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Starbucks' Solution for "Health and Wellness": Newfangled Ho Hos

In a USA Today interview this week, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz proclaimed a big interest in "health and wellness" and then announced, perhaps minutes later, that the company is coming out with its version of what appear to be Little Debbie snack cakes. Or Hostess Ho Hos, albeit a much more decadent and delicious interpretation. Keeping its Euro-linguistic tradition, Starbucks (SBUX) is calling them Petites and they come in four varieties -- Cake Pops (cake on a stick!), Red Velvet Whoopie Pies (cake with frosting in the middle), Mini Cupcakes and Sweet Squares.

Schultz is doing what so many other food companies have done before him -- pay lip service to the idea of healthy products. In fact, you can pretty much bet that anytime someone trots out the phrase "health and wellness," they're thinking more about marketing and product sales than public health. I mean, what's 'wellness' anyway -- happy thoughts, good oral hygiene?

On Monday, Ad Age ran an interesting piece looking at how some fast food companies (which now are apparently called "fast feeders) are changing their marketing messages away from phrases like low-fat, low-carb and low-calorie to vague verbal ques like 'wholesome' and 'fresh'.

Referring to a new ad campaign by Arby's, Darren Tristano, exec VP at food industry consultancy Technomic, said the chain is "trying to promote the fact that they serve freshly sliced meat. They're not changing what they do; they're changing the way they promote what they do."

Right. So we're not going to make food any healthier, we're just talking about it as if it were.

To its credit, Starbucks has made worthwhile attempts to make its food selection healthier. In 2009, it got rid of artificial colors and flavors and introduced salads, as well as plates of eggs, cheese and fruit. Its stores also have bags of nuts and dried fruit at the register, and of course there's the oatmeal. And I suppose there's some benefit to the Petites being petite and having no more than 200 calories.

But the Starbucks food case still remains a beguiling exhibit of the many delicious ways that sugar and white flour can be bundled together. And than there's the frothy, whip cream-topped drinks, many of which have as much sugar and empty calories as soda.

In singling out "health and wellness" as the category that most intrigues him, Schultz was referring to the company's plans for selling new packaged products in grocery stores, after first introducing them at Starbucks stores. But is Starbucks going to be able to make and sell truly healthy food when most processed food manufacturers find this extremely difficult to do? Pepsi (PEP), for instance, recently introduced Tropolis, a package of pureed (and sugared) fruit which has been harpooned as an unnecessary alternative to real fruit, much of which is already very available and convenient.

With Schultz at the helm, Starbucks is one of the smartest and most adaptive food and beverage companies out there. But can they figure out what everyone else hasn't? The company released any detail of what these new products will be, but my guess is that they'll have a lot more luck with the indulgent aspect of their brand than the healthy.

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