Friday, April 17, 2009
In the late 80s and early 90s, the Oscar Meyer company was out to prove that they were more than just a catchy jingle and a Wienermobile. At this point, we were all fairly aware of Oscar Meyer's way with B-O-L-O-G-N-A. We were relatively proficient in identifying our bologna by both its first and second names. We even had general affection for ingesting the aforementioned mysterious lunchmeat daily. What more could they want from us?
Perhaps they were upset were were packing non-Oscar Meyer brand products in our school lunches. Maybe it was that sometimes we favored Jennie-O Turkey Breast over our old mystery meat pal bologna. Or possibly they were just concerned we weren't meeting our daily sodium level potential. Whatever the instigator may have been, the quest to streamline the lunch-packing process had begun.
When it came to the 1990s elementary school cafeteria, brown bags and insulated coolers were out and prepackaged boxed lunches were in. Suddenly the height of cafeteria coolness revolved around snack-like, nutritionally devoid, candy toting yellow boxes. To pull out one of those signature Lunchables boxes at lunch time was to declare yourself party to the latest in food trends and blatantly flaunt your parents' reputable recalcitrance for wholesome nourishment. Those of us whose parents insisted on packing us a food pyramid-inspired balanced meal were forced to hang our heads in shame at our lack of preboxed lunchtime delights.
The Lunchables roster certainly expanded over the years, but it began with a simple savory formula: crackers, adorably miniature slices of lunchmeat, and overprocessed and suspiciously orange cheese slices. Later models included such awe-inspiringly nutrition-void amenities as Capri Sun drink pouches and a fun size portion of candy. Some of us, though I won't say who, learned the don't-put-metal-in-the-microwave lesson the hard way via the addition of the metallic Capri Sun pouches. Her parents may or may not have frozen Lunchables for posterity and future lunchability, and she was not quite patient enough to let it thaw. Again, I'm not naming names, but she may or may not have broken her family's brand new microwave through this ill-fated Lunchable venture*.
Lunchable varieties became increasingly questionable with each successive incarnation. Each model stayed true to the original formula of a collection of spare lunch parts complete with assembly instructions, but Oscar Meyer certainly weren't afraid to experiment with creativity. They churned out pizzas, nachos, mysterious forms of "dunkers," tacos, and nearly any other fathomable junk food-based product. Naturally (or as the case warranted, by means of artificial flavoring) it was only a matter of time before anti-childhood obesity groups and health advocates stormed the Lunchables bastille in the name of all things overly salty.
Yes, these salt-packed snacks were tasty, but it's largely due to the fact that they were often packing a whopping three quarters of a daily recommended value of sodium for an adult. Mind you, these were mainly consumed by children, so it's fairly simple to deduce that the sodium content more than exceeded their healthy daily dosage. This preservative-rich snack boxes came under fire for their absolute defiance in the face of rising health consciousness. Essentially, researchers looked on in horror as morbidly obese children waddled to their lunch tables, inhaled a Lunchable, chased it with the fun size candy, and went into a salt coma. These were kids walking through their elementary school hallways single file not out of obedience to teachers but out of necessity to fit through the cafeteria door.
The Oscar Meyer/Kraft people could only hold out for so long. There was really no adequate defense for the remarkably low nutrition levels of their products, other than that children adored them and their junk-foody contents. As long as there was a consumer demographic of parents still willing to poison their children with dangerous sodium levels, there was no reason for them to make any sort of adjustment. However, as the pressure from nutrition advocates mounted and led to devastatingly bad press for Oscar Meyer/Kraft, the company quickly changed their salty tune.
It may be a bit harsh to say they sold out, considering the admittedly poor levels of nutrition in the original product. However, they did oblige to their opposition and began offering options such as fruit juice and yogurt. While these new additions may have had some grounding in health food, it's pretty safe to say they didn't significantly alter the overall caloric content. Regardless, as long as the juvenile salt-related cardiac arrest subsided, they were able to quietly continue packing children chock full of delicious artificial additives.
That said, it's important to note that some of their current releases are highly questionable. Take this disturbingly fizzy pop-rocks knockoff meat+candy creation.It just goes to show you that change does not necessarily equal progress. To its credit, however, the packaging does herald the excellence of the meal's calcium content. Calcium or not, the whole thing seems pretty suspicious. It's safe to say that while contemporary children may not enjoy the same levels of salty deliciousness, Lunchables continue to outrage parents everywhere in a distinctly kid-pleasing manner.
And isn't that what really counts?
*In case you failed to gather from the heavy hints, this was clearly me. I never did own up to breaking the microwave.