West of Eden

February 23, 2006

The first time I spied the plastic bags of pre-sliced apple at Whole Foods, I could hardly believe my eyes. Have we gotten this lazy or busy or package-crazy that we don’t have time to slice a goddamn apple or eat it off the core like humans have been doing for millenia? I wondered. Apparently, apple slicing has become to many moms “an unthinkably oppressive undertaking, a kind of punitive kitchen duty, evoking the G.I. obscured behind mounds of to-be-peeled potatoes.”

We have officially reached a point where an apple – perfect, whole, natural – is not convenient enough. This NYTimes Magazine piece takes you inside the booming business of pre-sliced apples. But where it really takes you is inside the human mind.

“Why,” asks the author, “after thousands of years of eating apples, are we losing our patience for them, and where, if not at the apple, will it stop?”

Here’s what marketing researchers are figuring out:

  • Kids will eat more apple if they are eating slices, rather than the whole fruit.
  • Bite-size pieces in a bag encourage “mindless munching” – a marketer’s wet dream.
  • Processed snacks have changed people’s expectations of food: nature can’t provide the consistency of say, Funyons. Every apple will taste differently.
  • Apples can’t be effectively branded. They are too iconic.
  • “A bowl of apples is like a piece of art,” says Tony Freytag, marketing director at Crunch Pak, an apple-processing company. “It’s display. People won’t touch it. But you put out a tray of cut-up apples — that’s food.”

    By far the funniest part of the article deals with disgust. Cultural psychologist Paul Rozin explains why biting into an apple would provoke disgust while nipping into a pre-packaged slice would not:”The core is an extension of your tongue and your mouth, and the bag is not.” We, it turns out, are the thing we find most disgusting.

    “As the world gets more and more cleaned up of these things, and as you get highly sensitive to disgust, a bitten piece of food in your hand is not too nice,” he posited. An eater of the whole apple must, with each bite, readdress his mouth to “the unsavoriness of the bitten edge in front of you.” But eating apple slices means treating yourself to a clean, unspoiled, appealingly geometric shape every few seconds.

    My son has not been properly acculturated yet: he’ll take a chomp out of a dirty, day-old, half-eaten apple core, just like his ancestors, the cavemen.