Fast Company

Devil's Food

Big Food wants everything bad to be good for you.

A small confession: In the 20 or so minutes before I wrote this column, I consumed an ungodly number of jelly beans. Normally, I'd worry about the sugar content, but these were no ordinary jelly beans. They were Jelly Belly Sport Beans, which contain carbs, electrolytes, vitamins B and C, and, according to the small type under the fruit punch label, "natural flavor" (possibly from organically grown fruit-punch trees?). They're so healthy, I feel better about myself just looking at the empty packages.

A month or so ago, I noticed a giant billboard near my apartment advertising Diet Coke Plus, a variation of the classic that contains vitamins B3, B6, B12, magnesium, and zinc. Because I live in a hipstery part of Brooklyn, I almost mistook it for an art installation: ironic commentary on the junk-food industry's desperate ploys to demonstrate to consumers that their products aren't all bad--soaring diabetes rates, rotting teeth, etc., notwithstanding. But, no! It actually exists. In fact, it would probably make sense to switch to Diet Coke Plus now and give up drinking water, as water contains no vitamins.

Unless, of course, it's VitaminWater.

Which is owned by Glacéau. Which is owned by Coca-Cola.

It's not surprising to find variations of healthified junk food at stores that focus on health. I bought something at Whole Foods last week called Laura's Wholesome Junk Food Chocolate X-Treme Fudge Bite-lettes. I was willing to forgive the spelling of "extreme" here as if it preceded a dirt-bike competition, but the "bite-lettes" tasted so bad that I had to chase them with a Dove Organic chocolate bar, the medicinal aftertaste of which only disappeared after the consumption of a handful of Ferrara Pan Red Hots, which are, according to the packaging, a "fat-free food."

But to be completely honest, there's still a part of me that doesn't like seeing Ronald Reagan's favorite candy corrupted by vitamins and minerals. It's not that I don't appreciate incremental measures to fight the obesity epidemic and make people a bit healthier. It's that I think it's a shameless exercise in branding around fashionable trends, perhaps with a covetous eye toward the $35.4 billion nutraceutical market and the $16.7 billion organic-foods market. The nutritional payoff, however, is usually marginal at best. Diet Coke Plus, for example, contains 15% of the recommended daily intake for niacin, B6, and B12. Or you could get the same amount of B6 by eating half a slice of watermelon.

When McDonald's began selling salads in the mid-1980s, there were probably similar trendy intentions, but the availability of leafy greens meant that customers could buy real alternatives to greasy burgers and fries--and cheaply, which has always been part of the chain's appeal. Certainly, it's possible to find and highlight the healthy aspects of nearly anything (arsenic: cholesterol and fat free!). But however anemic and unappealing the piles of iceberg lettuce, they were still undeniably and materially healthier than a Big Mac.

Then again, it's probably safe to say that if you're reaching for junk food in the first place, nutrition is not your top priority. Nestlé or Mars could introduce chocolate-covered bacon and cheese, deep-fried in beer batter, and you would be the first in line to buy it. And deep down, junk-food companies know that. After all, the two primary ingredients in Sport Beans are still sugar and corn syrup.

But in their defense, they're delicious.

Elizabeth Spiers was the founding editor of both Gawker and Dealbreaker.com. Her first novel, And They All Die in the End, will be published by Riverhead.

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