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What Have You Done To My Oatmeal?

Healthwise, one of the few things I regret about giving up meat is that keeping my iron counts high is much harder than it used to be. For all its drawbacks, animal flesh is an excellent source of heme iron, the chemical form which is easily absorbed by the body. You don't need to eat a lot of meat in order to keep your blood nice and heavy. Plant-based sources really can't compare, for the iron in plants (and iron cooking pots, for that matter) is non-heme, which is less-readily absorbed. Furthermore, plant foods contain less iron than meat does, because meat-bearing animals use iron in their own hemoglobin, while plants don't worry about blood-based transport at all. Non-meat-eaters are at a double disadvantage if they want to meet their recommended daily intake (RDI) of iron.

Why do I care? My iron levels are important to me because I give blood. Frankly, I am too young and healthy to worry about my own well-being, but being healthy enough to donate blood regularly is terribly important to me. Donating blood almost justifies my existence: although I am a dismal liability in every other way, I save the lives of good people who contribute positively to the world. Unfortunately, in order to donate blood, I have to keep my hemoglobin levels high; Canadian Blood Services won't let people donate if their blood isn't heavy enough (literally -- their test for iron consists of releasing a drop of your blood in a vial of copper sulfate; if the blood sinks to the bottom of the vial quickly enough, you pass). That's where oatmeal comes into the picture.

I have discovered that getting enough iron on a fully-natural diet is next to impossible; I would have to eat obscene amounts of green leafy vegetables every day in order to come close to my RDI. In order to pass my blood donation, I have to take supplemental iron in some form. One possibility is to take multivitamin tablets, which pack about half a day's RDI in one small pill. I once thought that taking iron-only pills would be another solution, but I have since discovered that iron pill supplements are prescription-only, and being on any prescription screens you out from donating blood. Even the thought of innocent multivitamin pills makes me uneasy, however; I don't like the thought of being on the pill because I want to believe that I can eat a meat-free diet and get all the nutrients I need. Since I can't meet my requirements on a fully-natural diet (at least, not on my budget), I cheat by turning to iron-enriched foods. In addition to broccoli, raisins and potatoes, I eat a lot of iron-enriched pasta, iron-enriched bread... and iron-enriched oatmeal.

Technically, eating iron-enriched oatmeal is a sin -- not so much because it is iron-enriched, but because it is overprocessed, overpackaged convenience food that tastes good. The only iron-enriched oatmeal I have found comes in boxes of 10 single-serve pouches, cooks in two minutes when you add boiling water, and is flavoured with sugar and spice or other things nice, such as apple bits or raisins. Real vegetarians do not eat iron-enriched oatmeal. If they stoop so low, they might slum by eating the tasteless grey glop that takes seven years to cook and comes in burlap bags. Conscientious vegetarians shun oatmeal completely, instead breakfasting on nutritious bowls of organic locally-grown roots and twigs. I can deal with the trauma of pre-sweetened convenience food, though -- especially when each oatmeal packet provides me with 46% of my recommended daily intake of iron. It's the overpackaging that makes me feel guilty; when building up my iron reserves the week before a donation, I eat two or three packets of oatmeal each morning. That translates to a lot of garbage. Yes, other food is more overpackaged -- such as the Hershey hollow milk-chocolate Easter egg I scammed myself into buying, the one consisting of a foil-wrapped hollow egg packed in transparent plastic packed in an attractive boxboard box advertising Real Hershey Kisses hidden inside, which turned out to be all of six foil-wrapped chocolates shoved in a transparent plastic bag (not that I'm bitter). However, I don't scam myself into buying disappointing Hershey Easter eggs very often. I do eat oatmeal regularly.

My saving grace is that the packaging of Quaker Oatmeal, while excessive, was at least recyclable. Each packet of oatmeal consisted of a brown paper pouch, adorned with life-affirming propaganda such as "Take pride in everything you do," and "Participation is the prize. Winning is the bonus." The ten packets of oatmeal live in colour-coded boxboard boxes featuring blurry photos of families building lifetimes of good memories thanks to Quaker Instant Oatmeal. The key words here are "boxboard" and "paper." Both boxboard and brown paper are recyclable. I could appease my guilty conscience by taking the late-1980s Yuppie route to environmental responsibility: "If it's recyclable, it couldn't be all bad." Having justified away my bad habits, I was able to eat my oatmeal in peace.

Until now. In its infinite wisdom, the Quaker Oats Company of Canada has changed its packaging scheme. The boxes still feature blurry photographs of happy families, and the packets still feature life-affirming propaganda, but all of a sudden the brown paper packets of oatmeal are lined with transparent plastic film. In my eyes, this is the worst kind of consumerist treason the Quaker Oats Company of Canada could pull; Quaker is still trying to push an image of homespun, old-fashioned oatmeal goodness. Then they turn around and replace the homespun, old-fashioned paper pouches they used with completely unnecessary plastic/paper hybrids. Environmentally, it would have been better for the company to switch to all-plastic pouches, because in some municipalities it is possible to recycle plastic. These new paper/plastic pouches are environmentally disastrous; they go straight into the landfill because separating the paper from the plastic is a royal pain. It might be possible to recycle these hybrid pouches, but it probably is more trouble than it is worth.

If I understand capitalism correctly (and maybe I don't), consumers play a big role in determining the market. Consumers supposedly have the choice of buying or refusing to buy goods and services; providers of goods and services that consumers like succeed in the world, and providers of goods and services that consumers dislike go bankrupt. Technically, as a consumer of Quaker Instant Oatmeal, I should have some clout in determining the way my oatmeal gets packaged. Presumably, that is the reason the Quaker Oats Company of Canada publishes a "Satisfaction Guaranteed" phone number and mailing address on their boxes, so that dissatisfied consumers (who could prove their consumption by enclosing box tops with their letters) could voice their dissatisfied opinions. I decided to give the Satisfaction Guaranteed mailing address a shot, writing the Quaker Oats Company of Canada the following strongly-worded letter:

Dear Quaker Oats Company of Canada,

I am writing this letter to express my dissatisfaction with your decision to package Quaker Instant Oatmeal in plastic-lined paper pouches. These new pouches are practically unrecyclable, and as far as I can tell they offer no sanitary advantage over the paper-only pouches. Although these pouches may well be recyclable "where facilities exist," appropriate facilities do not exist in my municipality, so these pouches are virtually unrecyclable for me.

The plastic lining in the new product is made of chemically-treated petroleum products. The old paper pouches were made of wood, which is a more sustainable resource than oil. If the paper is unbleached and printed with vegetable-based inks, I do not see how putting your oatmeal in the paper pouches either harms the product or makes it any less safe to eat.

Until you made this change, I consumed a lot of your product. I regularly ate two or three packets of oatmeal each morning. Occasionally, I would buy other Quaker products, such as Life Cereal. However, since finishing my final two boxes of foolishly-overpackaged Quaker Instant Oatmeal, I have boycotted your products, and I will continue to do so so long as you insist on using these paper/plastic hybrid pouches. In making this packaging change, you have lost at least one regular customer. Furthermore, I will urge those around me to boycott your products as well.

This may seem like a minor issue, but it is important to me. In using paper pouches at all (whether paper-only or the paper/plastic hybrid), I believe that you are trying to promote your oatmeal as a natural, healthy breakfast choice. In switching to unrecyclable paper/plastic packaging, I believe you are contradicting that image, demonstrating your lack of commitment to a natural, healthy environment. In doing so, I believe you are misleading the public. That is what I find offensive.

Truly Yours,

Paul Nijjar

Do I think my little campaign will work? Of course not. I am not quite as naive as my letter makes me sound. I believe in Consumer Power about as much as I believe in the Spice Girls; advertising alone subverts the theory that consumers exercise free will in the marketplace, for advertising's purpose is to create discontent within us. And if this paper/plastic pouch issue is not about advertising, what is it about? As long as the Quaker Oats company can make its products appear environmentally healthy -- regardless of whether those products are actually environmentally healthy or not -- it wins. My only hope is for Quaker to conclude that it isn't fooling anybody with this scam, because one person saw the deceit and cared enough about it to write a letter. Unfortunately, I don't think that the Quaker Oats Company of Canada is going to reach that conclusion.

The truth of the matter is that Quaker doesn't care whether I, representing one consumer, buy its products or not. As long as I don't represent an aggregate, a mass of angry people all prepared to boycott Quaker over this issue, the company has nothing to worry about. Not enough people care whether their oatmeal pouches are paper or paper lined with plastic, so my chances of getting together enough people to actually make a difference are within an epsilon of hopeless. Even a hundred thousand angry consumers might not matter to a large company like Quaker -- just look at the way Nestle continues to aggressively market baby formula in the Third World, despite worldwide protests against its practices. For that matter, just look at how the tabacco industry continues to deny that it markets cigarettes to children. As long as profits from addicting children to cigarettes outweighs the losses due to boycotts and penalties, the tabacco companies have no motivation to stop marketing cigarettes to kids. As long as the profits from baby formula sales in the Third World outweigh the losses in chocolate bar sales due to worldwide protests, Nestle has no motivation to stop its aggressive marketing. As long as I'm the only person who cares about the packaging of oatmeal, the Quaker Oats Company of Canada Limited has no reason to change its packaging until something more profitable comes along. I have lost my battle already. That's not going to stop me from trying, though. If you want to join the struggle, the mailing address for the Quaker Oats Company of Canada is:

The Quaker Oats Company of Canada Limited
Quaker Park,
Ontario, Canada
K9J 7B2

The toll-free "Satisfaction Guaranteed" hotline is open weekdays, from 8:30am to 4:30pm, Eastern time. It is 1-800-267-6287. I have lots of spare boxtops if people need them; contact me and we can work something out.

It would be nice if this story had a happy ending, but don't count on it. It's too bad; that iron really helped, and the oatmeal wasn't bad either. Unless I find a more sensibly-packaged alternative, it looks as if I am doomed to live oatmeal-free.