What do Monsanto, the Corn Refiners Association, and the School Nutrition Association all have in common? As The Lunch Tray blogger Bettina Elias Siegel explains, in an article that first appeared on Civil Eats, all three groups have enlisted the aid of “mom bloggers” to boost their battered image.
Siegel points out that it is not just Big Food that employs this tactic. She says:
“Hundreds of health-conscious brands like Stonyfield and Organic Valley also partner with mom bloggers, raising the question: Is there a categorical difference when entities like Monsanto and the Corn Refiners Association engage in the same practice?”
It’s a terrific article and I urge you to read the whole thing and draw your own conclusions. But it made me think of some recent blog posts promoting a new grocery store product called “Dynamos,” from healthy school meal vendor Revolution Foods.
Billed as “protein power bites,” each box of Dynamos contains five packages of 2 “bites” each, and sells for $3.99 (although they don’t appear to be in SF stores yet, with the Revolution Foods website indicating that the closest place to my house to buy them is about 10 miles away.)
But I guess Rev Foods has been busy getting the word (and free samples) out to influential mom bloggers, because within one week, I saw these new snacks featured on several blogs.
One of the two women who write the Cherry Blossoms blog reviewed Dynamos after learning about the company from “another blogger who attended the same conference in NYC as I did a few weeks ago” (probably the BlogHer conference held in July). She found the snacks “adorable” and wrote, “As a Mother I am so glad that my children love Dynamos because they are healthy and a great source of protein.”
Dynamos contain 6 grams of protein per pack of 2 “bites,” but do parents really need to prioritize protein when selecting snacks for their child?
New York University professor Marion Nestle, one of the country’s leading authorities on nutrition and food politics, told me:
“I really don’t understand the fuss over protein. Most Americans eat twice the protein recommended and it is not exactly lacking in U.S. diets. It’s good that kids are getting a balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrate in school meals. If people want their kids to have protein snacks, I’d go for a handful of nuts or cheese or yogurt (preferably with little or no sugar).”
The Kids Health website of the nonprofit children’s health organization Nemours reviewed the marketplace of cereal, granola and protein bars (that now comprise nearly half an aisle at my local supermarket) and advised:
“Many protein bars tend to contain less sugar and more nutrients than some of the other bars, and might be a better choice than granola or cereal bars with a lot of carbs and little fiber and protein. But most kids don’t regularly need extra protein, and young athletes would do better to rely on protein-rich foods like lean meats, cheese, eggs, and nuts, which are considered higher quality protein sources.”
The Mom Knows Best blog also reviewed Dynamos, and this is a blogger who makes clear that her first priority is the health of her kids.
“I am a mom and one of my jobs is making sure that my kids have healthy food to fuel their healthy bodies. I want the foods that I give my kids to be real and whole, foods that are natural. The food that my kids eat needs to be food that helps their bodies grow and stay healthy. Real food that gives them energy so they can run and play. I want my children to eat food that is loaded with nutrition. My 8 year old recently asked me what calories are and if it is OK to have them. That lead [sic] to a conversation about how calories are good when they come from healthy food. I want my kids to focus on eating healthy food and not calories.”
Yes, she really did use the word “healthy” five times in one paragraph.
Mom Knows Best loves that the women who started Rev Foods “believed youth everywhere should have access to real foods, ones that are whole and healthy. They wanted to build lifelong healthy eaters.” She loved the Dynamos and praised them for tasting like “a homemade cookie.”
But just how healthy are those Dynamos?
Registered dietitian Andy Bellatti is skeptical. Dynamos, he told me in an e-mail, are little more than a cookie, really. “Anyone looking for a healthy snack for children should go for minimally processed, whole-food sources first (ideally ones that also contain fiber, like nuts, seeds, and beans) that are free of added sugars,” he says.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that nutrition professionals would differ from mom bloggers in their assessment of the value of a processed snack containing 9 grams of sugar (the second ingredient in Dynamos is brown rice syrup, and they also contain both sugar and brown sugar).
After all, the Cherry Blossom blog makes clear that its purpose “is to keep our readers up to date and informed on the latest and greatest products, places and events, and in turn have them excited to share those finds with their family and friends,” not to educate anyone about nutrition. Likewise, the Mom Knows Best blogger says she has five kids and “started blogging when my youngest started school as I wanted to be able to stay at home while bringing in some extra income.”
There’s nothing wrong with any of those goals. In fact, it makes these bloggers pretty much exactly the kind of people you would want reviewing your product if you were hawking a pricey kids’ snack that wouldn’t sell itself on actual nutritional value.
Shrinking Momster is a blog that says in its very comprehensive disclosure statement that it is written by “a group of individuals” who are “compensated to provide opinion on products, services, websites and various other topics.” The blogger who reviewed the Rev Foods offerings wrote:
“I felt better about myself the moment I opened the package Revolution Foods sent me. The pink tissue paper, my favorite color, lifted my spirits and the “You’re the Momb!” sticker made me smile. (Also, lime green is my second favorite color!) I was able to peel the sticker off and smack it on my laptop.”
This blogger loved the Dynamos and so did her daughter. She also reviewed another Rev Foods offering, Jet Packs (a healthier version of a Lunchables) and loved that too. So did the Cherry Blossoms blogger and Mom Knows Best.
I wrote about these Jet Pack products, which contain a scant 3 ounces of food, when they were first introduced 2 years ago as Revolution Foods Meal Kits:
“There is no way this is a “meal” for any but the lightest of eaters; at best it is a “snack.” If you pile all the food together, it is barely the size of a deck of cards…Perhaps you are wondering, as I did, why anyone would be willing to pay $3.50 for what appears to be about $1 worth of cold cuts and crackers and fruit leather?”
Today, one might more properly ask, “Why would anyone be willing to pay $4?” because the newly colorful Jet Packs cost 50 cents more than the virtually identical Meal Kits that preceded them. Perhaps the price increase was necessary to defray the cost of the packaging facelift.
As Voicebox Creative, a branding and package design agency based in SF, explains on their website:
“Revolution Foods has had great success making healthy food accessible to elementary school kids through lunch programs nationwide. On the heels of that success, they launched a retail line of pre-packaged meal kits targeted to time-challenged moms. Believing that their existing packaging did not evoke the warm and approachable personality of the brand and its products, we were asked to reposition their packaging architecture to more accurately reflect their personality, more easily incorporate new flavors and product lines, and better perform on shelf.”
I think “better perform on shelf” may be the key motivation here – perhaps the original Meal Kits were not selling as well as Rev Foods (or their investors) had thought they would.
But the question remains – why would anyone pay $4 for something that a 6 year old armed with a butter knife could put together for herself in 30 seconds with ingredients costing about $1?
Or, as The Guardian put it in spring 2014, “No one, after all, needs Lunchables or, for that matter, Revolution’s Meal Kits. Sure, they’re convenient, but how hard is it, really, to pack a sandwich and a piece of fruit into a lunchbox – or to teach a child to do so? That’s what parents did before Lunchables came along. Sometimes progress towards a more sustainable food system can mean looking back to the past.”
And sometimes progress towards a more sustainable bottom line means skipping the conventional costly marketing campaign and going right to your customers via mom bloggers, for just the cost of some free samples, pink tissue paper, and lime green stickers.
Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archive.
Soda Tax/Food Politics