Look out, mom and dad: Don't let those fun smiles on the faces of Cap'n Crunch, Tony the Tiger and the Trix rabbit fool you. It's all about business and how companies desperately want your food dollars.
"Psychologists have actually done studies on cereal boxes, and how those cartoon characters look into your children's eyes. And as you walk the cereal aisle, your children end up saying, 'I want Tony the Tiger," said Ariel Agenbroad, area extension educator with the University of Idaho Extension.
Cartoon characters on the boxes of breakfast cereal was just one of a full buffet of topics Agenbroad served up at a recent Vandal Voices event, the U of I's casual conversation series in downtown Boise. This particular event, dubbed, "How Smart Marketers Influence the Way We Eat," was at Amsterdam Lounge, where attendees, quite appropriately, munched on food while Agenbroad talked about why we eat what we eat, filling the evening with appetizers for thought. For example, she said men tend to eat more when they eat out with women than when they eat out with other men. Agenbroad also pointed to recent research from Cornell University that drilled into how marketers influence the way America eats. She said most Americans form their food habits on so-called "value systems," and in turn, shoppers use those very personal value systems when they go grocery shopping.
"It's a great time to be a shopper. We have more options than we ever did before" said Agenbroad, but quickly cautioned, "Please use that power wisely."
- Lindsay Trombly
One of the more intriguing parts of Agenbroad's Vandal Voices conversation centered around the word "fresh." Yes, she said, there are multiple tactics that high-priced food marketers use to attract customers, but one of the most powerful is also one of the simplest: the liberal use of the word "fresh" throughout the aisles of any grocery store. All that said, Agenbroad said there is no true definition of "fresh." That's when she posed a question to the gathering.
"What do you consider to be fresh?"
Most of the audience agreed that raw fruits, vegetables and minimally processed meats deserved the name, yet more than a few attendees disagreed on the debate over whether frozen food necessarily qualifies.
"There is no set definition of 'fresh,'" said Agenbroad. "We define 'fresh' for ourselves."
She said nine in 10 adults describe "fresh" as being healthier. Research indicates that approximately 70% of American consumers make an effort to eat foods that are considered "fresh," as opposed to processed food.
Another question Agenbroad posed to the audience was, "What's important to you when you buy your food?"
Audience members offered a variety of answers: Some said their personal value systems result in leaning toward "organic" foods. Others said it was all about "sustainable" foods. And a few repeatedly referred to what they called "natural" foods.
Agenbroad said an abundance of Treasure Valley grocers satisfies nearly all of those value systems.
"There's really almost no excuse not to buy what you truly want, unless you're working. But even then, I'm going to tell you that's no excuse," said Agenbroad.
And the list of grocers who offer more "organic," "farm to table" or "fresh" continues to grow: Albertsons, WinCo, Whole Foods, the Boise Co-op, Trader Joe's, Fred Meyer and many more, but Agenbroad said farmers markets are still the go-to option when it comes to "fresh."
"They have something to offer that a giant store can't, because a giant store can't deal with a very small farmer," said Agenbroad, adding that customers are supporting "local" more than ever before. "Consumers are beginning to see the freshness at a product and seeing where their food comes from."
She also made a point of engaging the audience in how the carefully crafted labels of certain products influence shoppers.
"If there's a diagram or chart saying a food is good for you, then you might say, 'Oh, it must be science.' Well, I would just like to let you know that it isn't always the case," said Agenbroad.
Using another example she said that when we buy chicken in the grocery store, the only thing that you can be sure of is "that there aren't any giblets."
"Remember, you're shopping with your values," she concluded. "I would encourage you to always have that critical decision-making, and not just believe everything at face value."