Sow’s Ears, Silk Purses and Celebrity Chefs

August 26, 2014 in Foodland, General, Nutritionism by Joyce Bunderson

Last week before leaving town for a few days, an article caught my attention.  Associated Press writer Candice Choi wrote the article, the article that I’m referring to is: McDonald’s attempts to dispel its long-held junk food image. I read the article in my local newspaper, but wanted to refer you to a digital copy so that you could read it. In my search for a digital copy, I learned something very interesting. When someone writes for the Associated Press it is not published exactly the same in each city that carries the story. For example in just a short length of time, I found three or four versions – some longer and some shorter, posted on line. This is an example of the fact that we can keep learning. I somehow had the idea that syndicated articles were published in their fullness in each publication. I now understand that I’ve been disillusioned. Different newspapers can publish parts of the same article leaving out or including what they want. So live and learn.

About the story.  Choi wrote that she attended a dinner hosted for reporters and bloggers (considered “influencers”) that was prepared by celebrity chefs. The goal was to transform a dining experience from ‘fast food’ to ‘good food served fast.” They used ingredients from McDonald’s menu. Among the menu items served were Chicken McNuggets in sweet and sour sauce, garnished with parsley (Kung Pao chicken); McDonald’s French fries with fruit sauce from their smoothie mix (producing some sort of gnocchi); and a “biznut” (a doughnut’ biscuit hybrid with pumpkin spice). These menu items are, of course, where sow’s ears and silk purses came to my mind. Seriously? Pouring sauce on McNuggets can somehow transform a fatty nugget into to a healthy option? Well, no, but into a more interesting option.

The dinner was part of a crusade by McDonald’s to disclaim its reputation for serving cheap, unhealthy food. Certainly, McDonald’s is a huge international corporation and they realize that Americans are paying closer attention to what they eat. So they’ve made some changes like offering egg whites in breakfast sandwiches, and chicken wraps which include actual cucumbers. Some of their franchises also offer salad instead of fries. Choi says that there are plans to offer mandarins in Happy Meals, and other fruits are being explored. McDonald’s discontinued its Fruit & Walnut salad and the premium Angus burgers.

McDonald’s has an especially difficult task, as they have focused on low-cost burgers since 1955 when they were founded – next year a full 6 decades. That’s a long pendulum of history driving products and traditions.  How can they expect easily to reframe a branding perception in the minds of the consumers who have known their products during all those years? How can they do so while keeping product ingredients with few perishable, whole and natural components?  Their profit margins depend on these highly processed substances.  It is a good point that they sell such large volumes in their stores as to assure greater freshness before an item is sold, but their history assures that their supply chains and processing factories are not set up to deliver many new whole, fresh items.

It is enormously significant that they decided to discontinue the apples and walnuts, one of the few products they have ever offered that got people like us excited – people who promote eating whole foods, natural, minimally processed, mostly plants. They discontinued it, and did not replace it with any similar whole natural foods.  This idea of getting celebrity chefs to concoct so-called gourmet items from their highly processed food components does not make such concoctions healthier for you (unless they slip in some whole natural foods), it just makes the slogan “good food served fast” more plausible. What this whole new slogan might mean is they appear to have given up on trying to change the components of junk food to healthy food, and have turned instead to selling the same profitable components by repackaging them as more interesting, celebrity-styled “good” food.

They have tomatoes, lettuce, and various salads still. I hope they will not abandon these salads as they did the apples and walnuts. They have not even ventured to offer whole-grain breads for their buns. Perhaps they doubt that they can compete with Chipotle or Cafe Rio and other rapidly growing healthy food chains in offering whole, organic, made-on-the-spot meals. These meals feature minimally processed whole foods – and the companies offer transparency in their high quality food chains. It seems logical that they cannot compete, because many of the fresh, whole or organic food products probably would drive prices out of the range of McDonald’s customer base.

Since there are no plans to sell the items served to the reporters and bloggers, I don’t know what exactly they wanted the influencers to write about. When you build a brand concept for 60 years, it’s challenging … like trying to make a U-turn at 80 mph, or more aptly, to repackage a set of highly profitable, highly processed ingredients with no natural silk in them as stylish silk purses. Mainly, I hope our readers would not be enticed to eat junk food, covered in sugar sauce. Again, you can’t make a nutritionally poor choice healthy by adding a sauce or smoothie mix to it; I don’t care how famous the chef that designed the recipe is. Watch out for sow’s ears disguised as silk purses.