A junk outlook on processed food
In his new book about mass-produced foodstuffs, Michael Moss dresses up a rancid view of firms and consumers as investigative journalism.
The first few months of 2013 have brought a slew of books attacking modern eating habits and particularly the role of the big food corporations in creating them. There is Pandora’s Lunchbox in which former New York Times business reporter Melanie Warner excoriates the processed-food industry. James Erlichman has produced a Guardian ebook, Addicted to Food, which argues that ‘sugars, salts and fats… are slowly killing us’. And there’s been Fat Chance, a diatribe against sugar by Robert Lustig, who has also provided a new foreword for the reissue of John Yudkin’s 40-year-old anti-sugar tract, Pure, White and Deadly.
But probably the most high-profile of this gaggle of assaults on convenience eating is from a current New York Times writer, investigative reporter Michael Moss. Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us argues, through potted histories and interviews with numerous important figures in and around Big Food, that we have been suckered into overeating nutrition-lite junk. The giants of the food industry have devoted billions of dollars, he argues, to creating products that induce cravings in us that make us consume them again and again.
Moss works through these three major elements of mass-produced food in turn, arguing that the great food-product success stories of the past few decades have been built on finding the perfect levels of these flavours – the ‘bliss point’ – where we just can’t get enough of the stuff. The result is mega-profits for these big corporations, even when a spiralling obesity epidemic should have been sounding alarms about what consumers were being hooked on.
Moss’ killer argument, it seems, is that even executives in the industry itself became very nervous – indeed, morally troubled – by the potential relationship between ‘junk’, obesity and illness. So the book opens with a grand meeting of food industry CEOs in April 1999, which Moss compares to one of those occasional Mafia meetings where the big bosses get together to settle their differences. Here, the aim of a group of executives from a number of companies – including a top official at Pillsbury, James Behnke, and a vice-president of Kraft, Michael Mudd – was to persuade the gathered heavyweights to take the issue of health seriously.
In Moss’ account, Mudd gave a presentation on the problem of childhood obesity as a ‘growing challenge’. There were ‘no easy answers’, but it was clear that the industry might be held accountable for it and ‘the one thing we shouldn’t do is do nothing’. Already, he said, childhood obesity rates had doubled compared to 1980, and the ultimate consequence would be a host of illnesses including ‘diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis’ and three types of cancer. He played the executives a tape of Harvard academic Walter Willett, who claimed on PBS’s Frontline that the ‘transition to food being an industrial product really has been a fundamental problem’ because it stripped away nutritional value and converted elements of food like starch, sugar and fats into unhealthy forms.
Then Mudd, in Moss’ words, ‘touched the third rail of the processed food industry, drawing a connection to the last thing in the world CEOs wanted linked to their products: cigarettes’. This was the ‘slippery slope’ that meant that the same lawyers who had become rich on suing Big Tobacco would inevitably come after Big Food. The answer was ‘to pull back on their use of salt, sugar and fat, perhaps by imposing industry-wide limits’ and to use the industry’s expertise to help do something about Americans’ tendency to overeat.
The reaction was not positive. The boss of General Mills, Stephen Sanger, argued that consumers wanted food that tasted good, the industry had always ridden out such controversies before my making adjustments to its product formulations, and that responding to the industry’s critics was an overreaction. In Moss’ retelling, Sanger’s strident argument effectively ended the meeting. According to Behnke, Sanger was arguing that their foods were fortified and they made a range of different styles to suit different demands. The food corporations already offered low-fat, low-salt and low-sugar alternatives. Let consumers decide.
This little story sums up Moss’ argument so beautifully that it is no wonder that he leads with it in his book. In fact, this tale seems just a little too perfect. It leaves the reader with the impression that there was little discussion, that the big bosses were so obsessed with the bottom line that the very thought of losing business by offering healthier alternatives simply did not compute, rather than having discussion and concluding that changes were unnecessary. In practice, there’s no doubt that Big Food has been only too aware of what happened to Big Tobacco – both Kraft and General Foods were bought by tobacco giant Phillip Morris in the 1980s. But the food industry’s bigshots, it seems, just weren’t convinced that making big changes to their companies’ products was really the answer.
Indeed, a page or two later, Moss notes how revealing these exchanges had been. ‘Nutrition science is so notoriously mushy that blaming even a fraction of our cancer on processed food requires a leap I am not comfortable making.’ (You could have fooled me, given the tone of the book generally.) Yet here, he writes, the food industry itself was making just such a link. Actually, that should not be a great surprise. In reality, the modern barons of big business – any big business, as it happens – are generally risk-averse and cautious people who actually buy into all the healthy-eating fads more than anyone.
As with all these recent books on processed food, the basic outlook of the author colours everything that follows. Much of the material that flows from his interviews, combined with the historical vignettes, provides a kind of parallel to those Great Breakthroughs in Science stories, only ‘how we developed antibiotics’ is replaced by ‘how we developed Lunchables’. In fact, there is quite a lot of hard science involved, from how exactly we taste salt or sugar to the sticky problem of creating an instant pudding. This is all quite interesting, but for Moss it is all ultimately a plot by the industry to sicken society.
The food industry certainly doesn’t do itself any favours when the interests of marketing lead to dubious conduct. At times, there have been some borderline fraudulent claims made about the healthiness of snacks or their contents, like the way Sara Lee had ‘to make clear its “whole-grain bread” is only 30 per cent whole grain’ and PepsiCo was forced ‘to change the labeling of its Tropicana Peach Papaya Juice to reflect the facts that it had neither peaches nor papaya and is not a juice’. No doubt there is plenty of vigorous lobbying in Washington’s corridors of power in defence of the big food processors that might distort legislation or lead to the creation of subsidies that at the very least hurt taxpayers’ bank balances if not their health.
But Moss’ viewpoint is far too one-sided. For starters, food companies are hardly alone in overegging the merits of their products. That’s pretty much what marketing and advertising are all about. Nor do you have to be a stereotypical megacorp to do it. Organic food producers, and the activists that support them, have frequently claimed that organic food is more nutritious or more environmentally friendly than conventionally produced food, when the evidence suggests that this is either not true or even the opposite of the truth.
As for trying to formulate products that consumers really like, that is hardly a crime, either. But Moss treats Big Food as a collection of evil geniuses, and consumers as vulnerable fools who are addicted at the first bite of the latest novelty to come down from the lab. In reality, as Moss reveals along the way, the food companies are anything but geniuses. They plough enormous sums of money into new products, but the vast majority of those products disappear again within months. They are thrown on to the market in the hope that there will be enough ‘blockbusters’ – like Lunchables, Nespresso or Prego pasta sauce – to make up for all the others that disappear without trace.
Moss also reveals a diminished view of shoppers. He seems to think we need to be protected from the machinations of the food companies. But actually, the message that comes through is that we tend not to be all that loyal when it comes to food brands – something that was apparently a culture shock to the guys from Big Tobacco when they bought up big food companies. Smokers typically stick with the same brand for years; that’s far less true of food shoppers. If all that careful tuning of salt, fat and sugar really did work so well, why do companies now bring out so many different varieties of the same product? The reason is that plain old fashioned marketing has to do the legwork where biochemistry, neuroscience and mythical ‘addiction’ fail.
In fact, ‘fickle’ consumers, to use Stephen Seager’s description at that meeting in 1999, are the bane of Big Food’s existence. Sudden changes in fashions or health advice can undermine a whole market. So, for example, Moss describes how the turn against high-fat products in the 1980s led to a steep fall in the sales of whole milk. Food producers could still sell milk, but what to do with all the fat they were now skimming off it? The answer was a federal government-backed scheme to produce cheese, which was then, according to Moss, stuffed into any product whose taste could be enhanced by more fat.
The turn against fat brings us to some rather more important culprits in this whole affair: government itself and the crusading medical researchers who have come to advise it. Quite apart from the stupid subsidies ladled out to American farmers to produce food that people would not otherwise want, the role of official health advice may well have been crucial to the rise of obesity. For example, despite the endless advice – which Moss parrots – that saturated fat is a killer, the evidence for this claim has always been shaky and is getting weaker all the time. But it did mean that there was a demand for low-fat foods that, perversely, were packed with sugar and other carbohydrates – and it is these foods which may be making us fatter, causing diabetes and the rest, if consumed in large enough quantities.
Unable to row back on the anti-fat message, government instead has to tell us that sugar, fat and salt are all responsible for ill-health. What precisely are we supposed to eat when it seems that everything we want to eat is bad for us? Moss, like the politicians, swallows all these dubious claims whole, however.
Let’s be clear: food companies are not charities. Their existence is dependent on making money and they will bend over backwards to supply what we are prepared to pay for, whatever it might be. Are fruit-based smoothies the healthy way forward? Coca-Cola thought they might be, so it simply went out and bought UK smoothie maker Innocent. (Interestingly, the backlash from medics against fruit juice and smoothies now seems to be well underway.) Worried about your vitamin intake? Then Vitamin Water (another brand now owned by Coca Cola) is there for you. High fibre your thing? Then Kellogg’s and other cereal makers will provide you with as much hard-to-chew, constipation-busting bran as you can handle. If we really did want low-fat, low-salt and low-sugar foods, that’s what we would be buying, and those items are there on the shelves if we we want them. No, for the most part, we want our food to taste of something.
For Moss and many other writers on food today, however, the prejudices about calculating corporations and weak-willed consumers come before a balanced assessment of the facts. And the result is an endless diet of scaremongering.