The Situationist

Cut the “Natural-Cut”

Posted by Adam Benforado on April 12, 2011

Wendy’s has a new product: french fries. 

Okay, sure, technically fries have been around a while . . . but, according to Wendy’s, not like this.  Meet “Natural-Cut French Fries”:

Let’s face it—everybody’s got fries. Wendy’s has got something special. Naturally-cut from whole Russet potatoes, cooked skin-on, and served hot and crispy with a sprinkle of sea salt for a taste as real as it gets.

Wow!  Finally, healthy, all-natural French fries!

Sound too good to be true?

It is.

A large serving of the new product packs in 25 grams of fat, 630 mg of sodium, and 520 calories.

But wait, you said they came from whole Russet potatoes . . . you said that they had their skins on . . . you told me they were naturally-cut . . . you said sea salt!

These sounded “good” for me.  Or at least healthier than the McDonald’s alternative.  But are they?

Nope.  A large fries at McDonald’s has 25 grams of fat and 500 calories.  Moreover, that “sprinkle” of sea salt at Wendy’s dwarfs McDonald’s 350 mg of sodium.

And so begins yet another food scam from our friends in the fast food industry: creating a profitable perception in consumers that they know to be both inaccurate and potentially harmful to health.

I dream that one day there will be regulators with the resources, authority, and backbone to crack down on exactly this type of corporate behavior, but I fear that that day is a long way off.

7 Responses to “Cut the “Natural-Cut””

  1. CaptBackslap said

    I’m usually onboard with this site’s views, but how is this ad remotely deceptive? Sea salt is a hot ingredient lately, and “natural-cut” is a fair enough distinction, since skin-on potatoes are rare in fast food. The ad is about quality and foodie trendiness (and the fries are, in fact, much improved), and doesn’t even look in the direction of health.

    There might be some people who think “natural-cut” means lower fat, but they’re probably not allowed in restaurants without supervision anyway.

  2. Tamara Piety said

    In response to the comment above, he says this because it is likely the case that Wendy’s is using these words advisedly to try to tape into what John Tierney has called the “health halo” – that is using terminology that will incline consumers to think the food in question is better for them than it really is while avoiding making any explicit claims to being actually healthier. (See John Tierney “Health Halo can hide calories, New york times December 2, 2008). There is every reason to believe that this is a deliberate obfuscation because the industry reports that this is what marketers say they are doing. For example, a recent article in Advertising Age reported that insiders claim that fast food advertisers use words like “wholesome” and “fresh” in order to tap into consumer desires to eat healthier foods without triggering guilt feelings in those who “want and need to eat fast food because of their busy lifestyles, but do not want to feel guilty about eating it.” Such buzz words also allow them to avoid regulatory scrutiny for making false claims (assuming that the fries really do use sea salt, are prepared skins on, etc.)(See Maureen Morrison, Fast feeders serve up fresh buzzwords, ADVERTISING AGE, (March 7, 2011) pp. 3 & 26, at 26) (emphasis added).

  3. Tamara Piety said

    The above should read “tap into” not “tape into”

  4. CaptBackslap said

    I’m sure they were quite aware of the positive connotations of “natural” (none of the other words they mentioned seem relevant to nutrition, even vaguely) but there’s still nothing deceptive there, and absolutely nothing that would justify any sort of regulatory action.

    “But wait, you said they came from whole Russet potatoes . . . you said that they had their skins on . . . you told me they were naturally-cut . . . you said sea salt!”

    They also told you they’re french fries from Wendy’s. They’re just not awful, metallic-tasting fries anymore. I’ve seen quite a few of their annoying ads, and it didn’t even occur to me that they might be lower-fat. Wendy’s certainly would have made us all aware of it if they were.

    Incidentally, expect to see a lot more sea salt products soon. Widespread desalinization has made sea salt cheap, but it still has a fancy sound to most people.

  5. Adam Benforado said

    Thanks for the great comments!

    A few thoughts:

    1. CaptBackslap: I don’t dispute that one of Wendy’s aims in marketing its French fries is to encourage a perception that they are of higher quality and tastier than the food chain’s competitors. There’s a growing psych literature on “managing” just such perceptions.

    2. However, as Tamara points out, I think that Wendy’s core goal here is to, in her words, “incline consumers to think the food in question is better for them than it really is while avoiding making any explicit claims to being actually healthier.” And I think the evidence she points to (as well as numerous other examples of similar strategies) is extremely compelling. Tamara: Special thanks for the Advertising Age cite (it’s now on my “to read” list)!

    3. I do contest CaptBackslap’s notion that there is “absolutely nothing that would justify any sort of regulatory action” in this case. As Jon Hanson, David Yosifon, and I chronicled in Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America, over consumption of French fries, Big Macs, milkshakes, and other fast food products contributes to thousands of deaths annually, hurts the competitiveness of American businesses, and causes us all to pay higher health care premiums and taxes. If Wendy’s is knowingly employing the “health halo” to hide calories to encourage higher consumption (and greater profits), there seems like quite a lot of reasons for the government to intervene.

    4. As an aside, I continue to urge Situationist readers to use their real names in the comments section. We all enjoy a robust debate and hearing conflicting points of view is part of the fun. Reasonable people can disagree about the controversial subjects we discuss on the blog, so there’s nothing to fear from publicly standing by your comments.

  6. Nate (CaptBackslap) said

    I just disagree on the main focus of the Wendy’s ads (although I think everyone can agree that Jay and Maria are irritating spokespeople). I think they’re really trying to cash in on food trends, with both sea salt and the faux localism of “whole Russet potatoes.”

    But aside from that, I have a lot of qualms about trying to regulate language use the way you describe. First, I’m not sure how a regulatory regime based on consumers not knowing what words mean would work. It’s hard to imagine it as anything but extremely intrusive. Second, when New York City required restaurants to post calorie counts right on the menu, it didn’t reduce calories consumed, so it’s not obvious that lack of knowledge of calories is making people eat more. And finally, it’s not clear that mealtime calories are the driver of increased U.S. obesity, and it appears that children are actually eating fewer calories at meals but far more as snacks. So, regulating restaurants may be barking up the wrong tree to begin with. Greatly increased consumer education seems like a much safer and more effective policy.

  7. Keith West said

    This reminds me, somewhat, of the facts behind the Vitaminwater lawsuit. (If don’t know what that is, here’s a quick summary: In both situations, I imagine a group of admen sitting around a table, looking at data indicating that consumers are worried about the health of the food they eat and stating a preference for healthier alternatives. And the way the admen resolve this issue is by finding ways to market their existing products, be it Coca-Cola or french fries, as a new kind of health food.

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