Inevitably, the manufacturers of processed food argue that they have allowed us to become the people we want to be, fast and busy, no longer slaves to the stove. But in their hands, the salt, sugar, and fat they have used to propel this social transformation are not nutrients as much as weapons – weapons they deploy, certainly, to defeat their competitors but also to keep us coming back for more.
Why I read it
The New York Times featured an article by Michael Moss in its weekend magazine a while ago, and I read it. It was illustrated with bright, pop-art images of chips and snacks, and was basically a condensed version of the book. The text hooked me, shocked me, and entertained me. I went and bought the book soon after.
What you get
Moss’s book begins just like the article: with the story of a 1999 meeting between arch-rivals in the food industry. James Behnke, chief technical officer at Pillsbury, had achieved something almost unthinkable – he’d convinced leaders at Nestle, Kraft, Nabisco, General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Mars to put aside their differences for a day and meet in person to discuss a topic identified as a pressing concern: public obesity.
The meeting ended without any commitments – or, indeed, any consensus on need for action – but it did establish one thing: that the food industry knew what it was facing back in 1999 and decided to do nothing.
This story sets the scene for the rest of the book, which is divided into three sections, each dealing with one part of the triumvirate of processed food: sugar, fat, then salt. For each, we meet CEOs (some repentant, some defiant) and food engineers who explain what was done to our food, and why. We learn why fructose is used to extend shelf life, how fruit stripped in the lab til just its chemically-extracted sugar remains can still be labelled as ‘added fruit’, how sugar content is carefully matched to our lab-measured ‘bliss point’, how fat seems to have an infinite bliss point, how sugar makes the brain light up exactly like cocaine, how foods like ‘lunchables’ are specifically designed to tap into child psychology, how the people who make and sell the food never eat it themselves, and how Cheetos are puffy for a very carefully-engineered reason.
“It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it . . . you can just keep eating it forever.”
We also learn how much of the processed food industry is now owned by tobacco giant Philip Morris, and how the two industries have both gained from swapping marketing tips.
Much, much more disturbing is the insight into how the US Government has acted. It’s not just that they’ve failed to regulate the industry, rather that they’ve acted as a full partner in crime, ‘sanitising’ government health reports about the dangers of red meat and cheese and spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money to get more cheese into Americans’ (and international) processed foods. In fact, in 2004 when Kraft tried to change its nutrition labelling to be less misleading, it had to seek special permission from the FDA to make the changes.
Meeting the people
One of the interesting parts of the book is just being able to sit down and chat, via Moss, with the figures who’ve created this situation – the situation where we’ve forgotten how to cook for ourselves, are slaves to an addictive food lifestyle that has been engineered to manipulate us, and are constantly battling obesity.
These are smart, and most often well-meaning people. Some of them worked hard to solve fascinating technical problems, like: how do we stop silos of fructose solidifying like concrete during storage? Some put all their smarts towards outgunning competitors, like: how do we redesign the concept of lunch so we can increase our sales? Or: how can we help harried mums in the lunch-packing, pre-school rush hour?
All of them are trying to solve immediate problems, or make money to feed their families, or be the best in their fields, or challenge themselves with interesting engineering problems, or make the biggest bonuses and get corporate glory. Does this excuse the fact that they chose to continue, even though they knew all their efforts were ultimately causing huge health problems, medical bills and other ills for society and millions of individuals?
Moss doesn’t ever explicitly answer this question, and I think he’s right to leave us to think about it ourselves. And it’s a question that isn’t just limited to the processed food industry. Perhaps that’s another trick the tobacco industry can pass down: how to cultivate the cognitive dissonance needed to think back on your contributions to various endeavours that harm society as a whole.
This is mostly an American book, but because our supermarkets are dominated by the same companies (and we have the same health problems) it’s still hugely relevant here. I would like to find out more, though, about how our own government approach, and customer preferences, compare to those written about in this book.
We all eat. Every time you do so after reading this book, I’ll be surprised if you don’t see your food in a different light.
This book was mostly read with a cup of tea in Newcastle and Port Macquarie
[Home page image: New York Times]