The price of processed food

Industry’s activities put under a microscope in compelling best-seller

Salt-Sugar-Fat-jacket-imageMichael Moss’s formidable book, Salt Sugar Fat, has been around for about a year now; anyone interested in the nature and value of the food going into their stomach, but not reasonably well briefed on the subject, should make a point of reading it.

Read it not so much to learn about the nefarious behaviour of the leading players in the North American food processing industry, though this is the core focus of the book, but rather to learn how to avoid the unhealthy products that occupy prominent positions on grocery store shelves – a proposition Moss himself would happily agree with.

Michael Moss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, was in Winnipeg recently to talk about his book on the eve of a conference about “growing local”, sponsored by the Winnipeg Foundation and Food Matters Manitoba. With the World Health Organization just now calling on people to sharply reduce sugar consumption, the timing was propitious.

Oh sugar, who knew you were such a villain?
Oh sugar, who knew you were such a villain?

In fact, the last three or four decades have brought alarms about the three named food items, sugar, salt and fat, for producing an ever-increasing level of obesity in many parts of the world, and the diseases and ill health obesity can bring on, including heart attacks, diabetes and a series of cancers. The “unholy trinity”, as Moss calls them, wreak their havoc largely as the result of the deliberate machinations, and manipulation of consumers, by the producers of processed foods.

The prologue to Moss’s book tells the story in brief, beginning with a highly secretive meeting in Minneapolis 15 years ago which brought together the usually rivalrous heads of the 11 largest food companies in the United States: among them, presidents and CEOs from Nestlé, Kraft, Nabisco, General Mills, Procter and Gamble, Coca Cola and Mars. The meeting was called by James Behnke, a top official at Pillsbury, to try and elicit some serious thought about the role played by the processed food industry in the growing obesity crisis.

But the forceful head of General Mills, with his flat-out assurances that consumers were “fickle” in their concerns and would soon move on to other matters, managed to beat back any urge by the group to examine their existing situation. Consumers bought what they liked, the CEO assured the little gathering, and they liked what tasted good. The corporate leaders soon headed home. The meeting had changed nothing.

But that is just the beginning of Moss’s story, and his digging continues even now. Here, to give a quick insight into the methods of this industry, are a few nuggets;

• The effort by Americans to cut back on fat thrust the dairy industry into crisis in the mid-eighties. The industry was drowning in the fat being taken out of whole milk to make skim milk, and made a decision to turn the milk’s fat into cheese. Washington bought the surplus cheese, and when that supply became excessive, Congress came to the rescue with its own scheme. It also quietly turned its huge supplies of surplus fat into cheese – not to be enjoyed at the end of a meal but, says Moss, “cheese that is slipped into our food as an alluring but unnecessary extra ingredient.” There’s a toll 30 years later, Moss adds: “The average American now consumes as much as 33 pounds of cheese a year.”

• Scientists have conducted intense research into the allure of sugar and the biology and psychology of why we find it so irresistible. A psychology professor, Anthony Sclafani, remembering an experiment in his youth that saw rats going bananas over cookies and candies, decided to see what would happen if he gave rats all the high-sugar foods they wanted.

They loved them, and their sugar craving utterly vanquished the biological instinct that would normally have driven them from the banquet table. Since Sclafani’s research was published, Moss says, “a whole body of research has been undertaken to link sugar to compulsive overeating.”

• The baby boomers in the mid-eighties had begun to hit middle age. According to the theory of the time, the boomers’ liking for Frito-Lay’s salty snacks should have been tapering off. But U.S. snack sales didn’t decline. They went up. This threw off the company’s whole marketing strategy, so they brought in Dwight Riskey, a cravings expert.

It was three years later that the answer flashed across Riskey’s brain. The Frito-Lay people had been measuring the snacking habits of different age groups, but not following the groups over time and measuring their habits as they aged. And behold! The boomers were not eating fewer salty snacks. In fact, Riskey said, they were eating more of the stuff. And the generation behind them was downing more – in fact, way more – salty snacks than the boomers ever had. Good news there for the astounded snack manufacturers.

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