Sweet Sabotage

WWII chocolate bomb
Prototype of a Nazi chocolate bomb bomb, photo by Lawrence Fish at artnet.news.com

Industrial Espionage: Cookie packages shoved, hidden, to the back part of the shelf or hidden on the top by rival cookie suppliers. Supermarket owners bribed not to stock a competitor’s cola. A clone product created with a deliberate shoddy taste and marketing strategy in order to sink a successful new market entry. Chocolate bars spiked with bits of pork so that Muslim customers believe they can’t eat it. People attacked with chocolate…I mean what is the world coming to, if we can’t enjoy our sweeties in peace?!?

Cookie wars

I typically would not write two food columns in a row, but I saw a Facebook post* this week that resonated with me so much, I could not resist. Besides, what better to follow a vegetable post with than one on dessert?

Hydrox FTC complaint against Oreo's
Hydrox has filed an FTC complaint against the maker’s of Oreo’s, according to the Jewish Telegraph Agency

You can read the details at JTA above, but, in essence, Hydrox is claiming that Oreo cookie suppliers are moving Hydrox around on the supermarket shelves in order to obscure their packages. Customers have sent in dozens of pictures of random products hung in front of the boxes to cover the labels, packages pushed to the back of the shelf and another Oreo product put in front (even though the label says Hydrox), and other dastardly deeds.

The Hydrox brand predates Oreo by about four years, although corporate merger shenanigans nearly sank the product. Hydrox was originally made by Sunshine Biscuits (which makes Krispy saltines), a company ultimately purchased by Keebler. Keebler tried to change the product name to Droxies to get away from the scientific-sounding Hydrox (made from pure water). The change failed and when Keebler was bought by Kellogg, the cereal overlords killed the brand and left the market to Nabisco’s Oreo’s.  A few years back, a high-tech magnate nostalgic for Hydrox acquired the brand back from Kellogg and has been reformulating and relaunching the original cookie under LeafBrands. But it’s an uphill battle when the rival stockers literally move the product out of eyesight.

Of course, that’s not only time that’s happened.

Cola Battles

Richard Branson brought Virgin Cola into the world in 1994, aiming to topple Coke with a drink that he claims won in most blind taste tests. He launched to great fanfare, driving a Sherman tank through a wall of Coke cans in Times Square. But Coca-Cola, like its peers in the cookie industry, had relationships with retailers that were hard to break. Coca-Cola bottlers and suppliers paid or otherwise pressured markets not to stock Virgin at all, and Branson found himself stopped short for the most basic reason. People couldn’t find his product.

RC (Royal Crown) Cola had the same problem. RC had long held a strong presence in the southern region, the same birthplace of Coca-Cola. RC was first to use aluminum cans and first to introduce a diet soda–Diet Rite– in 1962. RC suppliers had a long-running feud with Coke and Pepsi suppliers in stocking grocery shelves and, as the other two rivals grew, markets started limiting RC space. The diet market might have changed that, because Diet Rite was a big hit and, in the early 1960s, Coke and Pepsi didn’t have a planned product response.

However, Diet Rite ran into another enemy: the sugar industry. Diet Rite used cyclamate, the first of the artifical sweeteners. Naturally, then, studies started popping up linking cyclamate to cancer, though when the details emerged, it turned out the experimental rats had been given the human equivalent of 550 cans of Diet Rite per day.  Still, the downturn in Diet Rite sales was enough of a  pause to allow Coke and Pepsi to develop their own diet versions, Tab, Diet Pepsi, and eventually Diet Coke.  (All of which are linked to other health hazards, by the way. ) Meanwhile, the parent of RC branched out into Arby’s restaurants, hardware stores, and enough non-soda diversions to tank their management–fascinating article here from Mental Floss.. Today, Cadbury-Schweppe’s Dr. Pepper division still owns RC, and occasionally you can still find the soda in Chicago .

Tab Clear: The Disgusting Market Clone

Coke has had failures and successes, but in at least one case the failure might have been deliberate. Pepsi introduced a clear formulation of its soda, called Crystal Pepsi, in 1992. The product was a hit. Coke responded with Tab Clear.

Tab Clear @ 1992
The 1990’s Tab Clear, a kamikaze strategy. Photo by Kevin Trotman.

Yet, there was something add about this new entry into the clear market. Unlike Crystal Pepsi, this cola only had a diet version. It was marketed in cans, so you couldn’t see that it was clear. Moreover, the cans were colored pink which some have said likened it to cough syrup, a natural connection since many associated Tab with a medicinal flavor. When supermarkets stocked Tab Clear next to Crystal Pepsi, it linked the two products together. Tab Clear was a huge failure–it didn’t taste particularly good–and the packaging was abysmal.  The sinking of Tab Clear dragged Crystal Pepsi down with it.

Chocolate Sabotage

Candy bars are also not immune to strange measures taken in the face of potential problems or sabotage. For example, when the Dutch company Mars had to recall Snickers bars in 2016, because a small bit of plastic had been found in some of the chocolate, the authorities in Gaza went to extremes. They gathered all the Snickers boxes together (15 tons worth), threw them in a bomb carter doused with diesel fuel, and set them on fire.

Snickers destroyed in Gaza
2016 Palestinian burning their Snickers, photo from Times of Israel

Those poor, innocent little chocolate bars, who never did anyone any harm aside from type 2 diabetes and heart disease and tooth decay and…well, never mind that, those Snickers were just minding their own business.  Meanwhile, Cadbury bars in Malaysia also underwent a serious scare. In May of 2014, the agency under the Ministry of Health which ensures that products are halal–made according to Islamic religious requirements which includes no pork–announced a boycott of chocolate bars.  The agency had found traces of pork DNA in bars on grocery shelves and others submitted directly to them for testing. However, when they conducted extensive testing at the factory level, they found no traces of pork, and the decision was reversed. Sounds like someone was spiking the bars on the shelves, doesn’t it?

Cadbury, by the way, is a subsidiary of Mondelez, the same company that makes Oreos. Mondelez, in case you don’t recognize the name, used to be called Kraft. The entire history of corporate mergers in the sweets and food industry, navigating in and out of relationships with the tobacco companies, restaurant chains, and hardware conglomerates will put you off your chocolate, so approach it with caution.

The Spy Chef at MI5…Sorry, that was Spy Chief

Approach with caution was what Churchill and MI5’s Lord Victor Rothschild did with chocolate, when Rothschild learned that Hitler was developing a chocolate bomb. Plans were discovered by British secret agents that the Peters Chocolate bars, placed in the dining room of the War Cabinets, might contain something besides cocoa butter and sugar. Underneath the black-and-gold paper, the chocolate would cover explosives. (see picture at top)

We have received information that the enemy are using pound slabs of chocolate which are made of steel with a very thin covering of real chocolate.  Inside there is high explosive and some form of delay mechanism…When you break off a piece of chocolate at one end in the normal way, instead of it falling away, a piece of canvas is revealed stuck into the middle of the piece which has been broken off and a ticking into the middle of the remainder of the slab.–letter from Lord Rothschild, printed in The Telegraph

Villains injecting pork DNA into bars on the shelves?  Science used to sabotage our chocolate?  Please tell me that science can be deployed for something much better than that.  Aha! Here’s something at the NBCI from the National Institutes of Health…

High internal phase agar hydrogel dispersions in cocoa butter and chocolate as a route towards reducing fat content.  by Skelhon TS1, Olsson PK, Morgan AR, Bon SA.    
Reducing the fat content of chocolate formulations is a major challenge for the confectionery industry. We report the suspension of aqueous microgel agar particles of up to 80% v/v within sunflower oil, cocoa butter, and ultimately chocolate. The optimised emulsification process involves a shear-cooling step. We demonstrate the versatility of our method when applied to white, milk, and dark chocolate formulations, whilst preserving the desired polymorph V of the cocoa butter matrix. In addition, we show that this technology can be used as a strategy to disperse alcoholic beverages into chocolate confectionery.

Phew! This gives me hope.

So, in sum, it is possible to use sweeties for good. I, for one, ask for an end to the sabotage!  Let’s eat our cookies and soda in piece, so we can all look forward to more optimized emulsification through a shear-cooling step. Particularly when it is used as a strategy to disperse alcohol into our confectionery. Skoal!


*Thanks to the esteemed Lee Lynch for the Facebook head’s up.

2 Replies to “Sweet Sabotage”

  1. I was in retail food in the 1970’s and the shelf wars were quite active then. Thanks for the Kraft tip. We bought a snack recently which I was able to trace back to Pepsico which is getting into “healthy” snacks. There’s no winning, the mega conglomerates own the world.

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