In 1998, a Colorado handyman was snowmobiling in the mountains outside of Steamboat Springs when he got swept up in an avalanche that buried his vehicle and left him stranded in a blizzard. Provisioned with nothing more than two butane lighters and a Snickers bar, the man endured 40 mph winds and near-zero temperatures for five days and four nights as rescue teams struggled to locate him. Luckily, the Snickers bar he’d carried was the king-sized version. Every one of its 510 calories helped him persevere through the course of his ordeal.
In the future, anyone caught in similar circumstances better hope for a faster search and rescue team. Mars Inc., the manufacturer of Snickers and many other convenience store treats, has decided to phase out chocolate products that exceed 250 calories per portion. By the end of 2013, consumers will no longer be able to purchase king-sized Snickers bars. Instead, they’ll have to make do with a product that Mars introduced in 2009, Snickers 2 To Go, which features two 220-calorie bars in a single “resealable” wrapper. In addition, Mars will also need to reduce the size of a standard Snickers bar. It currently contains 280 calories and thus exceeds the new calorie cap by 12 percent.
Mars is implementing the 250-calorie threshold as part of an agreement with Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), a non-profit organization that aims to “broker meaningful commitments” from commercial food manufacturers like Mars to “end childhood obesity.” PHA was founded in 2010 in conjunction with the Let’s Move! program, First Lady Michelle Obama’s federally funded government initiative that aims to shape up the nation’s tubby youth through a vigorous regimen of legislation, regulation, and mass jumping jacks. Mrs. Obama serves as PHA’s honorary chair, and according to its website, PHA’s mandate is to “monitor and publicly report on the progress” of its private-sector partners like Mars, and, more generally, to “make the healthy choice the easy choice.”
While Snickers may seem like an immutable staple of American culture, it’s actually been quite protean since its 1930 introduction. In its initial incarnation, for example, it weighed 2.5 ounces. In 1941, it hit 2.75 ounces, but by 1958, it had shrunk to less than half that size, to a wispy 1.25 ounces—clearly, mid-century snackers were much more easily satisfied than the hungry souls of Depression-era America. At some point after that mid-century low, Snicker started an upward climb, hitting 1.80 ounces in 1981, upsizing again in 1986, and eventually settling on its current weight of 2.07 ounces around a decade ago.
In England, the standard Snickers bar was slightly larger than its American counterpart until just a few years ago. In 2008, however, Mars U.K. reduced its size from 62.5 grams to 58 grams (or 2.2 ounces to 2.04 ounces). It didn’t publicize this change, but according to the Daily Mail, when observers started noting that Mars U.K. was still charging the old price for the newly shrunken bar, the company explained that it had downsized its products to “help tackle the nation’s obesity crisis.”
That Mars U.K. had failed to publicize this noble effort in any way cast doubts upon the sincerity of its claims, and under further prodding, the Daily Mail notes, Mars U.K. acknowledged that “continued cost increases over the last few years” had been the real catalyst behind the decision to reduce the size of its bars.
Apparently, the various outposts of the Mars empire learned from this experience. In 2009, when Mars Snackfood Australia reduced the size of its bars by 11 percent, it prefaced the change with press releases and advertisements citing its desire to cater to consumer demand for smaller portion sizes. And now here in the United States, Mars Inc. has further refined this approach by getting the First Lady and the Partnership for a Healthier America to position its cost-cutting measures as a mandate for improving public health.
On the one hand, everybody wins. Big Candy gets an endorsement from the First Lady and her government-flavored organizations that lends credence to its supposed civic altruism. The First Lady, Lets Move!, and PHA get bullet-point fodder that show they really are making a difference in the fight against obesity. Hopeless Snickers addicts get a relatively painless way to ameliorate the negative consequences of their habit. (If you consume a Snickers bar every workday at 3 PM, and that bar is downsized from 280 to 250 calories, you’ll decrease your annual calorie intake by 7,500 calories and thus lose a little over two pounds.)
But what about the children? Surely we want our nation’s youth to be morally fit as well as physically fit—and what sort of example is being set for them when corporate dissembling is not just tolerated but actually rewarded simply because it happens to line up nicely with some powerful person’s worthy cause?
The new Snickers calorie cap is also notable for the way in which it illuminates the way anti-obesity advocates tend to view the world. “The public needs all the help we can get and it is crucial that food companies get on board with this,” Kristie Lancaster, an associate professor of Nutrition and Public Health at New York University, exclaimed to the New York Daily News in the wake of Mars’ announcement. “This is both the manufacturer responsibility as well as a personal responsibility. There is a huge problem when most of the choices out there are bigger and more calories. It makes it so much harder for people to do what they need to do to be healthy.”
In reality, Mars has offered smaller versions of Snickers bars for decades. A “fun-size” Snickers bar contains 80 calories. A Snickers Mini contains 42.5 calories. And while these items must be purchased in packages that contain multiple pieces, Mars also makes numerous bars which can be purchased individually that contain 200 or fewer calories. According to Vending Times, 3 Musketeers Coconut, M&M’s Dark Chocolate Mint, and Dove Chocolate Singles all come in under that limit. Similarly, a standard package of Reese’s Peanut Cups contains 210 calories, as does a standard Hershey’s bar. A York Peppermint Patty has 140 calories. If you can’t find at least a half dozen treats on virtually any well-stocked candy rack in America that contain about the same amount of calories or less than a Starbucks Grande Latte, you’re just not looking very hard.
And of course your patronage of the candy rack is wholly elective. In theory, at least, PHA champions the conceit of “choice architecture” or “libertarian paternalism,” which holds that institutions like the government can help people make better decisions for their lives not by compelling them to act in specific ways but simply by making “good” choices easier to choose than “bad” choices. Thus PHA’s mandate “to make the healthy choice the easy choice.”
The Let’s Move! campaign and its advocates sound similar themes. Here, for example, is Eddie Gehman Kohan, founding editor of Obama Foodorama, which bills itself as “the blog of record about White House food initiatives,” discussing Let’s Move! in a PBS interview. “Let’s Move! has been pointed to by a lot of critics as an example of big government intervening and the Obama administration wanting to expand the role of government to the point that it controls what American citizens eat,” she exclaims. “For its part, the campaign says it’s about giving people choice and educating them about food and nutrition and physical activity and allowing them to have access to a wide range of choices.”
Certainly there are examples where this holds true. Installing a salad bar in a school where none existed before will likely increase access to a wider variety of fruits and vegetables. Identifying healthy food choices with highly visible labeling, as Walmart is doing with its “Great for You” campaign, can help educate consumers and encourage them to make better choices without reducing their ability to ultimately decide for themselves what they want to eat.
In the case of Mars’ candy bar purges and calorie caps, however, “making the healthy choice the easy choice” is achieved not by expanding choices but rather by narrowing them—call it “Yes, we can’t” progressivism. While this tactic may improve corporate profits and help the most avid Snickers eaters shed a few pounds, the Orwellian doublespeak is sure to leave a bad taste in one’s mouth.
Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.