I love the arc of the Philip Morris story - they became the largest food company in the U.S. by purchasing General Foods and then Kraft and held them to the mid-2000s or later. In the early phase they were pushing profits and sales like anybody might expect them to. Increasingly, the people at Philip Morris begin seeing obesity as a problem. Executives were saying to their food division, “Salt, sugar, fat are going to be as huge a problem for you in the context of obesity as nicotine was for us. You have to start thinking about that.” This goes back a decade now.
The other link is the food companies have started selling their products overseas to new markets and so you see this export of the North American processed food phenomenon to emerging economies like Brazil and Mexico. You saw that with tobacco, the tobacco companies shifted their marketing overseas where there was less threat of regulation.
Are you a nightmare to shop with?
My kids might have one answer to that. I have two boys 8 and 13, but actually no, we’ve worked hard to engage them. My wife sort of arbitrarily set a limit of 5 g of sugar per serving of cereal. And they’re into it. They hunt for the fine print. They find Cheerios, that have only one gram. Total. Special K. They may have to reach high or reach low to find them, because the stuff at eye level is just loaded. You’ve gotta empathize with them. Kids more than anybody are totally hardwired for sugar especially.
Do we stand a chance?
We do – if you view the grocery store as a minefield and you go in knowing all that the food companies throw at you, starting with the front of the package, and the placement in the store.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
By the numbers
Author Michael Moss gathered data on the value of the U.S. processed food industry and how much its citizens ingest annually.
- Value of the processed foods industry: $1-trillion in annual sales
- Economic cost of the U.S. diabetes crisis: nearly $300-billion
- Sugar-sweetened soda consumption per year: 32 gallons per person
- Other sweet drinks, including vitamin waters: 14 gallons
- Daily salt consumption per person: 8,500 milligrams
- Sodium in a roast turkey Hungry-Man dinner: 5,400 milligrams (more than double the daily recommendation//people should eat over the course of two days)
- Calories in potato chips: 160 an ounce
- Number of pounds gained in a year in a 2011 study attributed solely to the potato chip: 1.69