During a spring conference call, the maker of Oreos and other iconic snacks shared some exciting news with Wall Street analysts. In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, cookie and cracker sales had shot up by nearly 30 percent, a gargantuan leap in the world of groceries.
“We executed well in the first quarter, even as the virus was spreading,” said Dirk Van de Put, the chief executive of Mondelez International (formerly Kraft Foods). This wasn’t just a result of hoarding by nervous shoppers, he said. Consumers in the United States and in many other countries bought more, ate what they stashed away and kept coming back for snacks as the weeks of social distancing stretched on.
The company did some investigating, and what it found has the entire processed food industry eagerly making new plans for our future. We may think that we turned a corner on our eating habits with all that sourdough baking we did, but Big Food isn’t about to let us off its hook that easily.
For starters, the pandemic revealed that sheltering in our homes — where many of us will continue to work — turns our kitchens into one huge vending machine. “In-home, there is more grazing, more continuous eating, and snacking takes up a much bigger role,” Mr. Van de Put said.
On top of that, he noted that there are powerful new emotions at play in those compulsions to graze. “Sharing a snack with your kids as everybody is sort of cooped up in the house brings back a feeling of normalcy, of togetherness, calming everybody down,” he said.
Lastly, the company found, many of us are finding ourselves drawn toward products that never attracted us before — a marketer’s dream. More than 40 percent of the soaring sales in Fig Newtons and Nutter Butter cookies came from first-time buyers.
Did we really fall that hard for the kinds of processed snack foods that many of us had been trying to avoid?
Back in 2014, Alexia Howard, a Sanford C. Bernstein food industry analyst with a reputation for pulling no punches, spotted the trend among younger adults to avoid highly processed foods because of health concerns. Soon after that came the remarkable admission by Campbell Soup’s chief executive that “we are well aware of the mounting distrust of Big Food.”
Now, Ms. Howard told me, the pandemic does indeed appear to be giving the industry a comeback.
“There was a huge surge in sales of packaged food in mid-March as all the panic-buying played out across the country,” she said. “But sales are generally still extremely strong across the board due to the collapse in food service sales to restaurants, schools, etc.”
Data from the research firm Nielsen that tracked Americans’ grocery buying from March to May bore this out. Campbell’s reaped a 93 percent increase in sales of its canned soup before settling back to a still-amazing 32 percent growth. At General Mills, breakfast cereal jumped 29 percent in late March, and jumped again to 37 percent in the third week of April. Deep into the pandemic, we were still buying 51 percent more frozen waffles, pancakes and French toast from Kellogg’s. And so on.
To help gauge what we might do once social distancing ends, Ms. Howard also took an early measure of how the pandemic changed our eating habits. A survey by her firm, done on April 2 of 1,052 consumers who were representative of the U.S. population, found that six in 10 adults were cooking more of their meals from scratch, a trend that broke fairly evenly among different age groups.
But there were some generational splits on other matters. Not quite one in three people said the virus had caused them to eat healthier, which older people tended to define as helping them lose weight or control diabetes, and younger adults defined as “real food” with simple ingredients. By contrast, one in four people said they were eating more salty and sugary snacks, and these people were dominated by the same group that had given Big Food a hard time back in 2014: young adults ages 18 to 29.
Amy Trubek, chair of the nutrition and food sciences department at the University of Vermont, said that when her students had to flee campus in March, they cooked up a healthy storm. But she has her doubts about whether they or the rest of us can keep this up without some concerted effort.
“American habits die hard,” she said. “I don’t think sourdough starter is going to make everybody into a home cook of whole foods. It’s the everyday relentlessness of figuring out how to feed yourself that is always the problem. And as things ease up, we have a habitual system in our society where you don’t have to cook, you can have other people cook on your behalf, or you buy food that’s prepared for you in some way, shape or form.”
Enter the processed food companies and their plans to capture the moment we’re in, building on strategies they employed even before the pandemic began. In listening to their marketing executives and pitches to Wall Street, we might expect to see a game plan that looks like this:
Keep their foods in our heads through ads on our mobile phones. This started out silly, with bags of Doritos measuring six feet between people. They went deeper into our isolation with “pick your quarantine house” from Skittles and played on our social distancing with virtual hugs from M&Ms. But even when not tied to the pandemic, their pitches are staggeringly effective. Taco Bell has 1.9 million followers.
Fight harder for shelf space. Mondelez employees, known as “direct store distribution agents,” go into supermarkets to stock the company’s products themselves, which became a huge advantage in the pandemic. When grocers focused on restocking staples like flour and meat and let the snacks aisles sit empty, Mondelez agents kept the Oreos and Ritz crackers coming. Look for fierce shelf wars among companies going forward.
Focus on new markets. In China, the pandemic hurt sales initially, but Mondelez bounced back in part by refocusing their marketing efforts. “We started to realize that cooking with Oreo was something that they really like to do,” said Mr. Van de Put. “So, we switched our communication to cooking with Oreo, and it had a great effect on our sales.”
Recapture impulsiveness. The pandemic has accelerated the industry’s efforts to get us to buy things not on our shopping list. One trick that’s getting renewed attention: the full basket. With free shipping on orders of $35 or more, for example, shoppers just short of that sum get prompted to add impulse items.
And finally, food companies are hoping to regain our trust about the health risks of processed foods by reducing their use of sugar, salt and saturated fat, and by taking steps to help consumers avoid overeating. A Mondelez spokesman said the company is vigorously pursuing these goals, that its snacks include savory products like Triscuits and Ritz, and pointed to a survey released June 9 by an industry-funded group that found some people are using snacks to replace meals. Last month, Mondelez was back in front of Wall Street analysts with a report about its “snacking made right” campaign, which promotes mindful snacking with portion control and eating advice.
A company video has six tips when it comes to the Oreos that we’ve been gobbling up at home with our kids, including this one: Instead of just grabbing a handful, place just three on a plate and try to resist the impulse to gobble. Take a small bite from one cookie and put it back.
“Often our mind is thinking about the next bite even before we finish the one that we have,” the narrator says. “A good technique is to take a pause between each bite, check in with yourself and ask, ‘Am I still hungry, am I satisfied, or can I stop right there?’”
Michael Moss, who won a Pulitzer Prize as a New York Times reporter in 2010, is the author of “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.” His next book, “Hooked: Food and Free Will,” is being published in 2021. He can be reached at mossbooks.us.