The Green Plate: Frito Lay, How Green You’re Not

ColumnFrito Lay may be a natural at greenwash, but they’re not green.

The other day, when a banner ad touting the greening of SunChips popped up on the granddaddy of green blogs, Treehugger, we were dismayed and confused.

It goes like this: Treehugger = the green original. Sunchips is a Frito Lay brand. Frito Lay is owned by Pepsico. What’s wrong with this match made in HTML? Frito Lay/Pepsico are masters at greenwashing. To see a green ad for one of their brands show up on a blog that is considered to be the moral authority of environmentalism is fairly demoralizing.

I don’t know what Treehugger’s ad policy is or if that ad is displaying as part of a package (our editor did some digging and it appears to be a Discovery network campaign; Discovery is Treehugger’s parent company). Sometimes, with ad networks, what ads pop up is at least temporarily beyond a publisher’s control. But giving space to a Pepsico brand lends an air of credibility that just smells bad. Here’s why.

1. Pepsico wants to keep America hooked on sugar and junk food.

Despite what the marketing arm says about wanting to help people eat better, PepsiCo spent $3.6 million in the first quarter of 2011 alone on lobbying to combat legislation to tax sugar-sweetened drinks.

2. Pepsico’s Refresh Project is just a line item in the company’s ad budget and a strategy to get its brand logos in front of a many children as possible.

In 2010, Pepsico decided to forgo spending millions to go up against rival Coke during the Super Bowl, in favor of a new $20 million social media-leveraged campaign that provides cash grants for community improvement projects, including many in public schools. Though the campaign has come under fire by good food advocates, notably Michele Simon, some socially conscious blogs, such as Tonic, have breathlessly praised the project. I find it depressing that public schools, parks, and programs are so thoroughly defunded that community groups must scramble for coins tossed by disreputable corporations to repair infrastructure that should be publicly funded.

3. Frito Lay is nothing more than a “corn launderer” with a big ad budget.

Snack food company Frito Lay practically exists to utilize the overproduction of corn that is the pillar of our farm subsidy system. They are masters at transforming corn kernels into any number of syrups, solids, powers, and masses and then reconstituting them into snack foods (see number 6 below) that generate huge marketing budgets for campaigns to convince consumers that the foods are healthy.

4. Frito Lay works humorously hard to convince consumers their products are healthy and “natural.”

Last week Frito Lay conducted a PR stunt in Times Square to prove to consumers that “fully half” of its products are “all natural” (see numbers 7 and 8 below).

5. Most Frito Lay products are anything but healthy, though they all benefit from the halo of health-driven advertising/PR efforts.

Company officials admit that they will not be making any changes to best-selling Doritos and Cheetos snacks. I live near a school and I see children walking to school eating these things for breakfast.

6. The incredible almost-onion Funyuns.

You might be forgiven for thinking that Flaming Hot Funyuns contain onions. A gander at the ingredient label shows lists 39 ingredients, of which at least seven are corn derivatives. The remaining ingredients include MSG, artificial colors Red 40 lake and Yellow 6 lake (I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to swim in those lakes), sugar, disodium phosphate, and sodium diasiphate. Toward the end of the ingredient list we see onion powder. The penultimate ingredient is “extractive of onion.”

7. “Natural” doesn’t mean anything.

The FDA has not defined the word “natural” for use on product labels, nor has it regulated front of package claims. This means any claim you see on the front of the package has been defined by the company making the claim. The FDA only regulates the “nutrition facts” on the back of the label. Many companies selling processed snack and junk foods rely on the “natural” label to bolster their appeal as a harmless thing to consume.

8. The vast majority of Frito Lay’s products are not natural, anyway.

Even under Frito Lay’s definition of natural, at present, only five product lines out of 33 are listed as “natural.” Nowhere near the touted half (see number 4 above). And Sunchips isn’t even one of them. Here’s a full list of Frito Lay brands. You’re free to look at all the ingredient labels.

9. Frito Lay’s compost smells bad.

In 2010, Frito Lay got a lot of positive PR for introducing a compostable bag – for one flavor in one product line out of 33 lines. Even then, all it took was a little whining by consumers for the company to abandon the trial temporarily. Then it was revealed that the newly re-engineered quieter compostable bag was hardly compostable at all. Why bother?

10. Frito Lay is accidentally green, not proactively green.

The New York Times reported in 2007 that Frito Lay’s efforts to save energy and water, though good for the planet, are more about saving money. Of course it’s smart to save money, but their marketing would have us believe that they’re doing it for philanthropic reasons.

Remember that corporations are in business to maximize their profits and everything they do is aimed at that goal. Though some corporations may do things that benefit some people some of the time, the ultimate goal is profits. Any advertising, anywhere, should be evaluated with a critical eye.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: jronaldlee via Flickr





Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.