In our week-long series, Now and Then, GOOD writers each choose a beloved piece of pop culture from back in the day and pit it against its modern-day equivalent, with a fresh pair of adult eyes. May the best zeitgeist win.
From the get-go, I was totally into Dunkaroos. Their commercial featured a hip Kangaroo named Duncan, hopping around people’s living rooms wearing a sideways cap and a tech vest, dunking kangaroo-shaped cookies into mountains of chocolate or vanilla frosting. He had an Australian accent, making him doubly cool in my world. (I thought for about two years that Australians dunked their food into frosting regularly.) They were so much hipper than Handi Snacks, whose commercials only featured their signature red cheese-spreader sauntering all over the crackers, exclaiming, “Give me all your cheese, this is a stick up!” I wasn’t into puns back when I was five: I just wanted to watch Nickelodeon and eat as much frosting as humanly possible.
Nobody in the snack food industry even attempted to market their products as “healthy” in the nineties. At first glance, Handi Snacks’ signature misspelled item “Crackers ‘N’ Cheez” may just seem like an attempt to be cool. But when you think about it, it's probably because the yellow, plasticky substance is so different from actual cheese that legally it has to be spelled differently. Fun Dip is just a straight-up sugar stick that you dip into more sugar. Gushers never had commercials that featured a woman’s voice in the background exclaiming, “Real fruit juice!” in the early nineties. They just featured kids with heads turning into different mutated fruits as soon as the gushy part hit their tongue (something I was both a fan of and had nightmares about).
The general idea behind nineties snacks: make them fun-shaped, pair them with a crazy animal mascot with an accent, and kids will love them. The stuff was straight junk food, and marketing didn’t do anything to hide it.
Then, at some point during the early 21st century, thanks to widespread stats on the growing number of health-related diseases, the market became primed for a health-food revolution. Dunkaroos and Gushers stared sharing the shelves with more and more brands of high fiber “fruit leather” snacks and organic alternatives to Nutrigrain bars. Whereas “health food” items were once relegated to independent stores, or connected to the closest GNC, now there’s an aisle dedicated to the products in every middle class neighborhood’s chain grocery store. Trader Joes and Whole Foods stores are ubiquitous. And while the trend is great for the most part, there’s a few marked dangers in the ever-expanding health food market: one, marketers now know they can charge more for an item dubbed as “healthy.” Two, when it comes to processed foods, “healthy” is an essentially unregulated phrase, and therefore, almost always a mirage.
Plenty of snack foods successfully transitioned into the world of organic, high-fiber, whole grained products (Goldfish, I’m looking at you). Hot Pockets now even come with some sort of new, better-for-you crust. But other products never stood a chance: How exactly would the Dunkaroos execs devise a plan to make a snack that revolves around the dunking of cookies in frosting seem healthier? The fact that Dunkaroos were once a widespread staple in young kids’ lunches might be laughable to a new generation of parents who have the means to buy the “healthier” items. But to others, there’s just not much of a purchasing choice to begin with.
There’s no clearer depiction of class warfare than in the snack-food aisle. Parents who have the resources think they can actually buy their kids health. Other parents think they have no choice but to sludge past the “Health Food” section and on towards the shelf that’s still stocked with funny-looking animals on the boxes, selling for dollars cheaper. It’s great that people are starting to care more about their kids’ health; what’s not so great is that, all too often, their money isn’t creating a healthier kid at all.
These days, the forerunner to all things healthy is Annie’s Homegrown snacks. Countering my beloved Duncan Kangaroo is their mascot, Bernie the Bunny, who gives his Rabbit of Approval on all Annie’s products. Annie’s does a good job marketing them as preservative-free, organic, and excellent for the planet. (They’re also apparently too cool for a kids commercial, which immediately knocks them down a notch.) I scouted out the price difference at my local grocery store, and as it turns out, a box of Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies was $4.49. A box of Dunkaroos, on the other hand, was only $2.99. Nutrition-wise, it’s a toss up: the bunnies have more fat and sodium, but more protein; the kangaroos have more sugar, but also more fiber. The differences between the percentages were scant.
Other snacks at the store were not much better: above the bag of Mother’s Brand circus cookies, priced at $2.50, were the organic Barbara’s Snackimals, priced at $4.69. The differences on the nutritional labels were barely worth noting, especially when one costs two whole dollars more. Parents probably feel healthier just by looking at a more sophisticated-looking box, but the stuff inside the boxes is not much different. Frosting or no frosting, most kids’ snacks are, like they were when I was growing up, just junk food rebranded. There’s something sort of genuine in snacks like Dunkaroos that just don’t give a shit whether or not you think they’re healthy: they never pretended their frosting came with an added dose of fiber.
I left the store with a box of Dunkaroos and a Diet Coke. I’ve already eaten the frosting out of two packages. It was actually not that tasty, but I still did it, savagely sticking up for Duncan in any way I can.