Food52 Life

This $1.99-Popcorn Comes with Free Guilt

August 18, 2015

The labels on packaged food are for information—not moral judgment. 

I feel guilty that I don’t call my grandparents as often as I should, that I distract myself from world events by obsessing over panzanella, and that I take too many not serious things too seriously and too few serious things seriously enough. I don’t feel like my choice of popcorn—or chicken salad, or guacamole, or mac and cheese, or brownies—deserves a place on my guilt list.

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I go to Trader Joe’s to buy groceries because it’s three blocks from my apartment and has the most reasonable prices in the neighborhood. I do not go for self-condemnation. Yet when I see two versions of popcorn—one with herbs and spices, the other with "reduced guilt"—I immediately feel like a moral verdict is being returned.

Of course it's not news that food is inextricably linked to value judgment. Why else would we have sinful brownies and indulgent grilled cheese sandwiches? But with both popcorns positioned right next to each other in the store, I have to make a decision right then and there: Can I handle taking on extra guilt in my life right now? How's my wickedness level this week?

Maybe the popcorn packaging wouldn’t bother me as much if it were a free pass. But this isn't guilt-free—it's guilt-reduced. I'm going to feel guilty either way, TJ's tells me; I just have to pick my order of magnitude. I already experience a deluge of feelings when I'm grocery shopping (especially when it's 8:45 P.M. on a Sunday night and my toes just got run over by a shopping cart); I don't need the food labels to weigh in.

Is there a reason why the reduced guilt popcorn costs $.30 less than the more offensive one, I wonder? Perhaps that penny-pinching is just another thing to feel reduced-guilty about.

First photo by author; second photo by James Ransom

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Melanie Bailey-Reeve
    Melanie Bailey-Reeve
  • Henry Jampel
    Henry Jampel
  • Adam Janofsky
    Adam Janofsky
  • AntoniaJames
  • Lindsay-Jean Hard
    Lindsay-Jean Hard
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Melanie B. August 19, 2015
Just last night I posted this on Facebook: "I hate it when people describe food as "guilt free". You should never feel guilty about eating any food ... unless you stole it off someone."
Henry J. August 18, 2015

Why don't you give your grandparents a call?
Adam J. August 18, 2015
Do you know if their Inca corn also comes from conflict kernels? Trying to stay guilt-free as long as I can
AntoniaJames August 18, 2015
I do hope this was written tongue in cheek. I'm fairly certain that TJ's really doesn't intend to make any moral statements whatsoever in this packaging, but rather, they've figured out that "reduced guilt" (i) is a bit more clever sounding than "reduced fat" or "reduced sodium"; and (ii) gets people curious about why the product is described that way, which leads to more people picking up the package, which leads to more people putting those packages in their baskets. TJ's is just trying to get people to buy their stuff, the way e-commerce and ad revenue reliant sites put their energy into getting people to click. TJ's, like Food52, is not an eleemosynary institution.
The lawyer in me also suspects that "reduced guilt" can be used where federal labeling laws would not allow TJ's to say "reduced fat" (25% less fat than the original version) or "reduced sodium" (25% less sodium), but I haven't compared any labels to confirm that.
Just seeking to understand before seeking to be understood . . . . and cutting TJ's some slack because seriously, life is too short. ;o)
Sarah J. August 18, 2015
Thank you for reading this! I understand all of your valid points, and I'm aware of the forces of marketing and advertising and revenue-generating. And Trader Joe's does have my business. I am sure that their packaging is not malevolent in any way, but it still bothers me that a company would play into the idea that certain foods should make us feel "guilty." It just doesn't seem necessary to me. I understand that this isn't a serious or pressing matter, but it's something I've been thinking about that I wanted to write about.
Cinnamon August 19, 2015
If they really had "food morality" in mind, they'd have to gut their cheese and charcuterie section, and stop selling those $%^&*# "Lacey Cookies". I was hoping that it was tongue-in-cheek, too, because otherwise that kind of sensitivity to the word "guilt" is a very sad thing to carry. If you truly feel that way, head over to the dairy case and buy 2 containers of mascarpone and let your inner middle finger fly. :)
AntoniaJames August 20, 2015
I chuckled when I saw those packages the first time, because I immediately assumed the labeling-law workaround mentioned above, but also because it seemed as if TJ's was making fun of of all of the reduced-this, and that-free stuff the market seems to want.

But stepping back a minute: Guilt is generally something that people do to themselves. Nobody can make you feel guilty unless you let them. ;o)
Lindsay-Jean H. August 18, 2015
But have you tried their dill pickle popcorn yet?!
Sarah J. August 18, 2015
I have not! Guilty as charged.