The release of Michael Moss’ book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us has prompted a flood of news stories. Moss is a New York Times reporter and a Pulitzer Prize winner. The guy has street cred as an investigator. I’ve not yet read the book; however, I’ve read the excerpt provided by Moss to the NYT Magazine. I also heard Moss interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air yesterday. Moss’ revelation confirms the worst of my concerns about the producers of processed and convenience foods. The long and short of it is that when you feel like you can’t stop eating Oreo’s, that’s because you very nearly can’t. It’s not you, it’s them.
Moss reveals that in 1999 the Vice President of Kraft addressed CEOs of the other leading food producers and laid out his concerns about the growing obesity crisis and the increasingly clear links between highly processed foods and some of America’s biggest health threats. This individual worried about his industry’s culpability both from a moral and a financial perspective – we could get sued people. The response of his peers? We are responsible to our shareholders. We’ve spent a long time figuring out exactly how much salt, sugar and fat to use to ensure that consumers will buy our products and we cannot risk the loss of marketshare that would surely result from a change in practices. Let me say that part again: we are beholden to our shareholders. Guess who’s not in that sentence? You (unless of course you are a majority shareholder in General Mills or something).
Let me be clear, I am aware that companies who make food are for-profit companies. I realize that this is the arena in which they are making their living. Somehow, however, the brazenness of the shareholder beholden-ness shocked me. The implications of the food industry’s refusal to consider health crises in food formulation are vast. For me, the takeaway from Moss’ revelations is two-fold: 1) processed and packaged has been scientifically researched and developed to maximize taste, addiction, and profit, and 2) the onus of providing your body with nutritious food falls entirely on you.
Profit and Food Products
The research behind the formulation of most modern processed food was actually performed by scientists working for the military. Military rations must withstand unusual conditions (unpredictable temperature ranges, long term storage) and they must be nearly instant in preparation. The problem that the military discovered in the 70s was that the rations were so gross that military personnel were actually refusing to eat them. I don’t think I need to tell you how problematic a lack of calories might be in a wartime situation. So the military sought out the help of science. How can we make food that tastes good enough to eat and that will still hold up to the conditions that wartime activities might impose? The answer was to add a whole mess of sugar, salt, and fat.
Researchers found the “bliss point” of sugar – the amount of sugar that actually makes you feel happy and that stimulates additional desire for food (ain’t sugar grand?). Sugar can also improve the appearance of various foods. This all worked very well for military rations; and then the same research got applied to EVERYBODY’s food. Food that doesn’t need to withstand those crazy and unpredictable conditions, food for people who are not exerting themselves physically all day and who have other choices; food that people could eat everyday for their entire lifetime rather than temporarily in an emergency situation. The food industry has systematically added salt, sugar, and fat to food to find the magic amount which will encourage you to buy it, eat too much of it, feel like crap, and then buy it again. It’s not you, it’s them. They have taken advantage of you and your biological wiring to make more money.
Being a Nutrition Consumer
I get the feeling, and please correct me (kindly ) if I’m wrong, that most of us assume that the products that are available to us in stores are safe to eat. We have a Food and Drug Administration; there are rules and regulations about food production and sale. We see that there are recalls from time to time, so obviously somebody is ensuring that our food is good for us. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, there are rules and regs and the occasional recall, but these are all about things like E. Coli, Listeria, and substances like melamine. They are not about diabetes and heart disease. Nobody has insisted that food producers actually make food that won’t hurt you over the course of a lifetime. The healthy functioning of your body, the physical quality of your life is not their concern. The rate of your consumption is their concern. The number of packages of salt, sugar, and fat is what they are about.
When you make a large purchase for your family, say a car, you likely do a bit of research. You find out which cars have good safety records. You find out which cars don’t break down. You find out which car is going to give you the maximum bang for your available buck. You do all of this because you KNOW that the car sales folks are NOT looking out for your best interest; they’re trying to sell as many cars as they can. They’re trying to increase their profit margin. They’re trying to keep their shareholders happy. Does this sound familiar to you?
In the face of food choices, it’s clear that there is only one answer to the problem. It’s not them… it’s you. It’s us. It is up to us to find out which foods are safe for our families; it is up to us to find out which foods will provide our bodies with the fuel that they need to run efficiently and with maximum reward. It is up to us to find out which foods will give us the most bang for our nutritional buck. Just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean it will do what you want and need it too – we know this is true when we shop for other goods. We must assume it is true about our food. We must assume that food producers will do what they feel they must to get us to buy their food, and that the choices they make may not be the ones we would make if we were involved in that conversation. Food is a commodity. It is a good that is sold for profit. It is not, apparently, a public good.
What To Do?
It’s clear that a desire to be healthy should lead us to learning about food products, reading labels, and preparing real, whole foods. I know there are challenges, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that, in the paraphrased words of Michael Moss: maybe cooking real, whole food isn’t as inconvenient as the food companies would have us think it is. Maybe the boxes that save us SO much time only save us ten minutes. Maybe we’d feel so much better cooking our own food that we wouldn’t care that it took 10 minutes longer. Maybe over time our cooking skills would catch up with our schedules through practice and none of it would take longer than those boxes and frozen items that are scientifically engineered to be addictive. Maybe we’ve been sold more than convenience food, maybe we’ve been sold a bill of goods about how hard it is to make our own real food. What if we all decided to find out? What kind of food would they make next? I think it’s time for a grand experiment. If you’d like to play along, give real food a try.
If you’re not sure where to start, our Baby Steps series has a lot of great information on how to start changing your eating habits for the better. Or take a look around on our site, you’ll find tons of real food recipes that don’t require a chef’s skills or a banker’s budget. The internet and your local library are chock full of resources for researching the most important purchases you make, the fuel for your body, the driver for your brain, the energy for your spirit. Caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware. Let the buyer be informed. Let the buyer eat food, real food. We can help.