Veggie burgers fall through the gaps in the grill, or pinch off into little sloppy nuggets when you bite into the bun. But they might hold the key to making the country eat more healthily–if you make healthy food look like junk food, people will buy (and eat) it. That’s the theory behind Priceonomics’ Veggie Burger Principle.
No amount of legislation or education seems to work when it comes to making lardy Americans eat better: School students are obliged to take a piece of fruit with their lunch, but they just toss it straight in the trash, and the country continues to grow more obese. The answer, says Priceonomics’ Alex Mayyasi, is recognising “the value of disguising vegetables as an all-American comfort food.”
Mayyasi takes us back to World War II, when the government needed to make citizens eat organ meats and offcuts like “liver sausage, liver, tongue, hearts, kidneys, sweetbreads, tripe, brains, pork feet, and ox tails” because the steaks and chicken breasts were being shipped overseas to feed the troops. The answer was a campaign that taught housewives to put kidneys into pies to make steak and kidney pie, or to mince organs into meat loaf. And it worked. Sales of these meats jumped by 35% to 50%. These stealth recipes, which hide less popular meat inside familiar dishes, are still popular today.
The thinking goes that veggie burgers could become a vehicle for delivering vegetables and salad to the meat-loving masses. The “VegeBurger” was born in London in the 1980s, and despite a bland taste compared to the fleshy original, it succeeded, selling 13 million units in its first year.
The Veggie Burger Principle is already all around us. Mayyasi cites kale chips as one stealth health food, and tells the story of Amy’s Drive Thru in Marin, California, a health food restaurant that has disguised itself as a fast food joint. “The prototypical meal is a double patty (vegetarian) burger, fries, and a shake. It had a line out the door on opening day, and Yelp reviewers describe Amy’s burgers and fries as better than those down the street at In-n-Out Burger.”
It seems so obvious. After all, we choose food with our eyes. If we actually cared what was inside the fried exterior of our fast food, nobody would every eat chicken nuggets or hot dogs. Exploiting this deliberate ignorance by hiding healthy food inside these popular, mystery-meat forms might be the smartest and quickest way to fight obesity in the U.S. With no legislation, no education, and no effort at all, people could get healthier and thinner, without even knowing why.