For more than 30 years, Hank Cardello sat in the boardrooms of America’s top food and beverage companies, pitching ideas on how to increase brand awareness, increase profit margins, and generally get consumers to buy more than they needed. Very rarely in any of those discussions did anyone raise a hand and ask, “But is what we’re doing responsible?” As Cardello reports in his quasi-exposé Stuffed: An Insider’s Look At Who’s (Really) Making America Fat, none of the corporations he worked for had any overt malicious intent. It just never occurred to any of them that they might be slowly killing off their best customers.
Stuffed is a work of advocacy peppered with inside dope, and frankly, the latter is more persuasive than the former. When Cardello (with the help of veteran reporter Doug Garr) describes the introduction of 40-ounce malt liquor to urban neighborhoods as an honest attempt to serve a market need, or he writes about how the botched rollout of the healthy-eating fast-food chain D’Lites convinced the industry that diet-conscious products were a non-starter, he makes the point that food manufacturers and marketers will always be too wrapped up in quarterly earnings to see the big picture. But when he retreats to lecturing consumers about impulse control and blasting his former bosses for giving people what they want, he sounds like a zealot with a PowerPoint presentation, believing that if he repeats his bullet points enough, he’ll lend them more authority.
Nevertheless, even though Stuffed is written more like a stockholder’s report than a nuanced piece of journalism, Cardello makes valid, important points about the resistance to change in the restaurant and grocery business. (That is, unless that change involves making an existing product bigger.) And Cardello offers legitimate solutions to our patterns of unhealthy consumption, involving better nutritional education and incentives for switching ingredients to healthier equivalents. A tone of frustration permeates Stuffed, but Cardello never lets the frustration curdle into despair. He’d rather make it an impetus to action.