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What and Beans?

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Pork and beans. It may take a while for you to find the pork and there may not be much of it for you to find, but trust me when I say that there is pork in your everyday can of Pork & Beans. Haven’t you ever stopped to wonder why Hunt's, Purefoods, and other baked bean producers unanimously chose to name their bean-full and nearly pork-less product 'Pork & Beans' rather than 'Beans & Beans' or 'Just Beans'? Is it an industry-wide conspiracy, smart marketing strategy, or something else altogether?

Conspiracy Theory

Like many other things we Filipinos love, Pork & Beans is an American creation. Popular since the 1880s and used widely as army rations during the American Civil War, Pork & Beans is the quintessential classic of stateside convenience food. Made of a liter of navy beans, about 500 grams of salted pork, tomato sauce and pepper, the original recipe of the dish did feature a fair bit of pork. Where did all the pork go?

An easy hypothesis: cost-savings. Pressed for measures to drive down the bottom line, manufacturers must have seen an opportunity to marginally reduce the quantity of the more expensive ingredient (salted pork) without significantly altering consumer product satisfaction. What, after all, is a piece of pork less and a bean more in a can of Pork & Beans?

However, as bottom line pressures persisted, manufacturers—fooled by their accountants (a.k.a., quite aptly, bean-counters)—continued to reduce the ratio of pork to beans in a can of Pork & Beans to the point they could reduce it no more. So only one piece of pork was left in a can!

Marketing at the Margins

Here's an alternative explanation. In the UK, a similar dish of beans in tomato sauce is quite popular. The dish is considered an integral part of the modern-day English breakfast and is a common buffet entrée in most hotels around the world. This UK equivalent, however, does not contain any pork and is sold under the label Baked Beans.

In theory, therefore, Philippine Pork & Beans producers would have had the option of labeling their product either Pork & Beans, after the American dish, or Baked Beans, after the English dish.

Consumers of today’s Pork & Beans are under no illusion about just how much pork one can expect in a typical can. Assuming one piece of pork makes no difference in the physical satisfaction gained from consuming a can of Pork & Beans versus a can of Baked Beans, there should then be no difference between the two product label options. That is, a producer should have been indifferent between the two. Wrong.

Even if the marginal increase in satisfaction (or actual physical benefit) from that one piece of pork is negligible, the marginal increase in perceived benefit may be significant.

Here's how. In the UK, Baked Beans are consumed as part of a breakfast spread while, in the Philippines, cans of Pork & Beans may be consumed as a meat substitute together with rice. Thus, while baked beans are only part of the meal in the UK, in the Philippines, it may constitute the central component of the meal. But having just beans for dinner isn’t quite as conceptually satisfying as having pork and beans.

So no matter how little pork there really is, there is a monetize-able difference between the labels 'Baked Beans' and 'Pork & Beans' in the minds of Filipino consumers.

The Truth

Now wasn’t that a more satisfying and elegant explanation? Satisfying and elegant, unfortunately, doesn’t equate to the truth. So here’s the real deal, the inside scoop, the unadulterated truth: the pork is invisible.

Okay, I know that sounds fantastic so let’s start from the top. American Pork & Beans: a liter of navy beans, about 500 grams of salted pork, tomato sauce, and pepper. That’s a lot of pork, isn’t it? But even in the US, Pork & Beans products are widely known to contain little to no pork.

Now, we can still try to use our conspiracy theory and smart marketing rationalizations to solve the problem but these don’t quite help explain why the recipes have the pork but the cans don’t. Surely the producers aren’t just fooling themselves. That’d be silly.

So here’s what I discovered having dug just a millimeter deeper into the surface of this problem. I realized salted pork isn’t like regular pork at all. Salted pork melts when heated… (Play music).

I’ll give you a moment. I know you must be gasping for breath, hand over mouth, sweat dripping from your brow. That’s what happened to me when I first found out.

It’s just so hard to believe! I mean it’s almost heartbreaking. Pork & Beans with so much pork? Man, who would have thought Pork & Beans was that unhealthy? I wish I never knew.

Print ed: 06/10


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