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How the processed food industry hooked us on unhealthful foods

Junk food aisle
REUTERS/John Gress
“The public and the food companies have known for decades now... that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities that we consume them.”

The New York Times ran an excerpt Sunday from “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” a new book by one of the Times’ own investigative reporters, Michael Moss.

The excerpt opens with a description of a meeting that took place in 1999 at the Twin Cities headquarters of the food giant Pillsbury. The CEOs and presidents of 11 of America’s largest food companies, including General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Kraft, Coca-Cola and Nabisco, had gathered for what Moss describes as “a rare, private meeting.” One of the topics, he reports, was “the emerging obesity epidemic and how to deal with it.”

According to Moss’ account, an executive from Kraft, Michael Mudd, presented a slide show at the meeting in which he suggested that the food industry needed to be proactive in making their products part of the solution to America’s overeating problem. If they failed to do so, he said, the industry ran the risk of becoming viewed one day as a public health menace, much like what had happened to the tobacco industry.

"This much is clear," Mudd told the other executives. "For those of us who've looked hard at this issue, whether they're public health professionals or staff specialists in your own companies, we feel sure that the one thing we shouldn't do is nothing."

But the presentation was not well received, as Moss reports:

According to three participants, when Mudd stopped talking, the one C.E.O. whose recent exploits in the grocery store had awed the rest of the industry stood up to speak. His name was Stephen Sanger, and he was also the person — as head of General Mills — who had the most to lose when it came to dealing with obesity. Under his leadership, General Mills had overtaken not just the cereal aisle but other sections of the grocery store. The company’s Yoplait brand had transformed traditional unsweetened breakfast yogurt into a veritable dessert. It now had twice as much sugar per serving as General Mills’ marshmallow cereal Lucky Charms. And yet, because of yogurt’s well-tended image as a wholesome snack, sales of Yoplait were soaring, with annual revenue topping $500 million. …

According to sources I spoke with, Sanger began by reminding the group that consumers were “fickle.” (Sanger declined to be interviewed.) Sometimes they worried about sugar, other times fat. General Mills, he said, acted responsibly to both the public and shareholders by offering products to satisfy dieters and other concerned shoppers, from low sugar to added whole grains. But most often, he said, people bought what they liked, and they liked what tasted good. “Don’t talk to me about nutrition,” he reportedly said, taking on the voice of the typical consumer. “Talk to me about taste, and if this stuff tastes better, don’t run around trying to sell stuff that doesn’t taste good.”

To react to the critics, Sanger said, would jeopardize the sanctity of the recipes that had made his products so successful. General Mills would not pull back. He would push his people onward, and he urged his peers to do the same. Sanger’s response effectively ended the meeting.

America’s — and the world’s — obesity problem has only worsened in the ensuing 14 years. Today, more than one-third (35.7 percent) of Americans are considered clinically obese, including one in five kids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity has been linked to a variety of chronic illnesses, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain kinds of cancer, and the annual medical cost in the United States of treating obesity-related illnesses is estimated to be about $150 billion.

“The public and the food companies have known for decades now — or at the very least since this meeting — that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities that we consume them,” writes Moss. “So why are the diabetes and obesity and hypertension numbers still spiraling out of control? It’s not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer and a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of the food manufacturers. What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive.”

You can read the excerpt from Moss’ book on the NYTimes website. It includes detailed descriptions of how and why such sugary, fatty and salty products as Dr. Pepper Snapple Group’s Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper, Kraft Foods’ Lunchables and Frita Lay’s long line of potato chips came to be made and marketed.

As one industry insider told Moss: “I feel so sorry for the public.”

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Comments (1)


This is a big reason why, by and large, I avoid processed foods. It only tastes good if your main criteria is fat, salt, and sugar, the three items that were rare in our diets at the dawn of civilization. Because they were so rare, our bodies evolved to crave them and seek them out whenever we could find them.

These days though you can buy them in whatever quantity you want at the local grocery store, all thanks to our mass production techniques. The food companies take advantage of that evolutionary development and load their products with too much fat, salt, and sugar, to the point where a lot of people have high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. The result: two thirds of Americans are overweight and half of those are obese. Sure, some will claim that people just have to exert willpower and not eat so much or not eat those products, but they're designed to be cheap and to deliberately circumvent that willpower.

Personally, I get most of my food from the perimeter of the store, which is where you find the fresh food and produce. It may cost more, but it tastes better and is better for you.