When I was a kid, I spent my afternoons in my mom’s bedroom, watching cartoons I thought I was too old for and eating my afternoon snack. In fifth grade, snack meant twisting apart Oreos to eat the center frosting, and then dipping each half in milk until it teetered on the verge of crumbling. My grandparents watched me and my younger siblings, and sometimes my grandfather would bring a dozen fresh doughnuts from a local bakery: jelly doughnuts dusted in powdered sugar, chocolate cake doughnuts with chocolate glaze, apple pie doughnuts and vanilla doughnuts and my favorite, Boston cream. But in sixth grade, I ruined the only good part of my day by eschewing Oreos and refusing my grandfather’s doughnuts. Instead, I ate Snackwell’s.
Specifically, I ate Snackwell’s devil’s food cookie cakes, a fat-free chocolate cake covered in marshmallow and chocolate, the most iconic product of the ’90s obsession with low-fat foods and the processed food industry’s eagerness to meet that mania with different combinations of the same ingredients — which in Snackwell’s case included lots of high-fructose corn syrup. The cookie cake wasn’t bad, exactly, but it was never satisfying: The puck of chocolate cake was oddly airy, the marshmallow was a purely aesthetic line of white, and the chocolate was waxy and sugary, with a firm crunch. It was like eating a chocolate cupcake whose soul had been sucked out.
Fat-free products like Snackwell’s offered a bonkers compromise: something that looked like a treat with the offending nutrient removed, which also removed much of the pleasure the treat supposedly provided. As an anxious fat kid in a tiny Catholic school where girls did things like measure and compare the circumference of their thighs, I made this compromise eagerly. I ate Weight Watchers cheesecake and fat-free frozen yogurt and Healthy Choice frozen dinners and grilled chicken sandwiches and every kind of Snackwell’s, from the pointless vanilla sandwich cookies to the truly vile, sludgy brownies. I still feel comforted by the taste of diet foods — the treacly stevia aftertaste of protein powder, or the smooth, slippery texture of an egg bite. But despite the fashion for all varieties of food poptimism, I’m not ready to defend those tastes.
The common wisdom about the ’90s low-fat mania is that America’s decadent puritanism found a way to ruin cookies and still avoid eating apples. This truism has a name: the Snackwell’s effect, which was characterized as the tendency to eat more of a food labeled low-fat or healthy than you would have otherwise. But that line of thinking assumes there is such a thing as good or bad food, or that there’s an appropriate amount to eat of something considered bad. The fact is, fad diets don’t work at all, and sorting food into “good” and “bad” categories cuts off access to pleasure. If there is a Snackwell’s effect, maybe it’s the false comfort offered by food that looks like pleasure but tastes like denial, the hope that the next bite will spontaneously possess the roundness and richness its appearance suggests, while all the while, the tongue keeps score.
Dieticians who help patients give up dieting for good describe the grief the process brings up, a painful assessment of years or decades of restricted eating all for nothing. I was proud of the way I could turn down my grandfather’s doughnuts and eat a fat-free cookie cake instead. Now, my time in that Catholic school is a distant memory, low-fat diets are a scam, and my grandfather is gone. Devil’s food, indeed.
Goldsuit is a painter and graphic designer based in Seattle.