The More You Know!

This entry doesn’t really relate to software development, butnonetheless it covers human behaviour and subconscious decisionmaking that does significantly impact our marketplace.

Here in Canada, a year or so ago there was a big kerfuffle in the federal government concerning transfats -a controversy that got a tonne of press (both by boostersencouraging this consumer protection, and critics who decried it asthe actions of a nanny state). Namely, that there were calls to bantransfats from the food system, legally eliminating thispurportedly dangerous, artificialfat from grocery shelves. This would have made us the secondcountry, after Denmark, to ban transfats. Transfats are, ofcourse, the hydrogentation of otherwise normal,in-moderation-healthy unsaturated fats, molecularly altered toimprove handling (hydrogenated oils are solid at room temperature,and in fryers need to be changed less frequently), and reducedspoilage and possibly consumer convenience – goods stay “fresh” ongrocery shelves for longer, while baked goods made withtransfats, for instance, often stayed bizarrely fresh out of thepackage for days. Humorously, a couple of decades ago transfatswere seen as the saviour from the evils of saturated fats.

While McDonalds, along with the other big fast-food companies,are addicted to transfats, and they’re finding it difficult to cuttheir use of the stuff, I’ve been noticing more and moreformulation changes on store shelves – I’ve always been a labelreader – with transfats being voluntarily eliminated fromwhole categories. Occasionally this change has occurred silently(there was a mass migration from trans-fats in potato chip productsabout a year ago, with only a few of the companies actually notingthe dramatic health benefit change), while in other case it hascome with a huge marketing campaign. Even for those peopleblissfully unaware, the quantity of transfats in their diet hasplummeted, apart from a couple of hold-outs like McDonald’s frenchfries.

So why has this mass change occurred I suspect two reasons:

  • The publicity relating to the debate brought this to theattention of the public, and the public started to subconsiously(or consciously) associate transfats with bad things. Thissubconscious association is enormouslyeffective in altering behaviour at the root level.Children’s treats like Goldfish, which used to be made with heartyamounts of transfats, were suddenly like handing your child a packof cigarettes, which obviously is unacceptable to parents. TheGoldfish company, after switching to a transfat free recipe,claimed that they did it out of the goodness of their hearts, andthere was little public demand. I suspect that they are beingdisingenuous, and they knew that their marketshare would disappearif they didn’t accommodate this new health information.
  • Legal concerns. Now that everyone knows that transfats aredangerous, and we know that alternatives are possible, foodcompanies are building themselves a massive liability risk withevery transfat laden product they ship. It’s one thing to rely uponthem when there is ignorance, but quite another to turn a blind eyeto their dangers when it has been well documented. I suspect a lotof the silent switching has been to limit future legalthreats.

Interesting seeing the impact public information, and the futurethreat of lawsuits, has had upon such a huge part of ourmarketplace. And in such a short period of time! Governmentintervention was entirely unnecessary (and might actually haveslowed the switch, as what should be a simple healthdebate would inevitably turn into a bunch of partisannonsense, with the opposition party and boosters sucking back a tubof hydrogenated oils in the name of freedoms, proclaiming therights of all Canadians to eat transfats. Such political nonsenseis typical in those scenarios, regardless of who is in power andwho is across the floor).