The kryptonite-like processed food industry, employing 1.4 million Americans, couldn’t exist without fat, salt and sugar. Cheap. Tasty. Long shelf lives. They give bland, manufactured food unputdownable flavor. The addictive trifecta drives junk food consumption in America, where the one-in-three obesity rate is the second-highest in the world, upping yearly medical expenses some $300 billion. But that story’s not new. What is freshly compelling, though, is New York Times investigative journalist Michael Moss‘s inside-out exposé of the processed food industry. The Pulitzer Prize winner spent three-plus years interviewing food-giant execs and poring over confidential documents preparing his No. 1 bestseller “Salt Sugar Fat.” It makes three big points. First, food companies’ objective is to sell more products — as illustrated by a former Coca-Cola exec telling Moss the company’s marketing was built on “How can we drive more ounces into more bodies more often?” Second, while adding the diet-disaster trio, Big Food knew it was hooking consumers on nutrient-poor, high-calorie junk. Third, Uncle Sam won’t be cutting us off. Here, Moss reveals the trickster strategies that Big Food uses to create sneaky labels and grocery-store displays.
You once said, “While food safety is heavily regulated, the government has been the industry’s best friend and partner in encouraging Americans to become more dependent on processed foods.” Can you elaborate?
The issue is most evident in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has dueling missions. One is to promote and sell American agricultural products. Much of that effort involves selling highly processed foods or products turned into highly processed foods. Its mission also includes advising consumers on how to eat more nutritionally. Looking at the budget, only a tiny fraction goes to nutritional advice for consumers. An overwhelming amount of attention goes to Big Ag, which coincides with Big Food. There’s an inherent conflict of interest.
What about the FDA and FTC?
In the absence of a forceful USDA, consumer advocates turn to the FDA and FTC. Within the FDA, food has tended to be a sort of stepchild to drugs, which get the lion’s share of attention. The FTC has pretty much restricted its involvement to making sure food companies don’t label or advertise their products in a misleading way instead of regulating salt, sugar and fat.
Who’s on our side?
The consumer’s largely on their own. When you want to do the right thing, shopping takes work. You have to read labels — and know things, such as manufacturers are required to tell you how much sugar a package contains but not how much of that amount is added sugar and how much is natural. They’re not required to put what percentage it contains of the daily recommended amount … because, by the government, there is no sugar maximum, no daily recommended amount. It’s on the consumer to consult a group like American Heart Association for recommended limits, and those are startling.
How can we avoid being circus animals when food shopping?
Understand that the second you enter a grocery store, you’re in la-la land. You leave reality behind, for soft music and bright neon colors. Their placement is designed to get you to make spontaneous decisions. To forget about your shopping list. When acting mindlessly, consumers turn to highly sweet, highly fatty foods. Your brain emits pleasure signals just looking at them.
You had access to high-level food execs. Were many overweight?
What struck me was how many refrained from eating their own products. They were at a higher socioeconomic level usually. Only one parent worked outside of the home. They had personal trainers, gym memberships. They were fully aware of their products’ power and allure.
I think we’re at a tipping point. More people are caring about what they put into their bodies. If they start acting on this, and buy fewer problematic foods, there could be a fast and huge reaction within the processed food industry. It will respond to that financial pressure just as it responds to pressure from Wall Street to maximize profits. They would be happy selling healthy stuff. The real question is, can they? Can they make their foods healthier by dialing back?
Does consumer advocacy work?
One of the things that has favored the processed food industry is that advocacy is really fractured. If you cared about trans fats you were in one group, GMOs another. This has tended to play in favor of food companies. They’re good at dealing with specific individual concerns compared to the totality.
How can we shop smarter?
My wife, Eve, works outside the home and, like most people’s, our days are crazy. We have two teenage boys, walking bliss points for sugar. For starters, engage kids in conversations about food. Not preaching, but talking about it in the context of how food companies are hardwired to sell. That helps them to go to school and actually eat the apple slices packed for them. I’ve also tried to change shopping habits, spending more time in outer edges, where produce is, hunting for nutritious foods. I look high and low on the shelves, not in the seductive middle, where junkier stuff is. And cook more. The more you play with your food, and get your kids to help cook, the more mindful you are about food.
That seems time-consuming.
Once your habits change, then you can get back to a routine. You’ll know right where the store’s healthy food is, and the healthy recipes that take 10 minutes. Similar to running for exercise, once you develop better shopping and cooking habits, you’ll get to a point where not following them feels worse.
Is change really possible?
Sales of some products are starting to fall off. But change won’t come from government. It seems to be risk averse. Officials are scared of doing anything that could make them lose their jobs. For real change, information has to translate to better shopping habits, vocalized concerns and pressuring officials.
What’s the challenge?
Designing products that aren’t so hugely alluring will take time. Wall Street doesn’t want to give any time. If margins start falling, it’s got to be gone the next day. Or stockholders will punish.
Can we protect ourselves from … ourselves?
It puts a huge amount of burden on the consumer to do the right thing. Navigating the grocery store is complicated. There’s so much “health washing” … touting using table sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup, or adding slightly less salt, or adding protein. It’s bewildering to shoppers. One of the biggest solutions is education and finding ways to reignite the home economics system in in schools in a modern framework, teaching foods as a consumer power instead of corporations trying to do their bidding.
Julie D. Andrews is a writer and editor in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @julieDandrews.