The ongoing horsemeat scandal, and the recent federal indictments in the 2009 tainted peanuts debacle that left eight people dead and an estimated 19,000 sickened in 43 states, shed new light on a deeply unsettling aspect of the food we put into our bodies. The global food chain has grown so complex, and so beholden to profits, that the largest food companies are losing control of their ingredients. Whenever one of these scandals arises, it often takes the food giants weeks just to figure out if they are using the tainted supplies.
But in the course of my own reporting on the tragic outbreaks of E. coli in hamburger a few years ago for The New York Times, I stumbled upon something with even more momentous implications for public health. Over dinner in Seattle, one of my most trusted sources in the processed food industry told me, “If you want to see something that is causing far greater harm to public health than contaminants, look at what we are adding intentionally to our products.” Thus, I turned my attention to salt, sugar and fat—the three pillars, the holy trinity, of processed food.
And boy, was that an eye opener.
For starters, a lot has changed since Eric Schlosser wrote Fast Food Nation. In the intervening years, fast food has moved into the grocery store, engineered and imported by the largest food manufacturers as a way of competing with the fast-food chains. This began happening in the 1990s when the grocery manufacturers realized they could do better than merely fight one another for space on the grocery shelf, where as many as 60,000 products vie for our attention. They could rack up additional profits by drawing people away from other sources of food such as fast-food chains or school-served lunches.
This strategy became clear as I sifted through the thousands of internal industry documents I uncovered during the three years of reporting for my book. Take, for example, this 1999 presentation to Wall Street investors by an executive of Philip Morris, which at the time owned Kraft: “We’re helping busy consumers with an extensive lineup of easy-to-prepare meal products like Taco Bell dinner kits, Easy Mac single-serve macaroni and cheese, and Lunchables lunch combinations.”
Company scientists search for the perfect amount of salt, fat, and sugar in their processed-food formulas, what’s known in the industry as the “bliss point.”
“We also know,” he went on, “that the No. 1 question in America at 4 p.m. is not, ‘How did the market do today?’ It’s ‘What’s for dinner?’ And most consumers don’t have a clue.”
We also don’t really have a clue about the highly sophisticated methods used by the food giants to formulate and market their foods to get us hooked. I use the word addiction sparingly, as the food industry argues that food doesn’t meet some of the technical definitions ascribed to narcotics. But the company scientists and technicians know that when they hit upon the perfect amounts of salt, sugar, and fat in their formulas—known in their industry as the “bliss point”—their products will send us over the moon. That’s a great name, thought food scientist and industry legend, Howard Moskowitz, when he first heard the term in 1972. “It’s just so sexy.”
The companies know that the perfect formulation means that we will buy more of their products, which means that we will eat more of their products. Which means they will make more money.
The food giants argue that they never intended to make America fat, addicted, or ill; that would not be in their financial interest. (Big Tobacco put forth this same argument to stave off government regulation.) And no single product, they rightly point out, can be blamed for our health troubles. Rather, they say, it’s the collective effects of processed foods—along with our own growing dependence on them, and our lack of willpower—that poses the problem.
In recent days, people have been asking me what can be done. What can I do to change things at home? What can I do to change this at my kid’s school? What should I do differently?
There are a few easy things. By now, we all know to look carefully at the nutrition facts panel, but an even more obvious tip-off is often right there, on the front of the box. Any product that touts itself as “LOW FAT” for instance, is often loaded with sugar. Anything bragging that it “CONTAINS REAL FRUIT” is usually hiding a big dose of added sugar that has been extracted from fruit. And words like “ADDED CALCIUM” are often a diversion from the product’s loads of salt, sugar, and fat.
Another easy thing to do is to spend more time in the outer aisles of the supermarket, where the fresh fruits and vegetables and less-processed meats and dairy are sold. And if you find yourself in a center aisle, keep in mind that the healthiest products—the plain Cheerios, the raw oats, and the cans of tomatoes—are hidden away on the high and low shelves; the stuff at eye level is the most alluring, and also the stuff we should try to cut down on.
Until you understand the depth of the deception and psychology used in the formulation of processed foods, you will be powerless against it. The goal of my book is to empower people to see through this scheming.
The experts I met make a strong case that something else has to occur to help us get in and out of the grocery store with our good health intact. The price of those fruits and vegetables has to become more competitive with processed foods, such as through a shift in government subsidies away from the worst processed foods.
It’s not just about cost, though. Real change is going to take real leadership. Jeffrey Dunn is a former president of Coca-Cola for North America and Latin America who has undertaken an extraordinary correction in his own life to address what he calls the “karmic debt” of peddling soda for so long. He is borrowing the marketing playbook from the soda industry to sell none other than fresh baby carrots, as if they were junk food.
“We act like a snack, not a vegetable,” Dunn told his investors. “We exploit the rules of junk food to fuel the baby-carrot conversation. We are pro-junk food behavior but anti-junk food establishment.”
A food giant star turning the tables on his former industry. That is a powerful force for change.