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The Chicago Tribune has just completed a fascinating three-part profile of the Oreo, using the popular cookie as both metaphor and illustration of changing trends in American foods, the evolving tastes of the American consumer, and the continuing challenges to companies making money in the snack food business.

While the Oreo is the world’s best selling cookie, the Tribune writes, “it also has become a symbol of another sort. To some it is a nutritional time bomb, emblematic of the junk food fueling America's obesity crisis, particularly among children. It is the kind of sugary snack that research suggests can trigger the same brain impulses as addictive narcotics.”

And, the Tribune reports, “the Oreo's primary ingredients--sugar, flour and fat--are at the center of current dietary debates. And the company's quandary is one most foodmakers face: How can Kraft serve shareholders and employees, ensuring that its more fattening brands thrive while still responding to consumer concerns that it is feeding the obesity epidemic?”

While Kraft was one of the first companies in the food industry to stop advertising to children – a decision that can be seen as a logical precursor to last week’s decision by the soft drink industry to voluntarily cut back on selling to children in public schools – there is no evidence that the debate – some would call it persecution – is going to end any time soon. And even if Kraft were to take steps even more drastic to address the obesity issue, the Tribune accurately notes another reality: “Americans express worries about their health but still want to indulge their guilty pleasures.” And there may be no more everyday, available – and quite possibly, addictive - pleasure than the simple Oreo.

Indeed, Kraft has consistently tried to walk a delicate line – working to appear or actually be sympathetic to consumers concerns about obesity while at the same time offering as broad a range of choices as possible to sate consumer desires – offering, according to David S. Johnson, Kraft's North America chief, products “ranging from better-for-you options like Oreo 100 Calorie Packs to more indulgent treats like the chocolate-covered Oreo.” Now, the paper notes, the Oreo now comes in 40 different flavors, colors and package sizes

It is, of course, a tricky and changeable landscape that Kraft has to navigate. The Tribune writes, “Oreo's makers added trans fat a decade ago, in a race to address worries that lard in the cookie could lead to heart problems. Later, research showed that trans fat was even worse for the heart than lard.”

So now, Kraft is embarked on trying to develop a trans fat-free Oreo – a tough job because consumers don’t like an Oreo that doesn’t taste like an Oreo. At one point the company believed it would have one on the market by this month…but now, it is predicting the end of the year.
KC's View:
Great piece by the Tribune.

Maybe it is just because we like Oreos so much – does this make us an addict? – but we have to say that whatever its motivations, Kraft seems to have done the right and proper thing by providing a broad range of Oreo-type items with different levels of fat. Forty versions should be enough – and certainly give people plenty of room within which to make personal decisions.

One of those decisions, of course, is not to buy them and eat them.