Salt, sugar and fat are addictive. That’s not news to anyone who has ever opened a bag of chips or reached a second time (maybe a third?) for the ice cream. But that all those processed foods in your local supermarket are “perfectly engineered to compel overconsumption?” Now that’s something to write a book about. Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Michael Moss sics his reporting prowess on the big food industry in his book, revealing the dark side of the products at the supermarket.
And it isn’t what we think it is. Yeah, yeah, we know that there might be more salt than is good for you in a can of soup, and that soda pop contains so much sugar that some believe soft drinks may be the cigarettes of tomorrow. The media have already made the connection between the current obesity crisis and the Western diet, and other books, such as The End of Overeating, by the former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, David Kessler, have explored why we are addicted to eating bad food (basically because evolution has primed us to love salt, fat and sugar).
We tend to blame our busy lives when we reach for the convenience foods (need two jobs to pay the bills or must answer BlackBerry at all times). And in the case of lower-income neighbourhoods, called food deserts, where there is no access to healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables, and corner stores sell only junk, we blame poverty for bad eating and therefore bad health.
But Moss heaps the blame on the food companies themselves. They’ve devoted lots of money and hired top scientific minds to create products they know will have you coming back for more and more. There’s a reason, he notes, that there’s as much sugar in half a cup of Prego Traditional tomato sauce as there is in three Oreo cookies. He tells how Nestlé hired experts in brain imaging to wire the scalps of human test subjects so the company could watch how their brains responded to ice cream.
Sugar and fat fire up the reward centres of your brain. (Yes, ice cream really does make you happy.) The insidious effects are not just to our health. Processed foods are changing our expectations of food by educating our palates to want food to taste a certain way. Children are particularly vulnerable because they like sweet things. In one experiment described in the book, a girl is given different puddings with different sugar contents to help the researcher discover her bliss point: the perfect sugar content of food. This kind of information helps companies to design products especially for kids, such as sugary yogurt tubes.
Moss writes that when sugary cereal was invented, in 1949, parents lost to manufacturers the chance to decide how much sugar their kids put on their cereal. It’s not just kids. Not only do we let food companies program our palates to prefer processed foods by eating the stuff, but when we pick up prefab food for dinner, we buy into the belief that we don’t have time to make the real stuff from scratch. Again, we shouldn’t take all the blame. Since the 1950s, Moss reports, women in particular have been told that cooking is too much work.
There’s no surprise in the motive behind how processed food is created, marketed and sold: It’s profit. The lengths to which the companies will go to grow this profit, though, is a little surprising. Moss tells the story of one of the men who invented Cheez Whiz opening a jar in 2001, after he retired, and finding that it tastes like “axle grease.” He calls the 1-800 number on the jar to complain, and it turns out the company had changed the recipe. Cheese – hey, it’s expensive! – was no longer listed among the ingredients. When Moss asked the company if it had removed cheese, it claimed it had only reduced the amount.
Another surprise is that there’s no proselytizing in the book. In the face of some pretty outrageous facts, it holds back from diatribe. Moss also holds back on suggesting a solution. His concluding point is that, ultimately, it’s we who have the power to decide what goes in our mouths. True, but there’s a better answer: We need to start cooking again. From scratch. This is how we can regain the control we’ve lost.
Sarah Elton is a Toronto-based food writer. Her book Consumed will be published in April.