What would you think if someone told you that they were fighting for a “share” of your stomach? Bring to mind organ harvesting? alien invasion? theft?
But this is in fact what the food industry is doing, and has been for some time. I first heard this term last week when I took part in a to-remain-nameless gathering of food experts in the bay area. It was in the context of a discussion of how we might, as eaters, make healthful choices in the American food marketplace. Someone in the room recalled being at a food industry gathering, recently, where executives from a soda company were debating how to increase their “stomach share.” They were seeking to expand their line of products (from sodas, to juices, waters, and exercise drinks) to make sure that whenever someone put a beverage in their stomach it was from company X. Rather than merely competing with another brand in, say, “the marketplace,” the “stomach share” metaphor takes the battle to the consumers’ own body. The question is not just how can we ensure that the consumer is buying the maximum amount of our product, but also how can we ensure that whenever the consumer is ingesting it is our product that’s got a majority share of the space.
This stomach talk reminded me of another phrase I’d come across in my research for Empty Pleasures—“prosperity stomach.” Coined in 1966 by Henry Schacht, an executive from a diet-food company, and mentioned in a talk to newspaper editors called “How to Succeed in Business without Getting Fat,” the phrase referred to a troubling problem faced by the food industry. Because people (at least the middle class) did less manual labor and had more money to buy the cheaper food produced by American industry, they had begun to gain weight. That wasn’t really the problem from Schacht’s point of view. More troubling was that this weight gain meant that they could not—or would not—buy all of the food they wanted—food that industry could profit by selling. The answer? Diet Foods. By developing more foods that had fewer calories, manufacturers and marketers could enjoy profits in excess of the stomach barrier.
“Stomach share” and “prosperity stomach”—terms invented nearly fifty years apart—remind us that the food industries have long viewed consumers as reducable to mere storage spaces for their products. Within this climate, the wonder is not that our stomachs have expanded, it’s that they have not expanded even further.