Crunching The Numbers

Published on: 10:03AM Aug 10, 2010

I was having breakfast with my son today, who was enthusiastically devouring a bowl of EnviroKidz Organic Peanut Butter Panda Puffs.  I am fairly confident that, as a seven year-old, he is unaware of, and unconcerned about, the supposed benefits of the certified organic corn and sugar cane that went into the product.  Nor was he overly interested in the fact that the cereal manufacturer donates part of its proceeds to helping wildlife, such as the increasingly rare pandas illustrated on the box.

No, he just likes the peanut butter flavoring of the cereal. That’s why he picked it out when we went shopping last week at Trader Joe’s.  For that matter, I like it, too, as a mix-in with my high-fiber, boring grown-up cereal.

And that allowed me to get all nostalgic for a moment in time, perhaps four decades ago, when I was eating a very similar breakfast product:  Capn Crunch’s Peanut Butter Crunch (which, after all these years, is still being sold, unlike my other childhood favorite, Quisp, which apparently you can purchase over the internet, but not in stores). 

I got to wondering that, apart from the socially-conscientious marketing strategies of the Nature’s Path Organic food company that makes the Panda PB product, how do the two cereals really compare?  A quick check of the nutrition facts labels indicates that they are very similar in the area of added sugars and total carbohydrates, which is the key criterion of the cereal comparison:

A 30-gram serving of Peanut Butter Panda Puffs has 24 total grams of carbos, including 7 grams of sugar.

A 27-gram serving of Peanut Butter Capn Crunch has 21 total grams of carbos, including 9 grams of sugar.

It’s also worth noting that both products have exactly the same 2.5 grams of fat, and no cholesterol, although the EnviroKidz product has no saturated fat in that serving, while Capn Crunch has 1 gram of sat fat.  So in fairness, the key metrics favor the Panda Puffs over the CC Crunch – but the margin of victory is quite small and not, to this parent anyway, of much significance. 

The reason I bring all this up is the real thing that both products have in common:  the manufacturers’ respective use of cartoon imagery to hock their wares.  My recollection is that Capn Crunch himself has been a staple of the Quaker Oats marketing stable for decades, at least since this baby boomer was still a baby.  And they’re using him still. 

Meanwhile, Nature’s Path is employing a more 21st century, politically-correct equivalent to the venerable Captain:  a cute, albeit endangered, panda to push peanut butter puffs. 

I am reminded of this contrast by an insightful recent Freakonomics blog posting by James McWilliams, who also used the eating preferences of his kids to illustrate part of the challenge of dealing with childhood obesity, i.e. that junk food advertising is often blamed as the reason kids are increasingly fat…but that’s only part of the real battle.  In McWilliams’ mind, the real battle is the culture of food decision-making that parents – not kids – enter into when they go to the supermarket.

As I said earlier, let’s face it, food companies sourcing from certified organic ingredients, and giving money to save the pandas (or gorillas, or the others helped in this marketing effort), is mostly about appealing to parents’ sense of conscientiousness, not their kids.  Kids care about tasty and fun, but our culture of concern (bordering obsession, in some circles) about good foods vs. bad ones is making it a lot harder to blithely make any type of consumer purchase.  So smart marketers are using other appeals to sell to parents what, at least nutritionally, is essentially an identical product.  Bagels, anyone?