Economy & Business

Food-Police Fatigue

Read the labels closely. (Evening Standard/Getty)

At the grocery store they had a sale on Pink Himalayan Salt Popcorn. The price suggested that each grain of sodium chloride had been brought down from the mountains one at a time on a 50-man bucket line, packed in 600-thread Egyptian cotton and sent to the United States in a box sitting on the lap of someone in a privately chartered Learjet. The popcorn was expensive because it flattered the class status of the people who bought it. Not for them the big bags of Ched-R-Corn whose puffy soft kernels almost glow with ingenious orange chemicals; not for them the microwave stuff, because it might have corn from Monsanto, designed by evil scientists who sit in windowless towers and conjure up new ways to genetically modify water.

No, this was pink salt from a place where they’re, like, spiritual ’n’ stuff. There was a smiling Buddha on the package to prove its philosophical heritage. You can imagine the design team mulling ideas:

“So, how are we going to make people desire this popcorn? I mean, really desire it?”

(Silence)

“Hey, how about Buddha?”

“Wasn’t he — didn’t he say that desire led to suffering?”

“Yeah, whatever, but it’s like Saint Augustine! Lord make me pure but not yet and all that.”

“Okay. So who’s our market here for Himalayan salt?”

“Pretty much the people who pride themselves on buying stuff that’s locally sourced.”

It certainly was an attractive package. You’re thinking: You bought it, right? No. Oh — it wasn’t on the endcap, then. No, it was. Hold on, you resisted snack food on an endcap? What powers do you have? Like the holy men tempted with visions of writhing doe-eyed houris, I guess. I moved to the checkout line, where there were more snack foods. Expensive chips from a company called “Food Should Taste Good.” I’m always caught up short when I see these chips, wondering if anyone ever asserted otherwise. It’s not as if the shelf space was previously occupied by “Food Should Taste like Yak Barf on an Asbestos Shingle” chips. I agree that food should taste good but I also believe one should not have to cash a municipal bond to buy it.

There was candy at the checkout as well. Tiny precious divots of chocolate, individually secured in foil, yours for the average daily wage in 1903. Several expensive bars with names that sounded like yoga studios, each promising to bestow protein devoid of gluten and genetically modified crops. Because we all remember that guy who ate a genetically modified apple and just erupted with head-to-toe cancer right on the spot.

After this I went to a supermarket that had a big sale on cheap potato chips and offered candy bars in the checkout lane that were the size of piano legs. I didn’t buy any of those, either.

How is this possible? You’re probably thinking, “You were focused on your task, and were not suffering from the type of decision fatigue that makes you unable to resist bricks of chocolate whose dimensions are similar to a toddler’s forearm.” If so, you will enjoy this article about the need to RETHINK THE SUPERMARKET.

Pull quote: “Most people do not recognize the risks they face from marketing strategies that promote decision fatigue and impulse buying.”

Today, an estimated 30 percent of all supermarket sales can be attributed to end-of-aisle displays. Retailers have placed more foods that increase the risk of chronic diseases in these locations, and we should not be surprised that more people are acquiring chronic diseases.

Endcaps are killing people. Grappling hooks shoot out and embed in the soft bellies of customers, yanking them toward the displays of potato chips. Fearing for their lives, people buy the bags, knowing they must go to their car and jam the desiccated spud slices into their mouths or hordes of hovering drones will descend and Taser them.

Or, people like potato chips on sale.

This, and the later block quotes, are from a recent Web article titled “Supermarkets Are the Problem”:

Even people who want to resist grabbing these low-nutrient items sometimes fail to do so because they suffer from decision fatigue, most prominent at the end of a shopping trip. After making so many decisions about what to buy and what not to, people’s cognitive capacity becomes overwhelmed, and subsequent decisions are often made impulsively and emotionally without consideration of the long-term consequences.

I know where everything is. I have never felt overwhelmed by the quantity of decisions I am required to make, because I have in my head a set of standards: price, quality, how the excesses in this item will be offset by the virtues in this other one, and so on. If anything I exult in the quantity of decisions. To live in a land with 17 types of canned corn! I have never been so frazzled by my corn options that I’ve said, “Okay, I’ll get this liter of high-fructose corn syrup to take the edge off.”

People with low incomes are particularly vulnerable, as their decisions are often more taxing. Shoppers with fewer economic resources have to give up more items they might otherwise like to buy.

And so . . . what? They buy the less expensive items? This would seem to eliminate a lot of prepared food, which is less healthy.

Here’s dinner for my family tonight:

One box of pasta, $1.19

One pack of chicken sausages, $3.69

One jar of sauce (organic! Paul Newman would sell nothing else), $2.69

Salads (one fourth of a tub of spinach and mixed spring greens @ $4.00 per tub)

I fed three people for about $10, with two leftover meals for lunch tomorrow. This is because I cook a meal the family will share, instead of everyone grazing throughout the evening, or tossing a hard brick into the microwave to be converted into a simulacrum of sustenance. It’s not that difficult. Unless your brain is still flat-lined from over-deciding.

Decision fatigue happens in ways that people often fail to recognize. We generally operate under the illusion that every choice is deliberate when, in fact, our decisions are more often automatic and reflexive.

Ahhh. Are they now. I have made the decision to keep reading, to see how this is backed up; I am sure Studies are invoked with the same hushed tone as a priest holding up a saint’s knucklebone for veneration.

One solution is to develop standards that identify which products should not be displayed in these prominent locations. Moving candy, chips, sodas, cookies, and other junk food away from special displays, cash registers, and easily accessible vending machines would be a good start.

These standards would have to be enforced, no? You’re going to have to come up with a law that mandates where cookies can be sold, and the distance from the cash register. That means inspectors with tape measures, who will have to be hired; that means taking on more help at the grocery store, so someone can be Proximity Manager. Who says regulation doesn’t lead to growth?

Placing new regulations on how food is marketed to consumers is certain to cause controversy among retailers, who will no doubt react with cries of “Nanny State.” But there is no sign that the obesity epidemic in America will diminish on its own. Bold steps are needed.

People doing what they wish always requires bold steps if they’re not doing what their betters want them to do. Anyway, that’s the solution: Move the snack foods to the back of the store, which will make it more difficult for people who are overwhelmed with decision fatigue.

Worked with milk; that stuff’s way in the back, and hardly anyone ever drinks it any more.

— James Lileks writes the Athwart column for National Review magazine and is a frequent contributor to the National Review Online. He is a prominent voice on Ricochet podcasts.

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