Snack foods tap into Americans' hunger for patriotism

For July 4, retailers are capitalizing on nationalism with star-spangled nibbles.

For some Americans, being patriotic isn't about waving the flag, it's about eating it.

In a time of heightened nationalism, it's not difficult to find snacks draped in Old Glory. With the precision of Betsy Ross, foodmakers have put stars and stripes on brownies and cookie dough, candy bars and peppermint. There's even a bag of specially shaped Tater Tots on the way that will allow you to turn your dinner plate into the American symbol of freedom.

Red, white, and blue foods are usually found around the Fourth of July, but this year the shelves are much fuller than in the past as food companies try to tap into the patriotic fervor that is keeping flagmakers working overtime.

The shelf life of these products is usually between Memorial Day and Labor Day, but it's another day – Sept. 11 – that is also driving the wealth of options this year.

Companies see a way to appeal to consumers, but some appear to be more altruistic-minded than others. Profits from patriotic M&M's go to the American Red Cross relief efforts, as do a portion of the sales of Friendly's "Red White & Blue Swirl" ice cream.

That timely flavor – vanilla with red raspberry and blue marshmallow swirl – was too good for Therese Allen, a customer in a Brookline, Mass., grocery store, to pass up.

"I'm a very patriotic and festive person," she says while shopping with her brother on Monday. "I'm figuring it's not going to be there another time of year."

Unlike Valentine's Day and Halloween, manufacturers can persuade stores to display these particular seasonal products all summer to take advantage of the various holidays Americans celebrate.

Consumer favorites include red, white, and blue tortilla chips – a bestseller at a Sam's Club in Morrow, Ga. – and the new "Stars & Stripes" cake mix and frosting from Pillsbury. Those baking goods quickly became top sellers in their categories in the late spring after their debut, according to the company.

But are people really clamoring for Peeps – the maker of marshmallow Easter chicks – to offer white stars covered in red and blue glitter?

No, says author and consumer expert Phil Lempert. Americans are wearying of the wacky foods being tested on them – pink butter, blue French fries, green ketchup – and the patriotic items in particular can also make companies look opportunistic, he says.

"My feeling is that we are not going to see a huge market for red, white, and blue foods," says Mr. Lempert, who cites surveys that show the desire to buy American-made grocery products has declined significantly since just after 9/11.

"I would expect, come July 5th, we're going to see a lot of these products at half price," he says.

If so, one reason might be because at this time of year food doesn't have to look patriotic to make people feel connected to the country's history, says Boston chef and restaurant owner Michael Schlow.

Simpler times and Americana are evoked through hotdogs, corn on the cob, and strawberry shortcake. "Food has the ability to transport us," he says. "That's what food does for us. It doesn't have to be red, white, and blue to do that."

Some shoppers say these specialty foods are not really for everyday use, but more for parties, or children. In fact, it was a grade-schooler who came up with the idea for "Starz and Stix All American Crispy Potatoes" from Inland Valley. Her vision of tater tots being arranged to evoke the flag only has one flaw: What if your ketchup is green?

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