The cheeseburger-ing of America has finally come down to this: CheeseburgerOs.
The iconic pasta O's-in-a-can that have stuffed American pantries for nearly 50 years are rolling out in cheeseburger flavor. It's just the third time in five decades that a new SpaghettiOs flavor has been added.
The unusual flavor pairing comes at a time that American consumers can't seem to get enough cheeseburger flavor mixed and mashed into other foods. Last year, Domino's rolled out a cheeseburger pizza. Several chipmakers sell cheeseburger-flavored chips. Last year, Banquet rolled out cheeseburger-stuffed bread sticks.
The cultural driver: comfort. "Cheeseburger is clearly a comfort flavor," notes Tom Vierhile, innovation insights director at research firm Datamonitor. Cheeseburgers have grown 40% as items on restaurant menus since 2009, reports research firm Mintel. In stressful times, it's not unusual for food makers to roll out flavors that harken to better -- if not nostalgic -- times.
Not everyone loves the canned pasta made by Campbell Soup Company that's targeted at kids. "Can you think of anything more frightening than cheeseburger-flavored things floating around inside a can of SpaghettiOs?" asks Ken Albala, who teaches a History of Food class at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. "They're debasing the whole next generation of taste buds."
But Campbell executives say they're simply making what Americans want. "Cheeseburgers consistently rank as one of Americans' favorite foods," says Ed Carolan, general manager of soup and simple meals at Campbell. The move, he says, "seemed like something we needed to do."
The idea hit Campbell's executives about a year ago, says Carolan, and it took about 12 months to evolve from concept to reality. Carolan declined to be specific about SpaghettiOs sales, but says they were "steady" from 2011 to 2012. Last year, consumers purchased roughly 120 million cans of SpaghettiOs, he says.
Previous flavor variations of SpaghettiOs include PizzOs and CheesOs, which were on shelves in the 1980s. By 1992, the company opted to expand beyond the conventional "O" shape and rolled out Where's WaldoOs. Currently, versions are sold with meatballs, sliced franks, even added calcium. For those counting, there are about 750 "Os" in a can.
But some are counting nutrients, too. While each serving provides a full serving of vegetables, a half a can of CheeseburgerOs - which is one serving - comes packed with 600 milligrams of sodium and 15 milligrams of cholesterol. This worries Albala, the food historian.
"The flavor combo is so remarkably perverse that kids will find it intriguing," he says. "This is a perfect example of everything that's wrong with food in America."
Bruce Horovitz, USA TODAY