our research necessarily relates to the brain. "However, we do not conduct or fund any research aimed at creating consumer dependency upon any of our products."
As trial lawyers work to paint food companies with the same brush as cigarette-makers, Kraft has put veterans of the tobacco wars in crucial positions. It recently made Mark Berlind the company's chief public relations strategist and a top corporate officer.
Before landing the post, the attorney was a registered federal lobbyist promoting the tobacco interests of Altria Group, which owns 85 percent of Kraft and all of Philip Morris, maker of Marlboro cigarettes. (Berlind said lobbying "never comprised even close to a majority of my job responsibilities at Altria.")
Kraft said employees have moved between Altria and Kraft "to share and build talent." In the last year, Kraft also has beefed up its efforts in Washington, taking one of Altria's top tobacco lobbyists--Abigail Blunt, wife of House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
She was one of five Altria tobacco lobbyists who lobbied Congress last year on the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act, according to federal disclosure records. Better known as the cheeseburger bill, the legislation would shield food companies from lawsuits brought by people who blamed corporations for their obesity.
A 2003 hearing on the bill before the House Judiciary Committee devolved into a dispute over claims that some foods could be addictive.
Nutrition activists who testified included one who had decried cheese as "morphine on a cracker." Meanwhile, a lobbyist funded by major food companies (though not Kraft) charged that research on the addictive qualities of food came from discredited scientists whose work didn't pass the test of peer review.
By focusing on the extremes, both sides ignored the recent wave of discoveries about the brain's reward system--all of it in peer-reviewed, respected journals--that has transformed ideas about why people are drawn to fattening foods.
Drewnowski, the scientist who helped thrust the Oreo into the annals of brain research, was alarmed by the debate in Congress. "All we can say is the pleasure response to food probably does involve some opiate response," he said. "Are these foods addictive? I would not say so on that basis."
Consumers such as Karen Brown, a Colorado hairdresser and fitness instructor, are all too familiar with the powerful pull of junk food. Brown, a mother of four, said she used to eat an entire large package of Oreos in a day. She still calls them her "trigger food." "They made me feel good," Brown said. "But the satisfaction was very short-lived."
About eight years ago, Brown lost 70 pounds by carefully cutting calories in her diet and exercising regularly. Once or twice a year, though, she'll have one Oreo. "I've used my control," she says. She tells herself, "Easy does it. Just one."
Chapter 4: Wrestling with the `A' word
Consumers sense that food has addictive qualities even
if the specter of litigation makes scientists reluctant to say so publicly.
Denise Gross knew she shouldn't be eating more Oreos. She's overweight and loves the cookies too much. Yet once more she found herself standing in a South Loop snack aisle on a sunny afternoon, about to buy Double Stuf Oreos for herself and her three kids. "They're almost addictive," Gross said, a description she and other cookie fans volunteered without prompting.
Gross' urge raises a question scientists still have not resolved: What should we call such craving for food if not addiction? Some experts have no reservations describing food as one more potentially addictive substance.
"I think you can properly regard food addiction as somewhat similar to drug addiction," said Tung Fong, director of metabolic diseases research at drugmaker Merck & Co. "If you can help people to at least reduce their craving levels, you'll contribute a lot to solving the obesity epidemic."
Gene-Jack Wang, a researcher at the government's Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, gets nervous at the mere question of whether food might be addictive. "If I say that, people kill me," Wang said jokingly.
But in an e-mail response sent later, Wang was more forceful about the link. He wrote that although everyone must take responsibility for their own health, "Some people can't help themselves ... Their overeating behaviors are just like the compulsive drug-using behavior of the drug addicts."
One incentive to avoid the "a" word is the risk of being dragged into lawsuits against the food industry, said Levine of the University of Minnesota. "The reason there's a tap dance [about addiction] is the litigious aspect," Levine said. "It's very dangerous to bring up."
That risk has influenced the language that Kraft's executives use to talk about addiction research. Kraft is mindful of the mistake of tobacco executives who in 1994 told Congress nicotine was not addictive--a claim contradicted by tobacco company documents that cost the industry hundreds of billions in nationwide liability lawsuits.
Kraft public relations executive Berlind said the company's approach is to stay neutral on the question of whether food can be addictive.
"I don't think we consider it our role to dispute that or endorse it or anything," Berlind said of the research on food and addiction.
Johnson, Kraft's North America chief, said issues of food and addiction "pose novel policy questions for public health officials and policymakers."
The specter of food lawsuits isn't far-fetched. The families of two obese New York children sued McDonald's in 2002. The suit, the most prominent to date, initially was dismissed, in part because the judge ruled that the plaintiffs offered insufficient evidence that the chain's food caused their weight problems. But earlier this year, an appellate court reinstated part of the case, clearing the way for a discovery process that will allow the plaintiffs to demand previously secret company documents.
John Banzhaf III, a George Washington University law professor who helped plot the tobacco industry's legal defeats in the 1990s, believes lawsuits against food companies could work. Plaintiffs, he said, have to show that food companies used deceptive practices or hid any addictive like effects of their products. Whatever the legal outcome, precisely how to define the compulsion for some foods may be beside the point. While it is possible for addicts to go cold turkey from cocaine or other addictive drugs, no one can avoid fattening foods altogether.
Overcoming the ancient lure of sugar and fat may require not just responsibility but personal transformation. It's the ordinary daring of a woman testing her will under a supermarket's fluorescent lights, wondering why the shiny blue package on the shelf has to wind up in her shopping cart again today. "Unfortunately they are doing their thing on me," Gross said as she eyed the rows of cookies. "I have to learn to say no to Oreos."
Part 2 How to sell Addictive Foods
The perky emcees had the same question for everyone lining up in Lincoln Park this summer for an Oreo jingle-singing contest: How do you like to eat an Oreo cookie?
"Stuff it in my face," chirped Rachel Wax, an 11-year-old happy to get the free package Marketers spend billions to elicit that kind of enthusiasm for a brand. But such an honest outburst from a child also can evoke an unhealthy image that Kraft is trying to avoid.
The success of the Oreo, the world's best-selling cookie, has created an unexpected burden for Kraft, the nation's largest foodmaker. The more effectively it sells cookies, the more the company's critics can accuse it of stuffing junk food in the faces of Americans.
With childhood obesity rates tripling since the 1970s, foodmakers are recalibrating long-standing marketing tactics that have helped elevate snacking to America's fourth meal. Kraft earlier this year promised to stop advertising its most fattening products to kids under the age of 12, the first major food company to do so. It also was among the first to yank such products from school vending machines. But the company, which spends more than $5 billion a year to market all its brands, still employs contests and other sales gimmicks that appeal to children.
The evolution of Oreo marketing shows how foodmakers help Americans feel good about eating junk food. Marketers drape the cookie in wholesome images designed to make consumers welcome the snack as a family tradition. The cookie and its logo can be found in many corners of our lives--from the hood of a Dale Earnhardt Jr. race car to ersatz educational toys made from oversize, plastic versions of the treat.
That would seem to be good news for the company; shareholders expect executives to boost sales of star products regardless of how healthy they may be. But if Kraft pushes its junk-food offerings too hard, it can seem out of touch or even manipulative. "Companies are being forced to consider a business decision: What can you do to react responsibly to health concerns of a nation that's caught in the throes of an obesity epidemic versus what do you do to promote growth of your market share?" asked Dr. James Gavin, former president of the Morehouse School of Medicine and a Kraft adviser.
Kraft says its current marketing and sales campaigns are "nearly universally recognized" for their sensitivity to childhood obesity. The company also points out that there is no single culprit to blame for this national problem.
responsibility with the individuals who buy their products. After all, peeled
carrots and ready-made salads are as easy to buy as a package of cookies, and
Americans notoriously eat too much and exercise too little.
But few snacks are as tempting as an Oreo, and its growth into an international star is a story of how great taste met deft marketing. It was the perfect match, until Americans suddenly took note of their expanding waistlines.
CHAPTER 2: Going on a cookie binge
In its quest to become the nation's top sweet snack, a new Oreo marketing battleground opens: toys, counting books, even kids' pajamas.
Nabisco's vice president of cookies in 1996 set out to make snacking history. Dave Hardie, a man with a title that his children loved, wanted to make the Oreo soar. Oreo already was winning the cookie category, now Hardie and his marketing team wanted it to be No. 1 among all sweet snacks, which also include candies. At the time, which was before Kraft controlled Nabisco, M&M's held that title with sales of about $1 billion--double that of the Oreo, Hardie recalled.
It seemed an ideal moment to build a billion-dollar cookie brand. Although Americans were getting fatter, most didn't know that the U.S. was on the cusp of an obesity crisis. By the time Hardie took over, many consumers had abandoned the low-fat diet craze and were clamoring for indulgent treats.
Though the cookie sold well in supermarkets, Hardie wanted to put Oreo products in every vending machine, restaurant and convenience store. Even children's bedrooms. He wanted the cookie's image printed on kids' pajamas and toys.
"The idea was to be ubiquitous," Hardie said, "like M&M's or Coca-Cola."
To reach its youngest customers, Oreo marketers struck a deal with toymaker Fisher-Price. The Oreo Matchin' Middles game asks preschoolers to match the shapes embedded in plastic cookie wafers and filling.
Thanks to a partnership with Mattel, the Oreo School Time Fun Barbie debuted. "Let's go over to Barbie doll's place for some study time--and snack time!" the box said.
The African-American version of the doll became an unwitting collector's item, a symbol of politically incorrect marketing. ("Oreo" is sometimes used as a disparaging term for African-Americans who are seen as black on the outside and white on the inside.) For restaurants, Nabisco offered Oreo toys, place mats and goodie bags. "The ABC's of Marketing to Kids," a Nabisco advice booklet for restaurateurs, suggested sprinkling Oreo pieces on applesauce or giving free Oreo desserts to kids who showed report cards.
Marketing to children was less controversial then. Industry conferences held sessions on pitching products in classrooms. Coca-Cola put its logo on school scoreboards. Teachers handed out book covers featuring ads for Gatorade drinks, Reebok shoes, Jolly Rancher candies. For its part, the company created a sales gimmick so compelling that Wal-Mart Stores Inc.--well on its way to becoming the nation's largest food retailer--made the Oreo a fixture of its store entertainment strategy for years. In June 1997, all 2,300 Wal-Marts held Oreo-stacking contests for kids. To let employees know how important this was, Wal-Mart beamed to its stores a video of its CEO stacking Oreos.
The cookie's revenue grew steadily throughout the 1990s, reaching about $760 million in 2000. The drive to make Oreo a billion-dollar brand endured as one marketing boss after another expanded the treat's reach. That year, cigarette-maker Philip Morris Cos., Kraft's parent company at the time, bought Nabisco and continued promotions that catered to kids' hunger for popularity. Contests offered youngsters a chance to "Be a Pop Star" or have a Nickelodeon TV show filmed at their schools.
"The Oreo Cookie Counting Book," a cookie-shaped board book, debuted the year of the acquisition, joining M&M's, Goldfish crackers and Reese's pieces in the baby and toddler education market. "Children will love to count down as ten little Oreos are dunked, nibbled and stacked one by one ... until there are none!" the back of the book read.
Kraft also jazzed up a Nabisco Web site that attracted kids with brand-emblazoned video games--known as "advergames"--in which Oreos kept players alive longer and held the key to victory. The games can be especially potent. Though a TV commercial typically lasts no more than 30 seconds, kids on average spend five to seven minutes playing an advergame, one study found.
Junk food looks exciting, even healthful, in some games. In one Indiana Jones-like game, players collected Oreos while fending off attackers and searching for the Temple of the Golden Oreo. "Find the golden cookie jars and your health indicator is reset to 100 percent," the rules said.
The advergames and promotions expanded marketing efforts Nabisco already had under way. But one radical shift came after Kraft took over. The very nature of an Oreo changed.
Nabisco had strict rules. You could shrink the cookie--but only if it remained an exact replica of the original. You could change the color of the filling--but only at holidays. Under Nabisco, Oreo was and always would remain a black-and-white sandwich cookie.
Kraft threw out those rules. The company launched Oreos with vanilla wafers, chocolate filling, even one kind with no filling at all. At Kraft's annual shareholders' meeting in early 2002, Betsy Holden and Roger Deromedi, the company's co-CEOs at the time, showcased some of these Oreo offspring and promised more. "We expect it to be our next billion-dollar brand," Holden boasted.
By the end of that year
worldwide Oreo revenue came very close: $937 million.
But the cookie and the company were in for a fall.
CHAPTER 3: Revenues go on a diet
With America waking up to its obesity crisis, Oreo goes from family cookie to embattled junk food. Sales fall for the first time in years.
Hundreds of doctors in the Chicago conference hall gasped. They were viewing a series of maps showing obesity's massive growth in the U.S. since 1985. States went from blue to yellow to red as the problem worsened, like the deadly dash of a renegade virus.
Obesity fears still were coming into focus on that day in June 2003, even for the audience at the meeting of the American Medical Association. Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the doctors obesity had become "the No. 1 health problem in the United States." By that time, it was clear the world of the Oreo was changing.
A nutrition-crusading group that year sued to ban the sale of Oreos to kids in California, arguing that children don't understand the dangers of trans fat--a widely used junk-food ingredient that is linked to an increased risk of heart disease. The group, BanTransFats.com, withdrew the suit, but reaped international publicity.
Nutrition activists, led by Yale University psychologist Kelly Brownell, argued that America needed an extra tax on junk foods. Schools began ejecting fattening snacks from vending machines and taking soft-drink logos off their scoreboards. Plaintiffs' lawyers eyeing bigger stakes began speaking openly of making "Big Food" the next tobacco.
In the midst of such talk, Kraft yanked a teen-oriented ad it was airing. In it, a spaced-out actor wearing headphones is sprawled on the floor of his junk-strewn room, like a teenager in an opium den. As he absent-mindedly reaches for Double Stuf Oreos, his arms and legs fan out, leaving impressions on the rug like a child making a snow angel.
The slothlike scene of mindless snacking wasn't an image the company wanted. "We'd rather show a consumer in a more active lifestyle," recalled Michael Senackerib, Kraft's cookie and cracker chief. That summer Kraft appointed a panel of respected scholars to advise it on obesity and nutrition issues. Several of the experts urged Kraft to make big changes.
Dr. James Gavin, then president of Morehouse School of Medicine, argued that the company should add dividers inside packages so consumers would know when they were eating more than one serving.
Jeanne Goldberg, director of the Center on Nutrition Communication at Tufts University, prodded the company to stop using toddlers in TV ads for Oreos and other junk foods. "The notion of using kids to promote these things is very seductive because kids are cute, but I don't think it's a good idea," Goldberg said.
In the summer of 2003, Kraft stopped all marketing programs in classrooms and pulled Oreos from school vending machines. The company also vowed to shrink the portion size of its single-serving packs. Michael Mudd, then a Kraft spokesman, called the changes "the right thing to do." Nodding to the concern that food companies might face the scrutiny tobacco companies did, Mudd added, "If it also discourages a plaintiff's attorney or unfair legislation, that's fine with us."
Nevertheless, health concerns started weighing down the Oreo. Particularly worrisome for Kraft were once-loyal customers such as Laura Mercado. The North Riverside mom cut her family's Oreo purchases in half. "The trans fat gave it bad publicity," she said. "I slowed down because of that. Sales of the Oreo fell 5 percent in 2003 and stayed flat last year, according to Information Resources Inc., which tracks purchases at stores except for Wal-Mart. Kraft executives, who once boasted about Oreo's sales, stopped revealing the cookie's revenue in 2003.
Holden, Kraft's co-CEO, that year poured an extra $200 million into marketing to boost sales of Oreo and other brands. But at the end of the year, Kraft demoted Holden, one of the most powerful women in American business. A few weeks later, the company announced a major restructuring that called for closing up to 20 factories and cutting 6,000jobs.
Critics continued to hold up Oreo marketing as a symbol of America's unhealthy relationship with junk food. In Senate speeches on the obesity epidemic last year, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) lambasted "The Oreo Cookie Counting Book" as a gimmick that imprints brand loyalty on unknowing preschoolers.
"That will have little kids associate learning, associate getting better and progressing with eating Oreo cookies," Harkin said of the book. Kraft has since ended its agreement with the publisher, and the counting book is no longer in print. The company also stopped allowing Fisher-Price to use the Oreo image on the preschool Matchin' Middles toy. But Kraft acknowledged that the book and the toy "may still be available in the marketplace." Still it said marketing campaigns from years ago "have no relevance today."
Last fall, Senackerib, Kraft's cookie chief, downplayed the billion-dollar sales goal in an interview. "It's kind of an artificial number," he said.
The Oreo binge seemed over.
CHAPTER 4: Nibbling at change
Seeking to reshape its image, Kraft earns applause for restricting ads to kids, but Wall Street must still be fed.
The unprecedented announcement came last January. We hear you, Kraft said, reassuring those suspicious that its ads were contributing to America's obesity epidemic. No longer would Kraft pitch its most fattening foods on SpongeBob SquarePants and other kiddie hits. "We talked to mothers who were buying products for their kids," Kraft CEO Roger Deromedi said in an interview. "Consumers had told us, `We would like you to restrict your advertising of the products that you sell to kids.'"
Within weeks of the announcement, however, Kraft helped form a Washington lobbying group to prevent Uncle Sam from controlling how food companies market to kids.
The group, which also includes PepsiCo, General Mills and Kellogg, is working to convince Congress that "there is not a correlation between advertising trends and recent childhood obesity," according to the group's mission statement. The contrast between Kraft's public pledge to reform and the lobbying campaign captures the company's central quandary--how to appear conscientious while protecting the marketing muscle that has made Kraft one of the world's most powerful food companies.
"We believe self-regulation of the marketing of food products can and does work," David S. Johnson, Kraft's chief of North America, said in a written statement. "And we are collaborating with the industry to strengthen efforts in this area." But critics contend foodmakers' track records prove that companies can't regulate themselves. The Children's Advertising Review Unit, the industry's self-policing organization, frequently comes under fire for being toothless and understaffed.
Kraft recently drew the organization's ire for an ad that focused on a cereal box prize--violating voluntary guidelines that ads should center on food products, not kiddie prizes. But by the time the group reached an agreement with Kraft earlier this month, the ad already had run its course in Sports Illustrated for Kids and two comic book magazines.
"The industry's efforts so far have been woefully inadequate," Sen. Harkin said. While noting that Kraft has taken "positive steps," he said it and other food companies still are using cartoon tie-ins, advergames and kid-oriented promotions "with the idea of encouraging children to consume unhealthy products."
Even some of Kraft's steps have been reversed. The company, for instance, took back its promise to shrink the size of its single-serve packages after marketers showed some customers smaller prototypes. Those customers said, "Why would you take away something I currently like to buy from time to time? Why don't you just give me both [choices]?'" recalled Lance Friedmann, Kraft's senior vice president of global health and wellness.
Instead, Kraft vowed to change the package labels so consumers who decide to, say, gulp a whole Mini Oreo Go Pak--those cookie-packed cups that fit neatly into a car's cup holder--will know they have just downed 540 calories. That's the equivalent of 10 regular Oreos.
Kraft's strategy is to offer healthier options to customers worried about their diets, while still selling its more fattening staples to those who prefer the originals. Last fall Kraft launched a line of snacks that come in individually wrapped portions, each containing 100 calories. These include Oreo Thin Crisps, which have less calories than the traditional Oreo and don't contain any sweet filling.
Victoria Dietrich, 46, is a consumer who likes to have those choices. The psychotherapist said she buys Oreos more often now that Kraft has launched its Thin Crisps, some of which she tossed into her cart at a South Loop Dominick's. But Dietrich also reached for a pack of the regular Oreos, noting that when she and her toddler daughter eat the classic version, she doesn't look at the nutrition label. "Why ruin a good thing?" she asked.
While Kraft considers its lower-calorie snacks a big success, they made up less than 6 percent of Oreo sales in the first half of this year, according to Information Resources. To keep growing Kraft has to find ways to sell more of the core Oreo products to a nation worried about its waistline.
The foodmaker is one of many companies trying to project a healthier aura. Cereal-makers promoted the fiber-rich whole grains in their sugary products. McDonald's touted Happy Meals with apple slices instead of fries.
Kraft's image builders pumped up a long-standing partnership with the dairy industry, touting the Oreo as "milk's favorite cookie." In supermarkets this summer, gallon containers of milk sported Oreo sales-pitch stickers. A new commercial cobbled many years of Oreo ads featuring young kids--including a famous one starring a 2-year-old boy with his sippy cup--dunking their cookies in milk. The ad revived an Oreos-and-milk jingle that first aired in 1981. The message to parents: Here's something you can use to coax reluctant tots into drinking their milk.
Kraft's Web site, which had dropped the advergame in which cookies restored a player's "health indicator," added a game in which players had to deliver milk to stores using an Oreo truck. Nearly 90 percent of visitors to the Web site are over the age of 11, and 62 percent are 18 and older, according to a July ratings report. Kraft says it has revamped the games to appeal to that audience.
As Kraft shapes a healthier image, though, the company continues to use its marketing muscle to push new products. If last year's Thin Crisps targeted the health-conscious set, this year's spin-offs are downright decadent. A recent addition, a chocolate-covered version, is one of the most fattening Oreos Kraft has ever introduced.
"The new enrobed chocolate Oreo was one of the most successful new launches ever in the cookie and cracker category," Brian Driscoll, Kraft's top sales executive, told Wall Street analysts and investors in May. In just two weeks the company persuaded stores to install 55,000 displays of the new cookies.
To ensure prime aisle space and high-volume sales, the food giant offers stores cash payments and rebates that can amount to more than half the retail price of a package.
The pricing of new products also is an incentive for the grocery stores. Chains could buy the new chocolate-covered Oreos at $2 per pack, according a Kraft list that details product prices and available discounts. Yet some Jewel-Osco stores, for instance, sold them at $4.29.
Kraft also supplies the labor--5,000 sales representatives around the country who build the in-store displays and replenish them as often as 10times a week. The approach helped boost Oreo sales nearly 11 percent in the first half of this year, according to Information Resources. But the surge did little to offset Kraft's broader problems.
The company's most recent financial results disappointed many investors. Kraft's stock lately has languished around the price at which it debuted when the company went public in June 2001. Some Wall Street analysts doubt the company will reach its 2005profit goals. In the face of such pressure, Deromedi earlier this year dusted off an old pledge: to make Oreo a billion-dollar brand.
How Kraft Makes a new version of the Oreo
A goopy white mess smeared the inside of the Double Stuf
Oreo package. The cookies' creamy center had oozed out, leaving a tumble of dark
In the Kraft Foods laboratory where cookies get the snack-world equivalent of an automobile crash test, this experimental Oreo was totaled. The flop last year delayed efforts to purge the cookie of trans fat, yet another in a stream of dietary villains. The Oreo is but one example of a foodmaker's attempts to reinvent its fattening fare. Food fads and conflicting research force Northfield-based Kraft and other foodmakers to shift gears from one new product to another, in an endless quest to develop the next big thing out of the same old things: sugar, flour and fat.
Often, the result leaves consumers confused, struggling to make sense of a plethora of new creations and to decode small type on colorful packages. "Not for weight control," warns a box of sugar-free Oreos that also is labeled "Sensible Snacking."
For a fickle public, each variation offers a fleeting hope that a junk food can deliver indulgence without consequences. Kraft sees the issue as a matter of giving consumers a choice. The company provides a product line "ranging from better-for-you options like Oreo 100 Calorie Packs to more indulgent treats like the chocolate-covered Oreo," David S. Johnson, Kraft's North America chief, said in a written statement.
Even as foodmakers trumpet healthier products, behind the scenes their trade groups have attempted to water down federal dietary guidelines governing a troublesome ingredient, trans fat. Oreo's makers added trans fat a decade ago, in a race to address worries that lard in the cookie could lead to heart problems. Later, research showed that trans fat was even worse for the heart than lard.
The low-carb Oreo also didn't last, but that had more to do with a fad-driven marketplace than with science. When Kraft ditched the low-carb Oreo, it took the same cookie and put it in a new box touting a hotter diet trend.
And with that, the Oreo CarbWell last month became the Sugar Free SnackWell's Oreo.
CHAPTER 2: Bad omen for the Oreo
Scientists reverse themselves on the dangers of a would-be nutrition solution, trans fat, then struggle to make the industry accept the bad news.
Researcher Martijn Katan wove his bicycle through gridlocked evening traffic on his way to Ivar's Salmon House in Seattle. It was August 1990, and Katan was late for a dinner meeting with a small group of food industry scientists, including a researcher from Kraft. They had reason to be worried.
In his bag was a sneak peek at the results of a new study on 59 Dutch college students, soon to be published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. It was the first hard data suggesting that the trans fat found in a growing variety of foods was far more dangerous than scientists had believed.
At the time, many companies were increasing their use of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils--the chief source of trans fat--in response to widely publicized concerns that lard and tropical oils boost the risk of heart attacks. Lard and tropical oils are high in saturated fat, which seemed far more of a concern than trans fat.
One crusader had placed full-page ads in newspapers around the country, calling the use of tropical oils and lard "THE POISONING OF AMERICA!" He singled out Oreo-maker Nabisco as a laggard in reformulating products.
Trans fat, which margarine companies had relied on for
decades, seemed a safe alternative. The ingredient was making its way into
pastries, bread, crackers, fried foods, even cookies. The last thing companies
wanted to hear was that trans fat was bad for you too.
Nabisco, which Kraft didn't control until 2000, had spent years devising an Oreo recipe that replaced lard with trans fat.
As the food scientists pored over Katan's study, the table at Ivar's fell silent. The research showed that people who ate lots of trans fat had serious cholesterol problems, even worse than the effects from other fats.
"My distinct feeling was that they were upset by the data I was showing them," said Katan, a professor of nutrition at the Wageningen Center for Food Sciences in the Netherlands. "They had not expected it to be this clear-cut and damaging."
The food industry fought the implications of Katan's results for most of the next decade. Kraft and Nabisco joined a group of companies that poured more than $1 million into studies that might yield more favorable conclusions. They had reasons beyond self-interest to be skeptical of Katan's findings. Just a few years earlier, the National Academy of Sciences had found that trans fat posed no special risk.
But the researcher the food industry turned to, Joseph Judd, confirmed Katan's study."They were in shock," said Judd, a researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the time. "This was going to be hundreds of millions of dollars worth of impact."
More than a decade after Katan sounded an alarm, the National Academy of Sciences reversed course and in 2002 concluded that no amount of trans fat is healthy. But the academy decided people could not eliminate it from their diets because meat and dairy products naturally contain small amounts.
That left a central question unanswered: How much trans fat is too much?
Setting a trans fat limit fell to a committee of prominent scientists summoned by the government to assess the national diet.
In May 2004, they agreed to a limit so small it alarmed food companies. Just three regular Oreos would put a consumer slightly over the daily cap. But at least 10 food trade groups, including some Kraft belonged to, opposed the trans fat limits in filings with the federal government.
Earlier this year, when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued new dietary guidelines, the recommended trans fat limits were nowhere to be seen.
CHAPTER 3: Profiting from confusion
Consumers stampede from one health fad to the next, enabling companies to reap big money on new products even if they only appear to be healthier.
The Oreo section of the grocery store traces a road map of America's helter-skelter approach to nutrition. In an era of fleeting health fads and niche marketing, there has been an Oreo product for just about every new trend, whether low-fat, low-carb, low-sugar or low-calorie.
The Oreo now comes in 40 different flavors, colors and package sizes--from Mini Oreo Go-Paks that fit in a car cup holder to the Double Stuf Oreo Peanut Butter Creme. The cookie's many variations are emblematic of a food industry that has sought to placate an overweight nation bombarded with conflicting information of what makes a healthy diet.
Beth Aversa, a Chicago mother of two young children, is one of those consumers who has tried different fad diets but remains confused about the best way to stay fit. When it comes to her kids' diets, though, Aversa often finds it easier to yield to their appetites for sweets. She uses Oreos as an afternoon snack that saves time and makes them happy. Consumers' pursuit of a better diet has meant more sales for food companies as they have turned fears about fats and other dietary villains into a source of profits.
Attempts to sell healthier-sounding cookie spin-offs have roots in the delirium over a different brand Nabisco launched in 1992. SnackWell's, a line of low-fat snacks, were so popular in the early '90s that ravenous consumers emptied entire stores of the cookies. In 1995, the brand's revenues hit $500 million, making it one of the most successful product launches in the history of the food industry.
Steven Sherman, an occupational health and safety consultant in upstate New York, would eat an entire box of SnackWell's Devil's Food Cookie Cakes in a sitting. "You could sock them away in front of the TV," recalled Sherman, who has since kicked the habit.
Eager to expand its low-fat franchise, Nabisco launched an initiative code-named "Project Fatboyz." The mission was to introduce low-fat versions of the Oreo and five other Nabisco brands. The company in 1994 trumpeted the Reduced Fat Oreo as a "healthy snacking alternative." A TV commercial showed animated Oreos working out in an aerobics class. The tagline: "Less fat, loads of taste."
Many consumers made the logical leap that low fat meant diet. But weight gain stems from consuming too many calories, regardless of fat content. And Nabisco, like many food companies, often made fat-free and low-fat products taste better by making them sweeter. This added calories. Americans overindulged in low-fat treats, something a former Nabisco research chief called "the SnackWell's Syndrome."
SnackWell's also taught the industry how far a brand could fall. The low-fat craze didn't last. Once consumers realized these low-fat treats weren't helping them shave pounds, SnackWell's sales plummeted.
When Americans abandon one health fad, it is not long before they stampede to another. As the nation has grappled with the obesity crisis in recent years, many consumers experimented with low-carb diets made popular by Dr. Robert Atkins. Riding the trend, Kraft, which took control of Nabisco five years ago, last fall launched the Oreo CarbWell, which appeared healthier.
But was it? One Oreo CarbWell had 50 calories, while a regular Oreo has 53. A fine-print footnote on the box reminded consumers, "Be sure to count calories, too." Engineered with a sugar substitute called maltitol, the Oreo CarbWell also came with a warning: "Excess consumption may have a laxative effect."
The cookie had lousy timing. Many Americans already were ditching low-carb diets. In July 2005, Atkins Nutritionals Inc. filed for bankruptcy protection. That same month Kraft renamed its CarbWell Oreo the Sugar Free SnackWell's Oreo. A new disclaimer popped up on the box: "Not for weight control."
A year ago, Kraft launched Oreo 100 Calorie Packs, small bags of wafers called Thin Crisps that contain fewer calories than two traditional Oreos.
To keep the calories down, the company ditched the familiar white filling. The Thin Crisps also are stripped of the Oreo imprint and are thinner than most crackers. They're not even round.
CHAPTER 4: Inside the cookie factory
In the long slog to take out trans fat, companies return to an old taboo.
A sweet, doughy scent wafts for blocks from the 1950s-era factory in Fair Lawn, N.J. This plant is the proving ground for Oreo ideas. It was here that Kraft scientists tested the Oreo CarbWell and Thin Crisps before they landed on store shelves. And this is where the effort to remove trans fat from the traditional Oreo continues.
The chief concern is not obesity. Weight gain stems from consuming too many calories, and trans fat has no more calories than other types of fat. But researchers believe it raises cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease.
Kraft already has introduced Oreo spin-offs without trans fat, including Thin Crisps, Reduced Fat Oreos and two versions with vanilla wafers instead of chocolate.
But when it came to ridding the classic Oreo varieties of trans fat, Kraft scientists watched one promising prototype after another fail.
The researchers needed a fat that is solid at room temperature to get the texture of the white center just right. The filling had to be firm yet soft, sweet but not grainy, and Oreo fans would have to be able to twist open the cookie as they always have. Just last summer, Jean Spence's spirits sank during a phone call from other Kraft scientists.
Spence, Kraft's research chief, was overseeing the latest experiment to rid the Double Stuf Oreo of trans fat, which had resulted in the cream-smeared package. The Kraft scientists had nailed the taste, but the secret oils in the new filling made the middle seep out during a shipping test. "We were bummed at that one," Spence recalled.
"When the results come back, it's like, `Oh, man, back to the drawing board again.'" It is a difficult task because the basic Oreo recipe--nearly 60 percent sugar and fat--can't change without altering the taste so many consumers love.
After testing more than 200 recipes, the team finally struck upon a solution. It is a mix of canola oil and an ingredient excoriated in the 1980s "POISONING OF AMERICA!" ads as being bad for the heart: palm oil.
Earlier this year, Spence said she expected the first batches of the new Oreos to hit grocery stores by the end of August, once the company retooled production equipment. Kraft said cooling the Oreo faster should avoid the goopy filling that plagued earlier versions. But even that is proving to be difficult.
Earlier this month, the company said it continues to "face challenges" that have pushed back its schedule.
Kraft plans to start rolling out the new cookie by year-end. The question is “Will it intentionally contain addictive compounds?”