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From a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter at The New York Times comes the explosive story of the rise of the processed food industry and its link to the emerging obesity epidemic. Michael Moss reveals how companies use salt, sugar, and fat to addict us and, more important, how we can fight back.
In the spring of 1999 the heads of the world’s largest processed food companies—from Coca-Cola to Nabisco—gathered at Pillsbury headquarters in Minneapolis for a secret meeting. On the agenda: the emerging epidemic of obesity, and what to do about it.
Increasingly, the salt-, sugar-, and fat-laden foods these companies produced were being linked to obesity, and a concerned Kraft executive took the stage to issue a warning: There would be a day of reckoning unless changes were made. This executive then launched into a damning PowerPoint presentation—114 slides in all—making the case that processed food companies could not afford to sit by, idle, as children grew sick and class-action lawyers lurked. To deny the problem, he said, is to court disaster.
When he was done, the most powerful person in the room—the CEO of General Mills—stood up to speak, clearly annoyed. And by the time he sat down, the meeting was over.
Since that day, with the industry in pursuit of its win-at-all-costs strategy, the situation has only grown more dire. Every year, the average American eats thirty-three pounds of cheese (triple what we ate in 1970) and seventy pounds of sugar (about twenty-two teaspoons a day). We ingest 8,500 milligrams of salt a day, double the recommended amount, and almost none of that comes from the shakers on our table. It comes from processed food. It’s no wonder, then, that one in three adults, and one in five kids, is clinically obese. It’s no wonder that twenty-six million Americans have diabetes, the processed food industry in the U.S. accounts for trillion a year in sales, and the total economic cost of this health crisis is approaching 0 billion a year.
In Salt Sugar Fat, Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter Michael Moss shows how we got here. Featuring examples from some of the most recognizable (and profitable) companies and brands of the last half century—including Kraft, Coca-Cola, Lunchables, Kellogg, Nestlé, Oreos, Cargill, Capri Sun, and many more—Moss’s explosive, empowering narrative is grounded in meticulous, often eye-opening research.
Moss takes us inside the labs where food scientists use cutting-edge technology to calculate the “bliss point” of sugary beverages or enhance the “mouthfeel” of fat by manipulating its chemical structure. He unearths marketing campaigns designed—in a technique adapted from tobacco companies—to redirect concerns about the health risks of their products: Dial back on one ingredient, pump up the other two, and tout the new line as “fat-free” or “low-salt.” He talks to concerned executives who confess that they could never produce truly healthy alternatives to their products even if serious regulation became a reality. Simply put: The industry itself would cease to exist without salt, sugar, and fat. Just as millions of “heavy users”—as the companies refer to their most ardent customers—are addicted to this seductive trio, so too are the companies that peddle them. You will never look at a nutrition label the same way again.
Q&A with Michael Moss
Q. How did you land on salt, sugar, and fat as your way to write about the industry? Why these three ingredients?
A. I’d been investigating a surge in deadly outbreaks of E. coli in meat when an industry source, a microbiologist, suggested that if I wanted to see an even bigger public health hazard, I should look at what food companies were intentionally adding to their products, starting with salt. And sure enough, when I looked at this–by gaining access to high level industry officials and a trove of sensitive, internal records–a window opened on how aggressive the industry was wielding not only salt, but sugar and fat, too. These are the pillars of processed foods, the three ingredients without which there would be no processed foods. Salt, sugar and fat drive consumption by adding flavor and allure. But surprisingly, they also mask bitter flavors that develop in the manufacturing process. They enable these foods to sit in warehouses or on the grocery shelf for months. And, most critically to the industry’s financial success, they are very inexpensive.
Q. So, how big is the processed food industry, exactly? What kind of scale are we talking about here?
A. Huge. Grocery sales now top trillion a year in the U.S., with more than 300 manufacturers employing 1.4 million workers, or 12 percent of all American manufacturing jobs. Global sales exceed trillion. But the figure I find most revealing is 60,000: That’s the number of different products found on the shelves of our largest supermarkets.
Q. How did this get so big?
A. The food processing industry is more than a century old–if you count the invention of breakfast cereals–so it’s been steady growth. But things really took off in the 1950s with the promotion of convenience foods whose design and marketing was aimed at the increasing numbers of families with both parents working outside the home. The industry’s expansion, since then, has been entirely unrestrained. While food safety is heavily regulated, the government has been industry’s best friend and partner in encouraging Americans to become more dependent on processed foods.
Q. What three things should a health-conscious supermarket shopper keep in mind?
A. The most alluring products–those with the highest amounts of salt, sugar and fat–are strategically placed at eye-level on the grocery shelf. You typically have to stoop down to find, say, plain oatmeal. (Healthier products are generally up high or down low.) Companies also play the better-nutrition card by plastering their packaging with terms like “all natural,” “contains whole grains,” “contains real fruit juice,” and “lean,” which belie the true contents of the products. Reading labels is not easy. Only since the 1990s have the manufacturers even been required to reveal the true salt, sugar, fat and caloric loads of their products, which are itemized in a box called the “nutrient facts.” But one game that many companies still play is to divide these numbers in half, or even thirds, by reporting this critical information per serving–which are typically tiny portions. In particular, they do this for cookies and chips, knowing that most people can’t resist eating the entire three-serving bag. Check it out sometime. See how many “servings” that little bag of chips contains.
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