In the past the industry has typically responded to concerns about one of the three ingredients, so they’ll put out a low-sugar product or low-fat or low-salt product, while maintaining or even increasing the other two. More people are becoming concerned about what they’re putting in their mouth. This has put the food industry between a rock and a hard place. They are profit-making entities and they are hooked on profits as much as we are hooked on the taste.
And we keep buying the stuff.
To some extent the obesity crisis was clearly caused by the growth of mindless eating. And something else seems to have happened in the 1980s, too. At some point, it became acceptable to eat anywhere, any place, any time. And snacking became the norm. When I grew up, my parents would say don’t snack, you’ll ruin your appetite. That fell by the wayside and played into the hands of the food companies. The less you pay attention to what you put in your mouth, the less you’re going to worry about what it is and the more apt you’ll be to overeat.
The executives you met don’t feed Lunchables to their kids. Is there a class thing going on?
I was struck by how many senior scientists I met who were not eating their own products. Some of them had had health issues that forced them to be more concerned about their diet.
You were able to taste healthier versions of some products – how were they?
I said to them: “You’re saying you can’t reduce the salt in your products. Show me why.” At Kellogg we tasted versions they’d made just for me without salt. It was the most godawful experience you can imagine. Frozen waffles tasted like straw. And, worst of all, the cereal tasted metallic.
So we love the taste of salt. But it also covers up less than tasty food.
Salt is a miracle ingredient in many ways. It covers up off-notes, including meat, which has this problem: When it’s reheated, the fat oxidizes and emits what the industry calls “warmed over flavour” (WOF). One of the cheapest, easiest cures to WOF is to add salt. At 10 cents a pound, the industry hardly has to think about the cost.
There’s some recent research that kids respond to cartoon characters on packages of veggies – is that a good sign?
That speaks to the point of former Coca-Cola executive Jeffrey Dunn: What if we take all of the marketing and the scheming and the psychology that goes into selling junk food, what if we used those same techniques in selling carrots? Not as healthy things, but as junk foods. I think he has one of the smartest ideas out there. And he was the epitome of Coca-Cola. He was one of the most aggressive marketers. His nickname was Body Bags because he saw the war with Pepsi as nothing short of war. To have him, the best of the best marketing company in the world, try to turn things around, is just huge.
If you took away the health implications, being a scientist for these companies looks like a fun job. What invention did you find the coolest?
I loved the inventor of the Lunchables. He’s a pure scientist. His intentions were great. The company was worried about sales, worried about jobs on the assembly line because people were increasingly concerned about the salt and fat in the Oscar Mayer meat. He also became hugely sympathetic to the plight of working parents who had this nightmarish hustle to get out of the house at 7 in the morning and at times needed something other than homemade lunches. So he developed Lunchables. And over time and after he left the project, the Lunchable morphed into these incredibly fat-, sugar-, salt-laden product that mimicked the fast-food industry. They had the hotdog Lunchables, the hamburger Lunchables, pancake Lunchables, pizza Lunchables.A number of these scientists, as our dependency on these convenient processed foods increased, became more and more concerned about how their products were used and playing in the broader issue of public health.
Is processed food the new cigarette?