We have entered the era of unlimited “limited editions.”
A few years ago, it was the word “luxury.” Every condo complex or apartment building going up around Washington was labeled “luxury,” which, as far as I could tell, meant it had granite countertops.
Today, it’s “limited edition” that’s everywhere. Ford will sell you a limited-edition F-150 pickup truck designed to look like a Tonka toy. A company called MAC regularly brings out limited-edition cosmetics, including lipstick and eyeliner inspired by comic-book hotties Betty and Veronica.
And now you can’t walk down the aisle in a grocery store without being bombarded by limited-edition cookies, chips and other snack foods. Not literally bombarded — though that sounds fun — but metaphorically. Shelves are crowded with all manner of unique flavors designed to tempt your taste buds for some finite period of time.
According to a list maintained by the website taquitos.net (“Serious about snacks”), limited-edition foods over the past decade number in the hundreds and include such offerings as Lay’s Tastes of America Limited-Edition Monterey Pepper Jack Potato Chips, Pringles Limited-Edition Crunchy Dill Potato Crisps, Cape Cod Kettle Cooked Potato Chips Limited Batch Asiago Cheese & Italian Herbs, Reese’s Elvis Peanut Butter & Banana Creme Collector Edition and Tastykake Limited-Edition Salted Caramel Mini Donuts.
It’s as if the Franklin Mint had been placed in charge of our nation’s junk-food supply.
Limited-editions jump on flavor trends. Salted caramel is big now. So is pumpkin spice. The latest product to earn a place in my household’s pantry was inspired by the great cupcake explosion: Limited-Edition Red Velvet Oreos, a flavor Nabisco introduced on Feb. 2 in honor of Valentine’s Day.
Oreo first dipped a cookie into the limited-edition milk way back in 1985, when Oreo Mint Creme cookies were introduced for a limited time. Since then the Nabisco brand has offered such limited-edition versions as Marshmallow Crispy, White Fudge, Candy Cane, Caramel Apple, Limeade and Fruit Punch.
To me, the most disturbing creation was the limited-edition Cookies n’ Creme Ice Cream Oreo. Here were Oreos aping an ice cream flavor that’s made with … crumbled Oreos. It was like some metaphysical joke, an Oreo snake eating its own tail. I shudder to think what would happen if someone made cookies and cream ice cream out of limited-edition Cookies n’ Creme Ice Cream Oreos. The universe would probably wink out.
Eric Huang writes about junk food at his blog, Junkfoodguy.com. “I think over the past four years more and more companies are trying to really stretch their brands into other spaces,” he said.
Some do it in the guise of a contest. Every year, Lay’s invites consumers to suggest flavors for its potato chips, which is how we got limited-edition Cheddar Bacon Mac & Cheese chips, Wasabi Ginger chips, Mango Salsa chips and Cappuccino chips.
“The mango- and coffee-flavored chips were horrible,” Eric said.
Eric admits he isn’t an expert in how food companies think. His day job is as a labor lawyer in Washington; wolfing down junk food and writing about it is just a hobby.
But he has his theories. Competition for grocery-store shelf space is fierce. Nimble, smaller firms are able to push the flavor envelope, something that used to be difficult for larger companies.
“More and more, they’re seeing greater competition in more niche spaces, with smaller snack food companies testing the waters first with various flavors,” Eric said. “Larger companies are picking up on these trends much earlier now.”
Sometimes, limited-edition foods become regular foods, sort of the way a mistress sometimes becomes a wife. Both Birthday Cake Oreos (created in 2012 to honor the cookie’s 100th anniversary) and Lemon Oreos started as limited editions before making their way to the bigs.
I wonder if there’s a danger in limited-edition products, whether if in their unceasing pursuit of novelty, food companies risk diluting loyalty. Janda Lukin, senior director for Oreo North America, doesn’t think so.
“Research has shown us that consumers are seeking out variety when it comes to snacking,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Our limited-edition flavors deliver not only variety, but a bit of excitement that we feel only helps to build on the core love of Oreo we see from our fans.”
They can deliver something else, too: Though a package of Red Velvet Oreos costs the same as regular Oreos, it contains only 75 percent as many cookies.
I think Oreo has only scratched the surface of the velvet theme. Black Velvet Oreos would taste like Guinness and Champagne. And Blue Velvet Oreos? They’d taste like nitrous oxide and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
John Kelly is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Metro section.
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