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'Salt Sugar Fat': How food companies put profits ahead of public health

The top executives of many major food companies are manipulating their products in order to get you addicted to them, with no concern for the potential health i

The top executives of many major food companies are manipulating their products in order to get you addicted to them, with no concern for the potential health impact. That's the claim from New York Times reporter Michael Moss's new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.

As the American obesity epidemic spirals out of control, Moss decided to delve into the role of the processed foods we eat in such large quantities. "I was really, really interested in how the food industry was responding to the growing consumer concern about the obesity crisis," he said. "And I was lucky enough to run into a trove of internal documents that really open the door on their scheming, their plotting, their planning."

That plotting and planning involves meticulous research to calculate what's called the "bliss point." Instead of balancing health and taste concerns, the companies will add more salt, sugar, or fat to their products until they reach the optimum level of tastiness, the point at which it's so perfectly delicious that you will grab another chip even if you're already full.

Food execs argue that it's all just business, that they owe it to their stockholders to sell as many products as possible--more than they owe reasonably healthy products to their consumers, apparently.

That's why Kraft CEO Michael Mudd ruffled so many feathers when, at an industry conference in 1999, he made the comparison that nobody wanted to hear. As Moss writes,

He drew a connection to the last thing in the world the C.E.O.’s wanted linked to their products: cigarettes. First came a quote from a Yale University professor of psychology and public health, Kelly Brownell, who was an especially vocal proponent of the view that the processed-food industry should be seen as a public health menace: “As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing. And we could make a claim that the toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco.”“If anyone in the food industry ever doubted there was a slippery slope out there,” Mudd said, “I imagine they are beginning to experience a distinct sliding sensation right about now.”Mudd then presented the plan he and others had devised to address the obesity problem. Merely getting the executives to acknowledge some culpability was an important first step, he knew, so his plan would start off with a small but crucial move: the industry should use the expertise of scientists—its own and others—to gain a deeper understanding of what was driving Americans to overeat. Once this was achieved, the effort could unfold on several fronts. To be sure, there would be no getting around the role that packaged foods and drinks play in over-consumption. They would have to pull back on their use of salt, sugar and fat, perhaps by imposing industry-wide limits. But it wasn’t just a matter of these three ingredients; the schemes they used to advertise and market their products were critical, too. Mudd proposed creating a “code to guide the nutritional aspects of food marketing, especially to children.”

After Mudd unveiled his plan, General Mills CEO Stephen Sanger took the microphone.

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.

Mudd's plan, to see the industry balance the competing demands of taste and health, was dead before it even began. Sanger articulated the industry's view that health concerns were secondary to flavor--and to the profits associated with that great flavor. That's something food scientists who work with processed foods know all too well.

While researching this book, Moss had the chance to sit down with Kellogg's executives to taste their food before all the unhealthy ingredients like salt, sugar, and fat were added in, and he found the processed foods downright unpalatable without the masking abilities of the three magical additions.

He tasted Cheez-Its: "We couldn't even swallow those without the salt. It stuck to the roof of our mouths."

Frozen waffles: "They tasted like straw without salt."

And the worst, cornflakes: "Before I could say anything, the Kellogg's spokesman got this abhorred look on her face and said 'metal... I taste metal.' And I did too."

Kellogg's chief scientist then explained to Moss that the key function salt often plays is covering up the unpleasant tastes "inherent" to processed foods.

Salt levels are even higher for products marketed to the Latino community. According to Moss, that's because Latino consumers typically find their salt "bliss point" at a much higher point along the scale. For the African-American community, both the sweet and salty bliss points are higher. For children, sugar bliss points are through the roof.

By achieving these bliss points, researchers create products people simply can't stop eating. That's contributed to what some have called the greatest health crisis in the United State. More than two-thirds of Americans are obese or overweight, and experts estimate that the cost of treating diseases associated with our expanded waistlines is as much as $160 billion a year.