On a recent trip to the grocery store my daughter spotted a colorful Kool-Aid display, strategically placed at the eye level of a five-year old. I generally resist her demands to buy everything she sees at the store but the product placement professionals are much better at this game than I am.
In any case, Kool-Aid is retro, a throwback to an earlier, simpler time when soft drinks came in a pitcher with ice. I admit to feeling nostalgic. I was raised on those tiny packets of purple or red dust that you mix with sugar and water to produce a tasty beverage. So we paid the 25 cents and were on our way.
As soon as we got home she wanted to mix up our new drink. After an ill-advised experiment that involved tasting it plain, we added sugar and sat down to enjoy our Kool-Aid the way god had intended.
As we sipped I casually read the back of the packet to check out the ingredients (not something I did as a kid). I was surprised to see Red #40, the chemical dye, near the top. Usually the stuff that sounds like it comes from a chemist’s lab is much farther down on the ingredient list. But it turns out our Kool-Aid was basically a packet of Red #40.
I’m no zealot when it comes to things like this, but I am much more tuned into this issue now that I’m responsible for the dietary survival of another human being. Turns out the FDA has approved the use of Red #40 and other synthesized food dyes (it’s sibling Red #3, and cousins Blue #1 and Yellow #5). Still, the presence of Red #40 raises questions I would not have if she was drinking a glass of tap water.
As I read, she caught me arching my rather prominent eyebrows. “What is it Daddy?” she asked.
“Well…”, I stammered, as I scrambled for an age-appropriate way to explain the prominence of a synthetic dye in a food item targeted at children.
“I noticed that there is a lot of a chemical in Kool-Aid.” I replied.
“What is that?” she asked.
“Um, a food coloring that makes it turn red”.
“Is that bad?”
“Not necessarily, but it’s not necessarily good either.”
Then she hit me with the $100 question: “Why would they put something that might not be good for us in there?”
How do you explain the meaning of Red #40 to a five year old?
Now I was trapped. Do I “cover” for the food industry and preserve the Kool-Aid mystique for my daughter or do I offer something closer to the truth?
Unfortunately for her, I’m a sociologist. So I decided to give it to her straight, without the sweetener.
Taking a deep breath I began: “It’s red to make it appealing to consumers. They put it in there to sell more Kool-Aid and to increase company profits. They could leave it out but then there wouldn’t be much to the product. The dye makes people believe they are getting more than plain water with sugar in it. They use red #40 because it’s cheaper than the alternatives which means they will make more money.
“You see Honey, in capitalism it doesn’t really matter if the product is necessary or good for you. If people buy it, the company makes money. If people buy a lot of it, the company and the people who own it — they are called “shareholders” — make more money.
“These shareholders want to make as much money as possible, so they hire people to figure out ways to get people to buy more Kool-Aid. See the bright colors on the packet? The appealing cartoon characters? They are part of the strategy to sell more Kool-Aid.
“These folks are called “marketers”. They are smart people who probably went to public schools where teachers making low salaries taught them to read and write so they could get into college, spend four years studying business or marketing where they learned valuable skills like how to sell people products they don’t need or want, so they could then spend their working lives being paid very well to use these skills to get people to buy things they don’t need (like bottled water, face spray or remote starters) or even things that are bad for them (like cigarettes or fast food or lottery tickets).”
She appeared to be listening, so I continued: “The best marketers don’t ask questions about what they are doing, nor do they contemplate the social, environmental or the public health implications of what they are selling. It is like a game. A game that allows them to live in a big vinyl-clad house and to buy nice things and maybe pay for their kids’ college education where they too might major in something practical and socially useful like marketing.
“Soda pop, for instance is delicious, but there is nothing redeeming about it other than that. Over the long run, consuming soda will only harm the individuals who drink it and those of us who must pay the health care tab for those who are harmed. But the people selling soda pop want us to buy it, and lots of it, because if we do, they make money. When people begin to realize the product is not in their best interest — and they are starting to do so — the marketers must increase their efforts to convince us to buy it. That is why marketers are now trying to convince people that Coke is a healthy snack.
“Your question then is really one of modern capitalism. It shows us that things valued and rewarded by ‘the market’ are not always consistent with the values and interests of people. Often there is tension between the goals of profitability and social usefulness. Sadly, in our current context the need for profits seems too often to trump the needs of humans.
“Kraft Foods, the mega-corporation that produces Kool-Aid, wants to sell more product. It’s usefulness or its benefit to society is not important. The only thing that matters is that they increase sales of the product and thus profitability. So Honey, that is why they put Red #40 in Kool-Aid.”
I looked down to gauge her reaction. She had finished her drink by this time and appeared to be processing what I said. Finally she said:
“Daddy, may I have some more Kool-Aid?”
Yes my child. Of course you may.