In a dense Rio favela or small Amazonian village at current day, you might meet someone much like Celene da Silva, who at 29 manages her own small business. This is no small feat for a woman from one of the most impoverished areas in the world. Armed with only a pushcart, da Silva travels door to door, selling infant milk products, candy bars, puddings, and cereals to her many clients.[i]
In the small town of Vevey, Germany (now Switzerland) at the turn of the 20th century, you might have stumbled upon Henri Nestlé, also a small business owner. Using his pharmaceutical background, Nestlé invented a milk alternative known as infant formula by combining cow’s milk, flour, and sugar.[ii] What, then, links a modern-day Brazilian entrepreneur to small-town German pharmacist? What if I told you they worked for the same company?
Da Silva, along with thousands of other Brazilian women, has been recruited and trained as a door-to-door vendor for Nestlé–the world’s largest food conglomerate with some of the most aggressive marketing practices in history. Vendors are dispatched throughout Brazilian cities and countrysides, offering “nutrient-rich” processed foods from a selection of over 800 products.[iii] Even in hard to reach areas, where geography or social stigma prevent women from vending, Nestlé has found a strategy. Pictured below is a Nestlé-sponsored boat, which travels remote Amazonian tributaries as a floating supermarket offering products to “isolated” consumers.[iv] Clients are often only interested in a handful of these products, however, with foods like Kit Kat bars, Nescau 2.0 (a sugary chocolate powder), chocolate pudding, and cookies being ordered the most.[v]
What complicates matters is Brazil’s tortured history with chocolate–once one of the top producers of cacao, the country has faced severe drought in recent years.[vi] Look at the country’s historic disconnect between production and consumption, namely due to slavery, and Nestlé’s door-to-door program appears particularly menacing. The anthropologist Sidney Mintz most accurately encapsulates this divide in his 1985 seminal work Sweetness and Power, writing of 20th century “It is not ironical to point out that the white migrants would soon be eating more sugar, produced by the nonwhite migrants at lower wages, and producing finished goods at higher wages to be consumed by the nonwhite migrants.”[vii] Many of these “finished goods” are now sold by Nestlé, who while relying on the labor of cacao farmers in countries like Brazil then dilutes products with sugar and milk to sell them at a profit. While Nestle’s door-to-door vendor program has disrupted the feminization of poverty, its attempt to turn sites of production into sites of consumption has come with devastating health effects.
Nestlé’s strict hiring quotas have allowed it to conceal its aggressive marketing efforts under the guise of gender equity. By employing over 7,000 saleswomen and 200 microdistributors,[viii] all women with little to no previous job experience, Nestlé has established a strong relationship with the Brazilian government and managed relatively little international oversight. In fact, in 2014 alone food companies donated a total of $158 million to Brazil’s National Congress.[ix] For women on the ground like Celene da Silva, the program has also brought much-needed economic empowerment. As the New York Times details, “With an expanding roster of customers, Mrs. da Silva has set her sights on a new goal, one she says will increase business even more…’I want to buy a bigger refrigerator.’”[x] Da Silva’s strong relationship with the women in her neighborhood, coupled with Nestlé’s one-month layaway plan timed to match the government-funded food stipend program, has stabilized her income.[xi] Despite the fact that she herself is 200 overweight with high blood pressure, da Silva, like many vendors, believes in her employer’s commitment to health. The question then becomes, however, the limit to employing women whose life spans will be shortened by their own products.
Nestlé’s marketing practices rely on notions of their products as healthy in order to attract the support of governments and consumers alike. Along with lobbying and employing women as door-to-door vendors, the company aligns its brand with nutrition and exercise to garner attention. As consumers in the U.S. have given up sugary chocolate products in favor of healthier foods, Nestlé has moved to introduce these same products to even the most remote parts of the Amazon by adding commonly deficient vitamins and minerals. The chocolate powder Nescau 2.0, for example, claims to be “packed with calcium and niacin.”[xii] As Professor Susan George writes in “The Limits to Public Relations,” Nestle is one of the only companies to so publically document these efforts. She says, “Very rarely do multinational corporations provide details of their activities in underdeveloped countries. Nestle is an exception.”[xiii] This distinct tactic is what has strengthened the trust between vendors and their company. As da Silva explains, “Everyone here knows that Nestlé products are good for you.”
Brazil serves as a case study in the transformation of a country from cacao producer to chocolate product consumer. The public health effects of Nestlé’s aggressive marketing campaigns are only beginning to be studied, as are alternatives. As one Nestlé consultant points out, “If I ask 100 Brazilian families to stop eating processed food, I have to ask myself: What will they eat? Who will feed them? How much will it cost?”[xiv] Processed foods have undoubtedly provided a solution to the issue of overpopulation, but have failed to nutritionally benefit consumers. The story of Nestlé and Brazil has often been one of deceit, in which sugar-laden chocolate products are billed as nutritional through women’s empowerment programs in an effort to target communities with poor records on gender equity and public health. The question then becomes how to balance demand with accessibility, affordability, and nutrition–without exploiting vulnerable populations.
[i] Jacobs, Andrew. “How Big Business Got Brazil Hooked on Junk Food.” The New York Times, September 16, 2017, sec. Health. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/16/health/brazil-obesity-nestle.html.
[ii] Owles, Eric. “How Nestlé Expanded Beyond the Kitchen.” The New York Times, June 27, 2017, sec. DealBook. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/27/business/dealbook/nestle-chocolate-milk-coffee-history.html.
[iii] Jacobs, Andrew. “How Big Business Got Brazil Hooked on Junk Food.” The New York Times, September 16, 2017, sec. Health. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/16/health/brazil-obesity-nestle.html.
[iv] Garfield, Leanna. “Nestlé Sponsored a River Barge to Create a ‘floating Supermarket’ That Sold Candy and Chocolate Pudding to the Backwoods of Brazil.” Business Insider. Accessed March 20, 2018. http://www.businessinsider.com/nestl-expands-brazil-river-barge-2017-9.
[vi] “Chocolate Has New Latin King as Ecuador Overtakes Brazil.” Bloomberg.Com, January 21, 2014. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-01-20/cocoa-has-new-latin-america-king-as-ecuador-beats-brazil.
[vii] Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history. Penguin, 1986.
[viii] “Door-to-Door Sales of Fortified Products.” https://www.nestle.com. Accessed March 19, 2018. https://www.nestle.com/csv/case-studies/allcasestudies/door-to-doorsalesoffortifiedproducts,brazil.
[ix] Jacobs, Andrew. “How Big Business Got Brazil Hooked on Junk Food.” The New York Times, September 16, 2017, sec. Health. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/16/health/brazil-obesity-nestle.html.
[xiii] George, Susan. “Nestle Alimentana SA: the limits to public relations.” Economic and Political Weekly (1978): 1591-1602.
[xiv] Jacobs, Andrew. “How Big Business Got Brazil Hooked on Junk Food.” The New York Times, September 16, 2017, sec. Health. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/16/health/brazil-obesity-nestle.html.