The international obesity epidemic didn't just happen by accident. Sure, people's lifestyle habits shifted from active to sedentary. And, yes, we moved to the suburbs and stopped cooking at home so much.
But a new book suggests a more calculated and insidious reason why two-thirds of American adults and one-third of children are overweight or obese: The food industry started crafting foods that were of little nutritional value but kept consumers reaching for more.
Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, by New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss, is a detailed look at how the food industry has contributed to America's nutritional mess by infusing processed foods with what he calls the "pillars" of the industry: sugar, salt and fat. Moss' reporting turned up evidence that the industry capitalized on the ability of these three ingredients to mask bitter flavors that develop during manufacturing and to hook consumers on taste.
"Companies convincingly argue that they haven't intended to make Americans obese or ill," Moss told TakePart. "But they have been driving hard for decades to make their products as utterly crave-able as possible. They know from their research that when they engineer the perfect amounts of salt, sugar, and fat they will send us over the moon."
Moss describes food industry marketing campaigns that were adapted from tobacco company blueprints aimed at downplaying health risks by promoting a fix or two designed to make a product a bit healthier. "You see a proliferation of products billed as low-fat, low-sugar, low-salt," he says. "These are extensions to their mainline products which remain their biggest sellers." However, these niche products are rarely truly healthy. Many products labeled low-fat, for example, are high in sugar. Or products labeled low-salt are high in both fat and sugar, Moss says.
Some food industry campaigns were adapted from tobacco company blueprints to downplay health risks.
The marketing of these foods has long been a contention of public health experts who criticize commercials of sugary cereals and candy airing around children's television shows. Moss' book describes in detail how the introduction of Kraft's premade meal for kids, Lunchables, created a huge trend of ready-to-eat snacks and meals for kids that were heavy on sugar, salt, and fat but were marketed in an upscale fashion.
Lunchables—lunch-box-sized packages of finger foods, like crackers, cheese, and salami slices—appealed to working mothers who didn't have time to make peanut-butter sandwiches or peel an orange for their kids in the morning. "Some people have viewed it as the poster child of our over-dependence on processed foods," Moss says. "One of the more amazing marketing campaigns for Lunchables was this idea that Lunchables were more than about food." The advertising campaign, directed at kids, delivered a message that they could choose to eat whatever they wanted at lunchtime—not what Mom served at home. "It became empowering to kids. And it helped bring the fast-food industry into the grocery store," he says.
Food companies also engineer some products to appeal to certain ethnic groups. For example, Frito-Lay, he says, has introduced Sabrita's brand of salty snacks, including potato chips that have twice as much salt as regular chips and additional sugar. The product is aimed at Hispanics, who have even higher rates of obesity than white Americans.
Frito-Lay has introduced a brand aimed at Hispanics with twice as much salt and more sugar. Hispanics have among the highest obesity rates.
And while many Americans are aware that they're often manipulated into eating things they shouldn't, it's not as easy to select healthier foods as it perhaps should be. Companies add labels to their packages touting "all-natural" or "contains real fruit juice," but that doesn't mean these food items are healthy, Moss explains.
Nutrition labels are still of little help to consumers, he says, because companies divide ingredients into serving sizes (typically much smaller than what people really eat) to make the amounts of salt, sugar, and fat seem reasonable, instead of what they are, which is horrendously unhealthy.
Manufacturers will find it hard to change their ways, he predicts. "They're between a rock and hard place," Moss says. "They feel pressure from consumers. They have their own huge dependence on these three ingredients. They're cheap. They're effective in all kinds of ways. Then you have Wall Street," he adds, which leans on the industry to maintain big profits.
Government regulation may be needed to produce real change, Moss says. For example, processed foods are cheap compared to fresh produce. Some type of government action may be able to level the playing field regarding food pricing. But, he says: "Unfortunately, a lot of burden is going to fall on consumers. If we're going to get control of the situation then we have to pay more attention in shopping and meal preparation."
Should food companies be forced to reduce sugar, salt, and fat content through government regulation?
Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California. She is the author of three books on health and science subjects.