Putting Annie to the Oreo Test

 By Sean “What do you Mean Oreos are Bad for You?” Rule, Math

In the March 3, 2010 ConXn blog, Tina Hovekamp shared a little video, The Story of Stuff, where the narrator, Annie Leonard, walks us through the life (and death) cycle of…well, stuff.  Amazingly enough, I was able to watch the full 20 or so minutes of it by taking in 3 minutes at a time while changing for the ride home (sorry, IT guys and gals, for eating bandwidth).  I haven’t fact – checked a thing in the video, and it really doesn’t matter; after watching Food, Inc. and reading Fast Food Nation, my mind is becoming numb to campaigns like this. 

However, in one segment of the film, Annie talks about how little a radio cost ($4.99) at Radio Shack.  I’ve often been amazed by this as well; for example, for safe night commuting, I used to use drop bar red blinking lights, similar to the ones shown at left.  They’re rad!  They pop into the ends of your road bike handlebars, point straight back so cars can see them, and their blinking pattern is visible for thousands of feet.  However, they use button cell batteries, and, when the time came to replace the batteries, I found the cost of replacing the 4 batteries exceeded the cost of the lights….and the lights had come with the batteries!  How is this possible?

Annie gives an explanation, and I’ll let you check out the video if you want to hear it.  However, last week before Rachel Knox’s awesome morning yoga class, the conversation turned to Oreos.  And, because I had just watched Annie’s video, I was thinking to myself, as I struggled not to puke in Dolphin pose, “How is it that Oreos can be so cheap?”  I mean, you can get 18 ounces of them (about 40 cookies) for under $4.  I thought to myself, “Surely, the ingredients would cost more than that…not to mention labor!  I wonder how much it would cost for me to make my own…”    

I know, I know, I know…to all of you slightly pessimistic realists out there, you know the answer already, don’t you?  “You’re wasting your time, Rule!  You can’t beat Nabisco.  They’ve got a system.  They’re like the Henry Ford of cookies!”  Well, maybe you weren’t thinking that…but maybe you were thinking something similar.  Regardless, I collected the ingredients I needed, and dove into a little recipe I found online.  During Max’s nap on Sunday, I was able to bust ‘em out…here’s a blow – by – blow comparison:

 Goliath    David
“America’s Favorite Cookie” slogan “Made During Max’s Naptime!”
 (from nabiscoworld.com)Enriched Flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), folic acid), high oleic canola oil and/or palm oil and/or canola oil, dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, salt, cornstarch, baking soda, natural and artificial flavors, soy lecithin.(is anyone besides me amazed that some sort of “chocolate” isn’t on this list?) ingredients Bob’s Red Mill organic flour, baking soda, baking powder, organic cane sugar, organic powdered sugar, sea salt, organic butter, organic free – range eggs, vanilla extract
Who knows?  Where’s the nearest Oreo factory?  I emailed their customer service, but haven’t heard back yet. distance traveled (miles), ingredients Well, the eggs traveled from across the street (our neighbor’s hens), and Bob’s flour has been made since 1978 in Milwaukie, Oregon.  Alas, the sugar (even though organic and free – trade certified) is from Paraguay…maybe next time I can use an American – made, brown rice syrup, instead.  Additionally, I’ll use applesauce to replace the butter. 
Still waiting to hear…and I’m sure I won’t get an answer.  Although I’m tempted to believe the HFCS comes from America. distance traveled (miles), finished product None.  Made ‘em in the kitchen, and there they stay (until I remember to bike them up here for the yogis to enjoy).
<$4 Cost (per 40) Here’s the kicker…organic ingredients are pricy.  Although the eggs were free, the bags of sugar had a combined cost of $45.  I didn’t use the entire bag of either, mind you…but I sure used more than $4 worth of it (about $10 for the powdered, and about $3 for the cane) .  Add about $1.50 for the flour and $3 or so for the butter…well, you get the idea.  The other ingredients were negligible, as very little was used…but you can easily see that my cookies, less labor and operating costs, cost way more than Oreos.

 What did I learn?  Nothing I wasn’t expecting.  However, it just make me think: how often are we turned off by a product due to price?  Why?  Viewed that way, no one would ever, say, make bread…using the same Oreo argument, it doesn’t make any financial sense.  But take a look at those loaves at left; they were rising using the heat from the oven that was baking the Oreos.  They’re my weekly sandwich bread.  From the time I begin (the night before) to the time the loaves come out the oven the next day, I’ve probably invested 1.5 hours into each loaf.  Sure, it’d be easier to pick up some Franz’s Food For Less…but the kitchen wouldn’t smell nearly as good (and you can’t tell me store bought bread warms the heart like homemade.  Well, you can tell me, but I don’t believe you).  Plus, you get that earthy, wonderful knowledge that you created the food that’s now sustaining you.  That’s pretty rad.

 Yup, we’re used to things being cheap.  But, as Annie points out, someone has to pay for that cost.  I wonder who it is…


12 Responses to Putting Annie to the Oreo Test

  1. Tom Barry says:

    Not only does your house smell better and you create lasting memories for your family, the cookies look real. Thanks for the post. I think there’s potential for a myth buster show about food, consumption, and society.

  2. Michael Van Meter says:

    I like to make stuff for the sake of making stuff; the therapeutic value outstrips any pricetag issues. In keeping with Oreos, try Peanut Butter Cups:


    The link to this was in today’s e-mail. Usually the site does more conventional crafts — R2D2 lamps, electronic teardowns and the like.

  3. Sean says:

    Thanks, all, for the comments! This was a fun one to write. Wahoo!

  4. Carol Elwood says:

    My mom made all our bread, and while I was in grade school did a cost calculation. My teacher asked us all to report what our parents spent on a loaf of bread. Everyone else reported that a loaf cost 36 cents. My mom’s cost 18 cents in ingredients; the labor of love is priceless.

  5. Mary says:

    The nearest “Oreo factory” is in Portland. It is officially called “Kraft Foods Portland Nabisco Baking”

  6. Peter Meyer says:

    the Oreos cookies themselves cost even less than $4, the rest is……..packaging. For boxed cereal at least, the packaging accounts for 65% of the retail price, and may account for 65% of the nutrition!

  7. Kake says:

    This is a wonderful post. My sweetie bakes bread every couple of weeks, using my Mom’s recipe (which I’m sure came from a combination of her Mom and the 1931 Joy of Cooking http://www.thejoykitchen.com/history.lasso?tag=1931 ). What we eat involves such a complex tangle of issues involving not just price but time, inclination, skill, pleasure, culture, and health. I think it’s important to add to this a thought about how much we pay our foreign slave to dig the ground for us, to deal with pesticides for us, to haul our cheap ingredients for us.

    As always, I admire the Seanster for doing the right thing, straight edge punk that he is.

    • Sean says:

      Some say that, on a small scale, it’s not effective. I say, as always, I don’t care; it’s the right thing to do. You rock, Huckster!

  8. Carol says:

    Incidentally, your HFCS probably is coming from the U.S.–Cargill has a factory that makes the stuff not far from where I grew up, and I doubt it’s the only such factory in the midwest.

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